Mar 282018

Today is the feast of St Stephen Harding, O.Cist. (born c. 1060) an English-born monk and abbot, who was one of the founders of the Cistercian Order. Harding was born in Sherborne (scir burne — “Clear Stream” in Anglo-Saxon), now in Dorset, but at the time was the chief town of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex.  He was placed in Sherborne Abbey at a young age, but eventually left the monastery and became a traveling scholar, journeying with one devout companion into Scotland and afterwards to Paris and then to Rome. He eventually moved to Molesme Abbey in Burgundy, under the Abbot Robert of Molesme (c. 1027-1111). During his time in Molesme abbey he seems to have assumed the name Stephen.

When Robert left Molesme to avoid what he perceived to be the abbey’s increasing wealth and overly strong connections to the aristocracy, Stephen and Alberic went with him. Seeing no hope of a sufficient reformation in Molesme, Robert appointed another abbot for the abbey and then, with Alberic, Harding, and 21 other monks, received permission from Hugh, the Archbishop of Lyons and legate of the Holy See, to found a new monastery in Cîteaux, a marshy wilderness five leagues (23 km) south of Dijon. There, they formed a new, more austere monastery. Eudes, afterwards Duke of Burgundy, built them a little church which was placed under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, as all the churches of the Cistercians from that time have been.

Stephen became the third abbot of Cîteaux. At the outset, the community had few new members, and the monks were all malnourished and sick. In 1112, Bernard of Clairvaux entered the community, bringing with him 30 companions. Between 1112 and 1119, a dozen new Cistercian houses were founded to accommodate those joining the young order. Harding’s organizational skills were exceptional. He instituted the system of general chapters and regular visitations. In 1119, he received official approbation for the Carta Caritatis (Charter of Charity), the charter document for the Cistercian Order, establishing its unifying principles.

Stephen served Cîteaux Abbey as abbot for 25 years. While no single person is considered the founder of the Cistercian Order, the shape of Cistercian thought and its rapid growth in the 12th century were arguably due to Harding’s leadership. Insisting on simplicity in all aspects of monastic life, he was largely responsible for the severity of Cistercian architecture and the simple beauty of the Order’s liturgy. He was an accomplished scribe for the monastery’s scriptorium. His highest achievement is considered to be the Harding Bible, famous among medieval manuscripts.

In 1133, Stephen resigned as head of the order because of age and infirmity. He died on 28 March 1134, and was buried in the tomb of Alberic, his predecessor, in the cloisters at Cîteaux. Stephen was largely responsible for the severity of Cistercian architecture because he was an adherent of simplicity in all aspects of monastic life.

In a joint commemoration with Robert of Molesme and Alberic, the first two abbots of Cîteaux, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates a feast day on 26 January. Stephen’s feast is celebrated on March 28th. There is a Catholic Baroque Church established around 1785, whose patron saint is Stephen Harding. It is located in Hungary, in the village Apátistvánfalva.

The north aisle of the Church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in London was formerly a chapel dedicated to him (it became the Musicians’ Chapel in the 20th century). He was canonized by the Catholic church in 1623.

Although Stephen is more associated with France than with England, he was born in England, and I feel that I should honor his birthplace – Dorset – even though a recipe suitable for his time would be rather plain. Instead I will give you Dorset apple cake, which is famous. This recipe is adapted from this site:

Dorset Apple Cake



7 oz/225 gm self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 oz/25 gm cornflour
4 oz/110 gm butter
40 z/110 gm golden caster sugar
½ lb/225 gm cooking apples (peeled, cored and diced)
zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg, beaten
1 tbsp milk
2 oz/50 gm sultanas


1 large cooking apple
fresh lemon juice
soft brown sugar


Grease and line an 8 inch round cake tin.

Pre heat the oven 190˚C/375˚F.

Sift the flour, cornflour and baking powder into a mixing bowl.

Cut the butter into small pieces rub it into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs (you can also do this in a food processor. Stir in the sugar, prepared apples, lemon zest and sultanas.

Beat the egg and milk together in a small bowl and add them to the dry cake mix. Stir to combine thoroughly.

Turn the cake mix into the prepared baking tin, level the surface.

To decorate the cake: cut segments from an unpeeled apple and soak them in lemon juice. Cut the segments into thin slices and soak again. Arrange in a circle around top of the cake and dust with soft brown sugar to make a crusty glaze.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for 30-40 minutes. Test for doneness with a toothpick. Cool the cake in the tin, before turning out on to a cooling rack.

I like Dorset apple cake served a little warm from the oven with clotted cream.