Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland – Franciscans, or Friars Minor

Franciscan FriarArticle

Mixed. Under Solemn Vows. Founded 1209. Deus Meus et Omnia.

The history of the Franciscan Order is fraught with many complications; there have been so many reforms, so many observances, so many variously named institutes rising out of the original Order, and culminating in a division into three independent Orders – viz., the Observants, the Conventuals, and the Capuchins. We shall deal with the Capuchins separately.

The interior spirit of the rule favoured a manifold variety of observances in order to develop the capacity it contained for guiding men in various ways to evangelical perfection, but it cannot be denied that the first great division of the Order into Observants, or those who desired to keep the original rule in all its integrity, and Conventuals, who desired a relaxation, especially with regard to the extreme poverty it imposed, was due to the second Minister-General of the Order, an ambitious, imperious man named Elias of Cortona, who relaxed the rule and oppressed those who wished to keep it. This led to a long controversy between the two parties. The first century after its foundation was taken up with this struggle. In the fourteenth century the first great reform of the Order, called the Regular Observance, began, and was followed by the larger part of the Friars Minor; the remainder – that is the Conventuals – was separated and constituted into an independent Order. It was not, however, until 1517 that Pope Leo X, after making a vain endeavour to unite the two Observances into one Order, cut the knot by separating them into two independent Orders – the Observants and the Conventuals.

The founder of the Seraphic Order, as the Friars Minor are called, was, as all the world knows, the great Francis of Assisi, perhaps the most beloved and popular Saint the Church has ever canonized, of whom so many beautiful stories are related, and whose sweet personality seems to have cast a light over the earth, the reflection of which has been preserved by his sons through six centuries up to these later days, and which certainly attracted in a marvellous manner men of all dispositions and nationalities to a life nearer the life of evangelical perfection preached by our Blessed Lord than any religious founder before or since has ever dared to conceive. Surely, the secret of Saint Francis’ attraction, and of the success of his Order, is, he was the most Christ-like of the Saints.

His life is so well known that we need not attempt to sketch it even in outline here; suffice it to say that when he was twenty-five he stripped himself of all he possessed, and, assuming a coarse dress similar to that of the shepherds of Assisi, betook himself to a poor cottage on the hills near the town, where he was soon joined by three other companions and there gave himself up to a life of prayer, preaching, and exterior mortification of the severest kind, practising the most absolute poverty. This was in the year 1209, but it was not till the following year that Saint Francis went to Rome to obtain the Pope’s confirmation; by this time the cottage would not contain the brethren, and they had moved to a piece of land near Assisi given them by the Benedictines, to which was attached a small church or chapel called the Portiuncula, from which the great Franciscan plenary indulgence known as the “Portiuncula” (toties quoties) gets its name.

The Pope at first refused his consent, but he had a dream which caused him to send for the Saint again, and then, moved by his eloquence, was disposed to grant his request; but the Cardinals present thought the rule of absolute poverty the Saint proposed too strict for mortal man, so Francis was dismissed a second time. The Pope, however, had a second dream, in which he saw the Lateran Basilica saved from falling by the Saint, who propped it up with his back, and again sending for Saint Francis, he gave his verbal approbation; but the rule, which then contained twenty-three chapters was condensed into twelve by its author before it received the final confirmation, in 1223, of Pope Honorius III.

Before this confirmation the Order had begun to spread in a marvellous way; the Saint himself visited Spain in 1214 and founded several houses; in 1215 he sent a friar named Pacifico to France, &nd John of Penna to Germany, and many other Brothers to different parts of Italy. All these missions prospered. In 1218 Brother Angelo of Pisa and seven other friars were sent by their Holy Superior to England, where they founded a convent at Canterbury, and soon after a second at Northampton, from which the great Friary of Saint Ebbe’s, Oxford, was founded.

The Order increased so rapidly during the Saint’s life that at the first General Chapter in 1219, held at the Portiuncula, over 5,000 friars were present. In the first century the Order possessed many men of great holiness and devotion, endowed with the gift of prayer and contemplation, and also of great learning, as is testified by Salimbene. To this period belong the following learned men of the Order, Alexander of Hales, the irrefragable Doctor, the Patriarch of scholastic theologians, and John of Rochelle. Later, the learned Bishop of Rouen, Rigaud, our own Roger Bacon, Adam of Marisco, and the Seraphic Cardinal Saint Bonaventura, General of the Order, John Duns Scotus, the subtle Doctor, John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal Matthias of Aquasparta, pupils of Saint Bonaventura.

During all this period, from the foundation to the division of the Order in 1511, it exercised a most salutary influence on all classes of society, and on the whole it kept the rule of absolute poverty, though in various degrees of strictness in different houses and places. By it the friars are not allowed to touch money; they may neither receive it as alms, nor in payment for their labour, but they may take things necessary for life, either as alms or in payment for their work.

This rule is different from all other rules of Orders, and is said in a decree of Pope Nicholas III. “to be founded on the word of the Gospel: it derives its power from the example of the life of Christ; it is confirmed through the sayings and doings of the founders of the Church of the Apostles.” It is simple yet lofty, easily understood yet deep; in the first chapter it gives in these few words the general idea of the Order: “The rule and life of the Friars Minor is that they observe the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, living in obedience, without property, and in chastity.” Then is laid down as a fundamental principle, obedience to the Pope, and within the Order itself obedience to one guiding head or superior. “Brother Francis promises obedience and reverence to our Lord, the Pope Honorius and his lawful successors, and to the Roman Church, and the other Brothers shall be bound to obey Brother Francis.” In these few words is the germ from which the whole organization and government of this great Order has been evolved. Unity binds the Friars Minor together, and is the special characteristic of their organization, their object in life being to set before all men and all nations in word and in deed the image of Christ crucified. The friars were not to be hermits or monks, but wandering preachers of the Gospel, who yet were to live the religious life. They were bound by their rule to work; they were also forbidden to possess anything, neither houses nor estates nor, as we said above, money; “they were to serve the Lord in poverty and humility, to beg alms without being ashamed, because for our sakes our Lord made Himself poor.”

The rule further prescribes the manner of preaching, the way in which the Brothers are to be admonished and punished, and it treats of the method in which missions to unbelievers are to be conducted, and of the Cardinal Protector, who is always to be asked of the Pope for the Order.

The enthusiastic love of Saint Francis for poverty, which he honoured as his bride and queen, was not confined to the renunciation of all earthly possessions, but embraced also poverty of spirit, and with the love of poverty he cherished love of the poor; but his love of poverty and of the poor was only the other side, so to speak, of his love of God, the absorbing passion of his life.

The exercise of poverty is the very essence of the Franciscan life; it is the interior spirit of the Order which animates every action of its members. What obedience is to the Jesuit and Benedictine, silence to the Cistercian, humility to the Carmelite, poverty is to the Franciscan.

The Second Order, commonly called the Poor Clares, including also the Colletines, who take their name from Saint Colette, a reformer of the same Order, and the Third Order were both founded in the lifetime of the Saint. The Second Order founded a convent at Aldgate, in the east of London, in 1293, from which house the district called the Minories takes its name.

The Third Order Regular is distinguished from the Third Order Secular, or the numerous Tertiaries of Saint Francis living in the world. The Third Order, called also the Order of Penance, was established for those who wished to lead a strict and mortified life without renouncing their avocations in the world. When, in the course of time, many of these wished to add vows and live in community, the cloistered Tertiaries sprang into existence, and were placed under a Master-General of their own; they were not founded by Saint Francis.

From 1517, when the division between Conventuals and Observants took place, the second period of the history of the Order begins; it was then settled that the head of the Friars Minor Observants should be chosen every six years, with the title of Minister-General of the whole Order of Saint Francis. To the Conventuals it was conceded that they should be allowed to possess property and receive rents, to choose their own General Superior, with the title of Minister-General of the Friars Minor Conventuals, but that his appointment must be confirmed by the General of the whole Order; but later this last clause and the title “Master” were given up.

The result of this measure was that many friars, convents, and whole provinces of the Conventuals, especially the reformed ones, went over to the Regular Observance. At the Protestant Reformation it was found in the Franciscan Orders, as in other Orders, that those monasteries in which the ancient discipline was kept up lost none of their subjects through apostacy; whereas from those convents where the discipline was relaxed and abuses had crept in many apostatized.

In England, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, and later in Denmark, the Franciscans of the Regular Observance remained true to the Church and to their Order throughout the storm of persecution which raged in the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, and during one century in the various Protestant countries above mentioned gave no less than 500 friars to the army of martyrs who died for the faith. Henry VIII, after suppressing the convents of the Observants, threw 200 friars (some writers say all the friars) into a horrible prison unfit for human beings; the others were banished, except six, whom he barbarously executed. Among these six were the Confessor of Queen Catherine, John Forest, and the Guardians of Canterbury and Richmond. Under Elizabeth, James I, Charles I, and Charles II, more of the Friars Observant were executed.

The Franciscan Order laboured courageously by writing and preaching to defend the faith throughout the storm of persecution the so-called Reformation roused. A long list of illustrious men among them who published various controversial works might be given had we space, the most celebrated of whom were, perhaps, Matthias Teupel, John Faber, Nicolas Ferber, John von Deventer, John Glapion, and Kaspar Schatzgar, a celebrated preacher.

Among the reforms of the Order in this second period of its history the most celebrated is that of the Capuchins (see the chapter on Capuchins). The Discalced Friars were a branch of the Observants which were existing in 1517, and arose in Spain. Among them must be mentioned Saint Peter of Alcantara, who founded in 1555 a special branch of the Discalced Observants, to lead a life of extraordinary mortification and contemplation, with the approbation of Pope Paul IV. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this branch produced a great number of very holy and apostolic men; the headquarters of it were in Valencia.

In Italy, in the sixteenth century, another reform arose, which had a great deal in common with the Discalced Friars; these were called the Reformed Friars, and they increased so that Urban VIII. in 1639 raised their guardians to Provincials subject to the General and the General Chapter. In the beginning of the seventeenth century this reform was adopted by the exiled English and Irish Franciscans with certain modifications.

The Franciscan Order has given five Popes, including Alexander V, to the Church, about 80 Cardinals, 30 Patriarchs, and about 2,500 Archbishops and Bishops. The number of the friars who have died in the odour of sanctity is very great. Before the separation in 1517 the Order had given 45 canonized and 87 beatified saints to the Church, among them the great Saint Antony of Padua. After the separation the Conventuals have had 2 saints, 1 canonized, Saint Joseph of Cupertino and Blessed Bonaventura beatified. Saint Peter of Alcantara founded a special reformed branch of the Discalced Friars. The Capuchins have had 5 saints and 5 blessed. The Second Order, the Poor Clares, has had 5 saints and 17 blessed. In the Third Order there have been 36 saints and 55 blessed.

The Superior of Franciscan monasteries is called the Father Guardian. The novitiate lasts one year.

The habit is of coarse brown serge. A piece of rope is used as a girdle, to which a rosary and crucifix are attached. Sandals are worn, but no socks or stockings.

The Order has its own fasts. The Friars fast from the Feast of All Saints to Christmas, and from Ash Wednesday to Easter, all Fridays, and on certain vigils. But, besides these, there is a fast of forty days following immediately on the Feast of the Epiphany, but this latter does not entail any obligation, its observance is left quite free, so that each religious may observe it or not just as his private devotion inclines him. It is called the fast of Benediction, as a special blessing is promised to all those who observe it.

Moreover, all the fasts of the Order are observed after the manner laid down by the Church for the fasts of the faithful at large. The Friars rise in the night for Matins and Lauds. The lay-Brothers go out and beg for food. All the temporal affairs of each monastery are managed by a lay-procurator, as the (Friars Observants) may not handle money. The faithful can give alms in the shape of food and the necessaries of life to the Friars.

At the Reformation there were sixty-four Franciscan houses in England. The English Province was restored in 1617 at Douay, where Friar Jennings founded a convent; from it four of the Friars who were sent to this country on mission were martyrs under the Long Parliament.

The Franciscans yield to no Order in the zeal they have shown in missionary and apostolic work from their foundation to the present day. They helped in the discovery of America, and the first Christian church in the New World was opened by Friar John Perez at Hayti in 1493, and in 1523 the Observants established the Catholic religion in Mexico, from whence they sent members of their Order later to California, Texas, and New Mexico.

By a recent decree the Observants and Recollects have been amalgamated, and placed under one Provincial.

Owing to the difficulties peculiar to a non-Catholic country like England, the Friars Minor, by virtue of a Pontifical dispensation accorded them, are allowed the use and administration of money, and also to wear the ordinary ecclesiastical dress outside of their Friaries.

By a decree of our Holy Father the Pope, subsequent upon a General Chapter of the Franciscan Order held in Assisi in 1897, the different branches of the Friars of the Observance were amalgamated, and compelled to drop all their distinctive features. Besides the Conventuals and the Capuchins, who are independent bodies, there is now only one other great Franciscan family – viz., the Friars Minor.

MLA Citation

  • Francesca M Steele. “Franciscans, or Friars Minor”. Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland, 1903. CatholicSaints.Info. 30 November 2018. Web. 18 April 2021. <>