Of all the Religious Orders and Congregations, the Observant Friars were at first King Henry's most highly praised and the most dearly loved by the people. Then, when King Henry's mind and heart were taken over by evil spirits, the Franciscans became his most hated enemies. The thoughts of St. Paul seem to echo down the corridors of time: " Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?"
The history of the Roman Catholic Church in England cannot be adequately nor honestly written without giving much attention to the advent of the Franciscan Friars in England.
It all began with a simply and plainly formulated mandate from St. Francis himself. Given to one of the first disciples of St. Francis, the Englishman Fr. William. The Martyrologium Franciscanum commemorates him on March 7 with these words: "At Assisi in Umbria, Blessed William, Confessor, a man of extraordinary perfection, who for his sanctity and miracles was widely known in life and after death."
His soul was deeply imbued with the spirit of the Seraphic Father. Most likely, his burning zeal for immortal souls motivated the founding of the Franciscan Order in England. It was during the second general chapter, held at Whitsuntide near Assisi in 1219 at Our Lady of the Angels that Fr. William petitioned St. Francis to let England share the blessings of his new foundation.
Accordingly, St. Francis directed Blessed Agnellus of Pisa, who was then custos of the French Franciscans and guardian of the friary in Paris, to undertake the expedition to England. St. Francis vested him with the authority of provincial and drew up an obedience which read:
"To Brother Agnellus of Pisa of the Tuscan Province of the Order of Minors, Brother Francis of Assisi, Minister General, though unworthy, salutation. By the merit of wholesome obedience, I command thee to go to England and there to exercise the office of Minister Provincial. Farewell."
It should be noted that Blessed Agnellus of Pisa was not Italian; he was an Englishman. He was accompanied by eight Friars. Fr. Richard of Ingworth was a priest, Fr. Richard of Devonshire a cleric in minor orders, and Fr. William of Esseby a young pious novice. With their leader, these three were Englishmen. The other five were lay brothers: Friars Henry of Cervise, Lawrence of Beauvais, William of Florence, Melioratus, and James Ultramontanus.
The first to receive the Friars in England were the Benedictine monks of the priory of the Holy Trinity in Canterbury. The monks were most probably informed of their coming because the Friars had no difficulty identifying themselves and were cordially received and provided with food and lodging.
This most brief sketch of the influence of the Franciscan Friars upon England will show the frightful contrast in how Henry VIII and the Protestant revolutionaries treated them once the demon of vice and obstinate heresy too root in their hearts. The German Capuchin, Hilarin Felder, O.M.Cap. wrote: "The English nation has given to the Franciscan Order a greater number of eminently learned men than all the other nations taken together. Yes, if we consider only the leaders of the Minorite schools, they all with the exception of St. Bonaventure belong to England."
One might suspect a `conspiracy of silence' shrouding the glories of the Franciscan Order especially in England by those clergymen who envied the acclaim and prestige of the learned Friars.
Starting with Oxford, almost all the friaries established before 1254 had their school. The English Province numbered 34 lecturers in that year. Before 1350, more than 67 Franciscans had been public lecturers at Oxford. According to the same records, 72 were public professors at Cambridge before the middle of the fifteenth century. These Friars were all Doctors of Divinity. Other Friars were very influential in these two universities as regents and chancellors.
English Franciscans were called to teach at foreign universities. The historian Brewer writes: "Lyons, Paris and Cologne were indebted for their first professors to the English Franciscans at Oxford. Repeated applications were made from Ireland, Denmark, France, and Germany for English friars."
"Under their influence," writes the Franciscan historian Fr. Francis Borgia Steck, O.F.M.,
"theology and philosophy as
well as the liberal arts were, not only greatly promoted, but also turned to practical account." Another historian, Parkinson, remarks that many English friars wrote commentaries on Sacred Scripture. The Friars were the most ardent upholders of scholastic theology and were the most popular preachers of that age.
It was the Friars who were the first to treat medicine and physics empirically; and their zeal for the classics served to pave the way for Christian Humanism of the following Renaissance period. The English friars were instrumental in founding Baliol College at Oxford, Pembroke College at Cambridge, and a lecture hall at Paris. Through their efforts the art of printing was introduced at Oxford as early as 1463. The works of Dun Scotus were first printed and published for the first time in England in 1463. Because he chose to listen to bad advisors who flattered him into following his disordered passions rather than the way of wisdom, King Henry VIII erased the greatness of that was once England and plunged it into the spiritual darkness of error which lasts even to the present day.
Those whom he once admired and esteemed for their learning and holiness, he now sent to the Tower of London to be tortured and hanged, burned at the stake or banished into exile. The devastation wrought by King Henry VIII when he usurped papal supremacy and made himself the head of the Church in England have never been repaired during all these centuries.
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