Friday, August 10, 2018

Suppression of the Observant Friars, 1534

The Observant Friars of Greenwich were the parish priests for Henry VIII's family: their church was the site of his baptism (perhaps), his wedding to Catherine of Aragon in 1509, and both Mary and Elizabeth were baptized there. Before his Great Matter dominated their relationship, Henry VIII admired the Observant Franciscans of Greenwich. According to British History Online:

Henry VIII, in 1513, wrote from his palace of Greenwich to Leo X that he could not sufficiently commend the Observant Friars' strict adherence to poverty, their sincerity, charity and devotion. No Order battled more assiduously against vice, and none were more active in keeping Christ's fold.

From the beginning, however, the Friars sided with Catherine of Aragon in opposing Henry VIII's attempts to have his marriage to her declared null. They were vocal in their opposition, using the pulpit at Sunday Mass, even, to descry Henry's marital ambitions to replace their queen (who might have been a third order Franciscan) with Anne Boleyn. In 1534, things came to a head:

Henry probably hoped to bend the friars to his will at this time. He gave them an alms of 10 marks; (fn. 47) the Princess Elizabeth was christened in the church with great pomp 10 September, (fn. 48) and the minister, warden, and friars of Greenwich begged for the king's pardon 21 December. [1533](fn. 49) But on 13 April, 1534, a royal commission was issued to the provincial priors of the Austin and Black Friars to visit all the friars' houses and bind every friar by oath to acknowledge the king as supreme head of the church and repudiate the pope's authority. (fn. 50) On 14 June Roland Lee and Thomas Bedyll, acting on instructions from the commissioners, visited Richmond, and induced the friars there to entrust their case to four ' discreets' or representatives, who should attend the visitors the next day at Greenwich. On 15 June the visitors tried to induce the Greenwich friars to adopt the same procedure, 'specially to the intent that if the discreets should refuse to consent, it were better after our minds to strain a few than a multitude.' The friars, however, 'stiffly affirmed that where the matter concerned particularly every one of their souls, they would answer particularly every man for himself.' After further discussion, the visitors were compelled to examine each friar separately, and each refused to accept the articles, especially that which denied the papal authority. In answer to all the arguments of the visitors they declared that 'they had professed St. Francis' religion, and in the observance thereof they would live and die.' (fn. 51)

On 17 June two cart-loads of friars drove through London to the Tower, (fn. 52) and it is possible that some of the Greenwich Observants were among them. On or before 11 August the friars were expelled from their convent (fn. 53) (though they seem to have made some kind of submission (fn. 54) ) and distributed in different places, generally in houses of the Grey Friars, where, wrote Chapuys to Charles V, 'they were locked up in chains and treated worse than they could be in prison.' (fn. 55) Some, such as John Forest, were actually in prison in London. (fn. 56) Two of them, inclosed in a poor lodging at the Grey Friars, Stamford, and treated as prisoners, were 'in meetly good case as the world at this time requireth,' and sent to London for their little belongings, including a new Psalter, a pair of socks, a penner and inkhorn. (fn. 57) But the severity of their treatment is shown by the fact that out of 140 Observant Friars thirty-one soon died, (fn. 58) and this does not account for all the deaths. Thomas Bourchier, who was a member of the Greenwich friary in the reign of Mary, gives details of several martyrdoms which probably belong to this time, though the writer assigns them to 1537. (fn. 59) On 19 July Anthony Brookby, formerly of Magdalen College, Oxford, a distinguished scholar, who had been imprisoned and tortured to such an extent that ' for twenty-five days he could not turn in bed or lift his hands to his mouth,' was strangled with his own cord. (fn. 60) On 27 July Thomas Cortt, who had been imprisoned for a sermon against the king in the church of St. Lawrence, London, died in Newgate. (fn. 61) On 3 August Thomas Belchiam, a young priest, who had composed a book against the king, one copy of which he left in the hands of his brethren at Greenwich, died of starvation in Newgate. (fn. 62) No mention of these three friars occurs in extant contemporary authorities, but Bourchier's account representing the tradition of the Order is probably substantially correct, though the names may be misspelt.

It's always sad to read about the religious orders acting against each other--those who were willing to take the oaths and conform to Henry VIII's demands were willing to do his bidding against those were ready to stand against him.--and then it's ironic when you recognize that their compliance did nothing to save their orders in England after 1536. More about the Franciscans in England here.

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