|An image of Bl. Agnellus of Pisa (1195 - 1236), appointed by St Francis to be the first Minister Provincial of England (from the Franciscan Province of Great Britain website)|
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.
Dom David Knowles described the early life of the Franciscans in his book Saints and Scholars when describing the life of Thomas of Eccleston. Those first groups demonstrated St. Francis's radical poverty and became very popular because of it, after the initial misunderstanding.
The order grew and grew in England, Wales and Scotland, and its members contributed greatly to intellectual developments:
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, Hilarin 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 veritable 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), John of Peckham (1240-1292), who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury and is entombed within the magnificent splendour of Canterbury Cathedral.
Then, of course, came the English Reformation:
The Observants were staunch defenders of Henry's marriage to Catherine and of the Supremacy of the Pope over the entire Church. One of the friars, Elstow, even preached against Henry's divorce in the presence of the King, showing great courage and gaining a spell in prison for his pains. Consequently the Observants were the first religious to be attacked by Henry and, when they refused to be cowed, the first to be suppressed in 1534. Some were imprisoned, Bl. John Forest was martyred and many Observants went into exile to Pontoise, Paris. In 1555-1559, the friary at Greenwich was restored under Queen Mary, who remembered the friars' loyalty to her mother, but this friary was suppressed again only four years later in 1559 by Elizabeth I. In 1559 the Observants scattered to Scotland, Pontoise and the Low Countries, although there were always those who remained in hiding in England to minister to the Catholic faithful in the years of persecution.
And the other Franciscan martyrs:
This missionary spirit was watered by the blood of the Province's martyrs. There has never been any period since 1224 when there have not been Franciscans in Britain, even throughout the times of persecution. The Province has given martyrs to the Church and many confessors who were imprisoned and persecuted for their faith. Bl. John Forest was martyred under Henry VIII, St. 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 Bl. Thomas Bullaker, Henry Heath, Francis Bell and John Woodcock were hanged, drawn and quartered. St. 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.
The order expanded in the nineteenth century after 1850, and
At present there are friaries in: Canterbury, Clevedon, Cold Ash, Edinburgh (Craigmillar), Glasgow, Nottingham, 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 Province.