Norbert was born of noble parents around the year 1080 in Xanten (northern Rhineland). Already as a small child he was presented to the collegiate church of St. Victor in Xanten where he was later ordained subdeacon. Emperor Henry V soon took note of Norbert’s gifts and charm and called him into his personal service at the imperial court. There Norbert led a worldly lifestyle.
In the year 1115, Norbert was thrown from his horse and nearly killed in a thunderstorm. He interpreted this as an invitation to repent and immediately began to lead the life of a penitent, barefoot and dressed in sheepskin. Ordained to the diaconate and priesthood on one and the same day by Archbishop Frederick of Cologne, he wandered about the countryside, preaching the word of God and railing against the abuses of the clergy.
Criticized and persecuted by members of the hierarchy, Norbert sought and obtained approval for his preaching from Pope Gelasius II and later, Pope Calixtus II. But Calixtus also encouraged him to settle and found a community in the diocese of Laon in northern France. There, in the desolate valley wilderness of Prémontré, Norbert laid the foundations for his religious Order. He chose the rule of St. Augustine as the guiding light for the new community, becoming one of the most avid Augustinian reformers of the day. The community was marked by its austerity of life, its poverty, and its intense liturgical life of prayer and, above all, its complete fidelity to the ideal of community life as depicted in the Augustinian rule.
In the meantime, Norbert continued to preach and attracted many men and women to the lifestyle of his new Order.
On July 25, 1126, Norbert was ordained archbishop of Magdeburg and relinquished the leadership of his Order to begin the work of shepherding the vast diocese on the northeastern frontier of the German Empire. During his years as archbishop Norbert fought strenuously for the freedom of the church against secular princes and proved himself an ardent champion of the cause of the Roman Pontiff. He was instrumental in the downfall of the anti-pope Anacletus II and the return of Pope Innocent II to his throne.
Weakened by his travels and labors, and probably by malaria contracted at Rome, Norbert returned to Magdeburg where he died on June 6, 1134. He is pictured with the double ringed staff and pallium of an archbishop and with a Monstrance (holding the Blessed Sacrament) or chalice which recall his Eucharist-centered spirituality.