Vagabonds! Spies! Robbers! That is what the first gray friars* were taken to be when they arrived in England. The nine arrived at Dover on this day, September 10, 1224. Thomas of Eccleston, their historian fixed the place and date. "In the year of our Lord 1224," he wrote, in the time of the Lord Pope Honorius...in the eighth year of the Lord King Henry, son of John, on the Tuesday after the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, which that year was upon Sunday, the Friars Minor first came into England at Dover."
When the Franciscans asked for food, they found themselves locked up as vagabonds. Word of their arrival spread and by morning a large crowd had gathered. "If indeed we are spies and robbers, here is a rope to hang us with!" said one of the friars, removing the rope around his waist. The mood of the crowd changed and the friars were sent on their way. They headed for Canterbury.
The first friars were as a breath of fresh air to a nation where the clergy had largely fallen away from the ideals of their calling. Robert Grosseteste, the great reforming bishop of his day, declared that the clergy corrupted the people. Ignorant and idle, they gambled, haunted taverns, rioted and committed every sort of sexual sin. Those who should have corrected them either lived far away or held too many different church positions to take care of any one of them, or were crooked themselves. Haughtiness marked the higher clergy.
By contrast, these first Franciscans lived simple, pure lives and embraced poverty. When they offended someone, they were instantly contrite and begged pardon. They walked barefooted and applied themselves to caring for the sick, preaching to the poor, singing and praying. The friaries they built were the simplest. The effect of their example was revolutionary.
The people crowded to hear these new teachers. The Franciscans made so many conversions that the order spread across England like a grass fire in a dry Summer. By mid-century there were fifty friaries and 1,500 friars. Robert Grosseteste became their lecturer early on. A man of immense learning as well as holiness, he warned the friars that they must study the Divine law or they would soon find themselves as degenerate as other religious leaders.
Grosseteste warned them and taught them, but before the century closed, the friars had accumulated wealth and were drifting from the ideals that had made them so strong. In the fourteenth century, another reformer, John Wycliffe, who looked back to Grosseteste with deep respect, saw once again an England which was oppressed by many worldy bishops, monks--and friars.
Nonetheless, the Franciscans made a strong impact for good on the nation, especially through the University of Oxford. Their most famous product at Oxford in those early years was Roger Bacon, although John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham followed. John Peckham, a Franciscan, became Archbishop of Canterbury around the middle of the thirteenth century. The friars declined somewhat after the church troubles of following centuries and Henry VIII knocked the order in the head when he closed their monasteries at the Reformation.
*The Franciscans later adopted brown robes.
- Callus, D. A., et al. Robert Grosseteste; Scholar and Bishop; Essays in Commemoration of the Seventh Centenary of His Death. London: Oxford University Press, 1955.
- "Franciscan Order." Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- Hutton, Edward. The Franciscans in England 1224-1538. London: Constable and co., 1926.
Last updated July, 2007