History of the Greyfriars in Great Britain & Ireland
The Franciscans first arrived on these shores on 10th September 1224. Blessed Agnellus of Pisa, who led this mission, had been chosen by St. Francis himself to go to England and become the first Minister Provincial. On this first voyage he was accompanied by eight Franciscan brothers; three of whom were English.
After remaining in Dover overnight, the friars made their way to Canterbury by foot the next morning. Having been guests at Canterbury Cathedral monastery for two nights, five friars remained in Canterbury to found a community, whilst the other four set out for London where they were to found a house. Two of the friars who had travelled to London later went on to found a house in Oxford. Thus it can be said that within seven weeks of the friars having arrived into England, they had established communities in Canterbury, London and Oxford – the Ecclesiastical, Political and Intellectual capitals of England. By 1230, the Province had grown large enough that it could be divided into 7 custodies: London, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Worcester, York, and Newcastle. The Province also covered Scotland and Wales. Richard of Ingworth, one of the English friars who had landed with Blessed Agnellus of Pisa, was sent to found and establish the order in Ireland in 1230.
From the earliest days of the Franciscan Order, questions had arisen amongst the friars concerning how best to adapt to the environments they found themselves in whilst safeguarding the precious and unique charism of Francis. There were friars who desired an eremitical life with a greater emphasis on a strict interpretation of poverty and there were those who were happy to settle in cities, ministering to the growing populations found there and teaching in academic institutions. From their first arrival in these isles, the friars had settled in houses (‘covents’) in the city. When, in 1517, Pope Leo X divided the Franciscan Order into two, he made formal what had been a reality for centuries. The friars who had been living in city-convents, ministering there and teaching in universities became known as ‘Convent’uals; whilst the friars who had been uncomfortable with such developments in the order became known as ‘Observants’. In Great Britain, the Franciscans were known as ‘Greyfriars’; many cities in the United Kingdom today still have streets or areas known by this name.
In the centuries that followed, the Greyfriar community continued to flourish in Great Britain & Ireland; the contribution these friars made to the Franciscan intellectual tradition and to Western thought was profound. Among such men were Blessed John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Roger Bacon and John of Peckham – who later became the first and only Franciscan Archbishop of Canterbury. Fortunately, the friars’ love for learning and positions within universities did not distance them from their faithful but rather, through their education, they found ways in which they could reach and touch the hearts of the people. The Greyfriars’ preaching was highly praised by Bishop Robert Grosseteste in a letter to Pope Gregory IX in 1238,
“The friars minor illuminate our whole country with the bright light of their preaching and teaching. If your Holiness could see with what devotion the people run to hear from them the words of life…” Indeed, the friars survived through the generosity of those whom they ministered to, for they had no financial reserves of their own. The friars in Great Britain & Ireland were respected by most for their observance of poverty and simplicity of life. The success of the Franciscan mission in these Isles is ably described by John of Parma, Minster General of the Order, in the year 1250 when he wrote, “How I wish that a province such as this could be set in the centre of the world, and provide an example for the whole order.”
The Reformation & Surpression of the Order
In 1534 the English Reformation began. At this time, there were around 60 Conventual Franciscan friaries in England and six Observant friaries. Fearing opposition to his ‘reforms’, Henry VIII desired to suppress all religious houses in England which were proving troublesome. It was at this time that all the Observant friaries were closed. The revenue to be gained by the dissolution of monasteries and suppression of religious houses was a driving incentive behind Henry’s course of action. In 1534 the King ordered a general survey of all church revenues in the realm.
By 1536, some 376 religious houses had been forced out of existence – providing Henry and others with great wealth. The Conventual Franciscan friaries were not affected by this initial suppression of the monasteries because the friars did not have large estates or monies. The detailed inventories taken by those sent to report on the Conventual friaries in England showed without doubt, that the friaries were poor, that their property was in bad repair and that many of the friaries had already sold what little possessions they had to pay their debts. Be that as it may, all Conventual Franciscan friaries were suppressed by 1538. Careful study of these turbulent years shows clearly that before the suppression of their friaries in England, both the Conventual and Observant Franciscan friars lived their religious life in poverty and simplicity.
The Re-Establishment of the Order
It was only by the beginning of the twentieth century that the Conventual Franciscans were able to return to England. Fr. Bonaventure Sceberras of the Maltese province arrived in England in 1906 with a resolve to restore the ancient province in England. In 1907, he established the first actual foundation of the Greyfriars since the Reformation. This took place at St. Joseph's in Portishead. Later he was joined by another Maltese friar, Fr. Roger Azzopardi, and by the American Fr. Vincent Meyer of the Immaculate Conception province, USA. Together they started a solid tradition of hard work and dedicated service.
The passionate efforts and hard work of these great missionaries and their confreres marked the beginning of the re-establishment of the Order in England. In 1910, at the invitation of the bishop of the Southwark diocese the friars started a new foundation in Rye, East Sussex. This was followed by other establishments in Liverpool (1926) and Manchester (1929), the two centres from which the province started on its largest expansion in the twentieth century England.
Although the Second World War delayed the prospects for the full re-establishment of the Province, the friars worked hard to pursue a steady path of development. In 1949, the English Commissariat, which had been dependent upon the Immaculate Conception Province of the USA since 1919, became an independent unit under the direct jurisdiction of the Minister General. England continued to be a general Commissariat until the autumn of 1957. In that year the ancient province of England was fully revived and the first Provincial chapter in England since the Reformation was celebrated at Mossley Hill, Liverpool.
The first forty years after the re-establishment of the English province was characterised by remarkable development, though often under the influence of social, political and religious upheavals that posed constant challenges to the progress. This was an era when the Catholic Church in England was still battling to re-establish herself after the wreckage of the Reformation.