During the eleventh century, particularly under Pope Gregory VII (1073 to 1085 AD), the Roman church underwent a period of reform during which papal power and ritual uniformity increased. The intellectual footing behind this spiritual revival in Latin Christendom was provided by monasticism and monks quickly gained a reputation for piety and purity. The Benedictine Rule stated how each monastery should be governed and also prescribed how monastic life should be approached. During the first phase of this process, each Benedictine monastery was an independent establishment and the abbot was the supreme internal authority. The Benedictines (and Cluniacs) were supported by gifts of lands which would provide produce and money to support the monastery. As more secular landowners made gifts of lands to these monastic establishments, so each monastery became richer and more powerful.
However, the ideals of St Benedict could be interpreted in different ways. Some monks, unhappy with the wealth and power of the monasteries in which they were cloistered, chose to found new monastic communities which would return to the basics of Benedictine Rule. Consequently, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries a number of different international monastic orders were founded, each of which interpreted the Benedictine Rule with increasing degrees of severity: essentially a return to poverty, discipline and manual labour. These new orders included Tironesians and Cistercians.
In 1098 AD Robert, prior of the Cluniac monastery of Molesme, together with an Englishman, Robert Harding, left to form a new community which would return to the roots of the monastic ideal. The site they chose was a marsh called Cîteaux, south of Dijon , in France . Harding’s strict interpretation of the Benedictine Rule (codified in the Cistercian constitution Carta Caritatis – Charter of Love) seems to have attracted large numbers of recruits to the new monastic order and by 1115 AD another four Cistercian colonies had been established – La Ferté, Pontigny, Morimond and Clairvaux – each of which was a ‘daughter’ house of Cîteaux (the ‘mother’ house). Every ‘daughter’ house was the responsibility of the abbey from which it had been founded and the abbot of the ‘mother’ house had to visit the ‘daughter’ house annually to ensure that the Cistercian rules were being followed. Cistercian monks chose to wear a habit of undyed wool and they became known as the ‘white monks’. This distinguished them from the Benedictine and Cluniac orders who wore black habits.
Although Harding provided the Cistercian order with their model of monastic reform, it was the founding abbot of Clairvaux, Bernard de Fontaine (Bernard of Clairvaux), who oversaw the dynamic expansion of the order throughout Christendom. Under his direction all Cistercian abbots attended a General Chapter meeting at Cîteaux every September to enforce collective discipline, mutual support and to enact legislation to control the order. The popularity of the new order meant that in the first century of their existence the Cistercians founded over five hundred new religious houses (including nunneries). The first Cistercian foundation in Britain was founded in 1128 AD in Surrey : Waverley was a ‘daughter’ house of L’Aumône in Normandy which, in turn, was a ‘daughter’ house of Cîteaux. In 1132 AD a group of monks from Clairvaux founded the abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire and Melrose abbey, the first Cistercian establishment in Scotland , was founded as a ‘daughter’ house of Rievaulx in 1136 AD.