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Reference group
Early English Franciscans (act. 1224–1272) form a remarkable group not only because of the contribution its members made to the spiritual and intellectual life of England and to the development of the Franciscan order worldwide, but also because of their own awareness of their ‘group identity’, as chronicled, fostered—and probably idealized—by a Franciscan named Thomas (commonly known as Thomas of Eccleston, although the toponym has no contemporary support, being unrecorded before the mid-sixteenth century) in his Tractatus de adventu fratrum minorum in Angliam et dilatione et multiplicatione ipsorum in ea (‘Treatise on the coming of the Friars Minor to England, and the spreading and multiplication of the friars in England’). This was a work completed about 1257–8 but one for which Thomas had begun collecting material on entering the order some twenty-six years earlier. His work was arranged in fifteen chapters—five on the early days, five on the administration of the order, and five on individuals—and seems to have been planned both with a view to its being added to by later generations and as a way of preserving the memories of the first heroic years.

Thomas records that the first friars to arrive in England landed at Dover in September 1224. The nine-strong party, led by Agnellus of Pisa, a friar since 1211, consisted of four clerics and five laymen, of whom all the clerics (Agnellus apart) were Englishmen: Richard of Devon, William of Ashby, and Richard of Ingworth. The timing of their mission was propitious. The English church, bruised by the years of interdict under King John, had rallied to the reforming decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and was eager now to implement them. The friars, as agents of reform, could therefore expect a welcome and they were not disappointed. Their first port of call was Canterbury, where five of them (including William of Ashby) settled for the winter while the rest of the party made their way to London; from there Richard of Ingworth and Richard of Devon went to Oxford, where they had such success in gaining recruits—‘sweet Jesus’, according to Thomas, ‘sowing a grain of mustard seed that afterward became greater than all herbs’; (Tractatus de adventu, 9)—that they were able in the spring of 1225 to move northwards to found a house in Northampton, leaving William of Ashby, summoned from Canterbury, in charge. A further house at Cambridge was probably founded in the same year with Richard of Ingworth becoming its guardian. Thus within a matter of months of their arrival the friars had managed to set themselves up in four influential centres; within the next ten years the number of houses rose to twenty-two. But Thomas, as if to emphasize that these early days, however heady, were also hard, is keen to tell us in what poverty and with what asceticism the first friars lived: at Canterbury they had to be content with thick dregs of beer; in London they stuffed grass into the cracks in the wall of the house where they were staying; their first recruit, Solomon, on one occasion became so cold that he thought he might die, and it was only the warmth of his brethren ‘huddling against him in the way that pigs do’ that saved his life (ibid., 12).

Thomas is thus at pains to align the English Franciscans with the sentiments of those within the order who felt too many concessions to worldliness were being made in breach of Francis's rule, and that the saint's original ideals were being, if not lost, then certainly sullied. The first English brethren, according to Thomas, lived
not by rules of men, but by the spontaneous impulses of their devotion. They were content with the Rule alone, and with a very few other ordinances which had first been promulgated in the same year in which the Rule had been confirmed. (Tractatus de adventu, 25)
The early Franciscans in England were thus insistently portrayed as poor men of Christ, content with simple food, clothing, and lodging. Pillows and sandals were dangerous temptations. Public image mattered. At Shrewsbury, for example, the generosity of the townspeople towards the new arrivals had to be redirected, and a burgess named Lawrence Cox who had built a stone-walled dormitory for the friars subsequently ‘removed [it] by the decree of the minister, to wit, Brother William [of Nottingham], out of zeal for poverty, and made them out of mud, with wondrous devotion and docility and at very great expense’ (ibid., 23). Trouble arose also at Gloucester, where to the fury of Agnellus the guardian had allowed one of the brethren to paint the pulpit.

The sharp reactions of William of Nottingham and of Agnellus make sense when set within the context of the order at large. Brother Elias, minister-general from 1232 to 1239, was a peculiarly divisive leader. His extravagant spending on the basilica at Assisi and on his own retinue disturbed those who felt he had abandoned Francis's conception of poverty, while his preferential treatment of the movement's lay members alienated a new generation of friars who wanted the order to become more learned than Francis had ever envisaged. Opposition to Elias came to a head at the general chapter of 1239. The Englishman Haymo of Faversham, backed by Alexander of Hales, an eminent scholar who had recently joined the order, played a leading part in speaking out against Elias, who was duly deposed. Shortly afterwards Haymo found himself appointed provincial minister of the English Franciscans, and a year later he became minister-general of the whole order. His years in that office were crucial in the development of the Franciscan order. A doctor of theology and a preacher of some repute even before he became a friar, Haymo seemingly stood for everything Elias had either eschewed or abhorred. As provincial minister he sat on the floor at chapter meetings, dressed in the tattiest of habits; as minister-general he prohibited lay brothers from holding office, and reduced his own power by increasing that of the general chapter. He had moreover a profound interest in liturgy and introduced changes that had a long-lasting influence not only within the order but throughout the Western church.

In England Haymo's successor as minister provincial was William of Nottingham. William had previously been Haymo's vicar and his policies bear the mark of Haymo's influence. Rigour and scholarship were to go hand in hand. Thus William was as determined to resist the relaxations introduced to the rule by Innocent IV in 1245 as he was to promote learning among the friars. With the support of the Franciscan scholar Adam Marsh, William devised a scheme that ensured a steady supply of university-trained lectors for friaries throughout the country. The Franciscans in England had now neither reason nor excuse not to become a learned order.

Marsh, a student and friend of Bishop Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln, was a figure of considerable influence both in and beyond the university, in matters of church and of state. King, pope, and archbishop of Canterbury at various times sought his services. Despite ill health he worked unstintingly, spurred on by the belief that the friars had a particular duty to support the cause of the righteous in what he perceived to be the last days—‘the last of the perilous times that are now upon us … [when] the salvation of the people is undermined and united hearts are torn asunder’ (Marsh, letter 90). In 1253 he was involved in a major row in Oxford when his protégé Thomas of York was presented to incept as a doctor of theology, a presentation challenged by opponents of the friars who claimed Thomas was ineligible since he had not first been a regent master in arts. Adam successfully supported Thomas, who thereupon became the Franciscans' Oxford lector. The university insisted the case should not establish a precedent but the ruling led only to an uneasy truce. The appointment was a source of tension in other ways, since Richard of Cornwall had very possibly expected the job, given that he was both older and more experienced than Thomas. But three years later Thomas was moved to Cambridge, where he probably became a colleague of the biblical scholar William of Milton, and Richard, who had meanwhile (like Milton) been in Paris, returned to Oxford as lector, bringing with him the fruits of the latest Parisian teaching.

One of the first Franciscans to teach at Oxford had been Thomas Wallensis, but thanks to the patronage and urgings of Grosseteste Thomas left Oxford to become first archdeacon of Lincoln and then in 1247 bishop of St David's. In contrast stands the career of Ralph of Maidstone, who having become bishop of Hereford in 1234 resigned his see only five years later to join the Franciscans at Oxford. But mesmeric and influential though the Oxford Franciscans undoubtedly were, it should not be forgotten that the influence of English friars spread far beyond academic walls. Bartholomaeus Anglicus, as his name indicates, was evidently born in England, where he may have studied at Oxford, but spent most of his adult life abroad, first in Paris but later in Magdeburg, where he was minister of Saxonia at his death in 1272, having previously also been sent on missions to Bohemia, Moravia, Poland, and Austria. It was at Magdeburg that he composed one of the most influential of all Franciscan publications, his encyclopaedic De proprietatibus rerum, a huge enterprise (arranged in nineteen books) intended to provide student friars with information about things and places mentioned in the Bible. Yet although Bartholomaeus's encyclopaedia was something of a best-seller, the friar who did most to capture the imaginations of the parishioners of England may well have been Thomas of Hales, whose writings included a vernacular lyric that was in effect a love song to God. For the many who lived outside university circles the contribution of the friars to their spiritual life stemmed less from the contributions they made to devout learning than from their insistence that earthly love counted for nothing in comparison with the glorious romance on offer from heaven.

Henrietta Leyser


Fratris Thomae vulgo dicti de Eccleston tractatus de adventu fratrum minorum in Angliam, ed. A. G. Little (1951) · The letters of Adam Marsh, ed. and trans. C. H. Lawrence (2006) · R. B. Brooke, Early Franciscan government (1959) · Hist. U. Oxf. 1: Early Oxf. schools · J. V. Fleming, An introduction to the Franciscan literature of the middle ages (1977) · A. Kehnel, ‘The narrative tradition of the medieval Franciscan friars on the British Isles: introduction to the sources’, Franciscan Studies, 63 (2005), 461–530 · D. Knowles [M. C. Knowles], The religious orders in England, 1 (1948) · D. Lamb, ‘Service, image and leadership: the first century of the Franciscan settlement in the west midlands’, Midland History, 27 (2002), 16–37 · A. G. Little, Studies in English Franciscan history (1917) · J. R. H. Moorman, A history of the Franciscan order from its origins to 1517 (1968)