In 1224 Francis decided to send some Friars to England and appointed Agnellus of Pisa to lead a small expedition. On Tuesday, 10 September of the same year, a small boat landed near Dover and nine roughly-dressed figures disembarked, and so the Franciscan Order was implanted in England. The nine Friars were led by an Italian, Agnellus of Pisa, who had previously been Custos in Paris. It included three Englishmen who had joined the Order, probably in Paris where many Englishmen of the time went to study, five Italians and one Frenchman. Within seven weeks of arrival they had established friaries in Canterbury, London and Oxford, the ecclesiastical, political and intellectual capitals of England.
The Friars served the poor and the outcast and preached the Gospel to them. In those early days the Friars lived very poorly, receiving no money and only accepting the basic necessities of life. They ate what they begged in food, or what they were given in recompense for their work. In Canterbury, at first, they lived at the back of a schoolroom and survived by eating the leftovers from the boys' meal after the boys had finished school. But soon they were given a plot of land to build some wooden huts on for their friary. At one time in these early days one of the Friars was suffering from exposure after a journey in the snow and the only way the Friars had to warm him was to huddle up to him, because they had no way to buy firewood. Their poverty and their humble preaching gained them popularity, so the Order spread quickly, establishing houses in most major towns. We know all this because early on a Friar called Thomas of Eccleston wrote an account of the adventures of the Friars as they arrived in England.
In the years after their establishment in England they added new houses to the Province year by year: Northampton (the administrative centre of the north of England) was added in 1225; Cambridge 1226; Norwich 1226; Worcester 1227. By 1230 the Province was large enough to be divided into seven Custodies based at Oxford, Cambridge, London, York, Salisbury and Worcester. Just thirty years after arriving in England the Province consisted of 1,242 friars in 49 friaries. The Province covered Scotland and Wales as well as England and one of the first English Friars, Richard of Ingworth, was sent to establish the Order in Ireland in 1230. Agnellus of Pisa became the first Provincial Minister of the English Province and established a house of studies for the Friars in Oxford. Subsequent growth was slower as the Province settled into a more regular and less heroic life, but at the time of the Reformation in the 1530s there were approximately 1,700 Franciscans in Britain, living in 60 friaries.
Of all the activities of the Friars in England perhaps it is the Intellectual Tradition which most stands out in the Order. One German historian, Hilarion Felder, said that, apart from St. Bonaventure, all the major contributors to the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition were from the Province of England. The friary at Oxford was founded in 1224 and the friary at Cambridge in 1226. Agnellus of Pisa arranged for Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253), Bishop of Lincoln, to be the first teacher of theology to the Friars. Grosseteste was one of the leading thinkers of his day. The Franciscan involvement at Oxford would change the intellectual face of Europe. The Franciscan Oxford tradition is a impressive Who’s Who of intellectual giants, not just in the Order, but in the history of Western Thought: Adam Marsh (d. 1259); Thomas of York (d. 1260); first Franciscan lecturer at Cambridge, Richard Rufus of Cornwall, (d. c.1260-61); Roger Marston (1235-1303); William of Ware (who may have taught Duns Scotus) (f. 1270-1300); Roger Bacon (1214-1294); John Duns Scotus (1266-1308); William of Ockham (1285-1349) and John of Peckham (1240-1292), who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury and is entombed within the magnificent splendour of Canterbury Cathedral.
In 1610 William Stanney received the secular priest John Gennings into the Order and in 1618, after having trained with the Flemish friars in Ypres, Gennings opened the English friary at Douai in what is now northern France. This was a centre of English Catholicism, with a famous seminary founded by Cardinal Allen and several English religious houses. From there would originate the ‘English Mission’.
One remaining sign of the activity of the friars is contained in the name of a modern development in Birmingham, where the "Masshouse" retail complex has been built on the site of the Franciscan chapel or Masshouse. The Friars ministered to Catholics in other parts of the country also. They would subsequently have residences and chaplaincies at London, Osmotherley, York, Abergavenny, Baddesley, Birmingham, Solihull, Hexham and West Grinstead, and would undertake a mission to Maryland USA between 1672-1712. In 1793 Douai was suppressed following the French Revolution but between 1793 and 1840 Provincial life and Chapters continued at London, Baddesley, Birmingham, Monmouth and Aston near Stone.
In 1858 the Province gained reinforcements from the Belgian Province which was then growing in strength. Three Belgian Friars came to Sclerder, in Cornwall. As the Catholic Church expanded once more in Britain, so the Province opened houses to minister to the growing numbers of Catholics, many of them immigrants from Ireland. So it was that the Province entered into a new phase of expansion, opening friaries in Manchester 1861; click here, Glasgow 1868; Stratford 1873; Bristol 1889; Chilworth 1890 and Buckingham 1868. In 1902 some friaries founded in England by the Paris Province of France were incorporated into the English Province. These were: Clevedon 1882, Ascot 1887 and Woodford 1894. In the 20th Century houses were founded at Liverpool 1909; Shelfield 1925; Edinburgh 1930; Nottingham 1932; Dundee 1937; click here, Craigmillar 1938; Cambridge 1941; Aldridge 1946; East Bergholt 1946; click here, Llanidloes 1951; Stony Stratford 1969; Canterbury 1974 and Hatch End 1980.
Since the 1980s the Province has withdrawn from some of its friaries in order to ensure that there are always enough Friars in a house to live an optimal fraternal life and in 2015 the Province was canonically attached to the Province of Ireland becoming the Dependent Custody of the Immaculate Conception in Great Britain. At present there are friaries in: Canterbury, Clevedon, Edinburgh (Craigmillar), Glasgow, Stratford and Woodford. Most of these friaries minister to parish communities and reach out from there to the wider Church in collaboration with the lay people of the parishes as well as the members of the wider Franciscan family. At Canterbury the Friars run a Study Centre with an international reputation that continues the intellectual tradition of the Custody.
As well as its famous intellectual contribution to the Order, the former Province has also made a great missionary contribution. Individual Friars went on missions as far afield as China, Palestine and Australia. Missions were established in Peru between 1912-1920, in Bellary, South India in 1928 and in Ermelo, South Africa in 1949. The Custody continues its missionary contribution with Friars of the Custody serving in East and West Africa and South Africa where they live with and work alongside local Friars and Friars from other nations. Volunteers from the Custody are prepared as missionary friars at the Order's Missionary Institute in Brussels. At Canterbury a large part of the teaching is preparing formators for young Provinces, so that candidates for the developing Provinces in the global South can obtain a sound Franciscan formation.
This missionary spirit was watered by the blood of our martyrs. There has never been any period since 1224 when there have not been Franciscans in Britain, even throughout the times of persecution. These lands have given Friar martyrs to the Church and many confessors who were imprisoned and persecuted for their faith. Blessed John Forest was martyred under Henry VIII, Saint John Jones (1559-1598) died at St. Thomas’ Waterings, South London, on July 12th 1598 during the reign of Elizabeth I. In the time of the Commonwealth between 1642 and 1646 Blesseds Thomas Bullaker, Henry Heath, Francis Bell and John Woodcock were hanged, drawn and quartered. Saint John Wall was martyred in 1679 during the hysteria occasioned by the perjuries of Titus Oates. Several other Friars died in prison and many more suffered periods of imprisonment in serving the Catholic population of England during the penal years.
Today, with nearly 800 years of impressive history behind it (a continuous history longer than any other religious Order in Britain), fewer in number than at most times in its history but strong in faith and hope, the Custody continues to witness to the determination of the Friars to preach the gospel and serve the poor, following the admonition of St. Francis: "Let us now begin, brothers, for what we have done up to now is nothing."