Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Dominicans in England, Before and After

The English Reformation, of course. In honor of the feast of St. Dominic of Guzman, founder of the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, some background on this order of friars in England. According to the Blackfriars site, the order settled first in Canterbury, but then in Oxford, establishing themselves in the intellectual center:

When a dozen Dominican friars, led by Gilbert of Fresney, their first provincial, arrived in England on 5 August 1221, they first visited Canterbury, the ecclesiastical capital of England, then London, the political capital. They finally established their first community inside the city walls of Oxford, England’s intellectual capital, on 15 August. These friars of the Order of Preachers quickly settled into the life and teaching of the early University, which proved a good place to find new recruits. Land for a new priory just outside the city walls was provided by the generosity of the Countess of Oxford, Isabel de Bolebec.

Like the first foundation at Oxford, every house in the province was to be a centre of learning, and each formed and educated novices for the mission of preaching. Priories were soon founded in other major towns and cities, where the friars could find alms on which they had to live. As mendicants they were forbidden to own and rent properties until 1475. The friars and their houses and large churches for prayer and preaching often became known as ‘Black Friars’, because of the black cape (cappa) the brothers wear over their white habits. ‘Blackfriars Bridge’, where the medieval London Blackfriars stood on the north bank of the River Thames from 1224, and where the English parliament met more than once during the Middle Ages, is only one example. A gift of shoes in 1233 indicates that about 100 brothers lived in the London Blackfriars, the largest of the medieval communities.

The friars exercised their mission at all levels of society. Not only did they work among the most unfortunate, but they were also confessors to royalty and acted as ambassadors or diplomats. When a new priory was founded, it was normally with the help of a royal or noble benefaction. By 1275 the Province of England contained at least 76 houses, not only 39 in England, but also 23 in Ireland, 9 in Scotland, and 5 in Wales. There was also a monastery of nuns at Dartford. Before the Black Death in the fourteenth century, the Province could boast of being the largest in the Order, with a membership of around 3,000 friars. Scotland became an independent province in 1481, and Ireland in 1484.

Of course, all this was destroyed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when Cromwell turned his attention to the friars:

At the Reformation, there were 55 houses in England and Wales. Their visitation began in 1538, and by March 1539 all were dissolved. Those friars who did not accept appointments in the Established Church were left without a pension and had to seek a Dominican life in the priories of Europe. In disguise and using aliases, they would return to England one by one as missionaries. Some were captured, imprisoned and tortured. Community life was restored in the Province by the foundation of a priory at Bornhem, Flanders, in what is today Belgium, in 1658, by Philip (later Cardinal) Howard. He also refounded the nuns, and began a school, to which English Catholics could send their sons, and where potential friars could be formed. So many men wanted to join the Order that a second priory was required, and a house was founded first in Rome and then in Louvain.

The great restoration of the Dominican Order in England came through the efforts of Father Bede Jarrett, Provincial from 1916 to 1932. This site provides more detail. You might recall that it was at the Blackfriars in London that Queen Katherine of Aragon defended her virtue as Henry VIII's true and validly married wife. The English Heritage site notes that the Gloucester Blackfriars "is one of the most complete Dominican priories to survive from the Middle Ages in England." Dartford Priory was the only Dominican house of nuns in England, also dissolved n 1539.

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