History of our Province
The English Province of the Dominican Friars has a rich history, from its dynamic beginnings, through its rise to high influence, then its dramatic ruin under Henry VIII, and on into its gradual return to and new mission in Britain.
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 (est. 1246) just outside the city walls was provided by the generosity of the Countess of Oxford, Isabel de Bolebec.
Growth of the Province
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.
Dissolution of the Religious Houses and Exile in Europe
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.
A Gradual Return
Bornhem provided the friars with new base for their missions back in England. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were probably a dozen friars working the missions at any one time. Between 1620 and 1800 there were about sixty different mission stations in England, but only a few were permanent all the way through the period. Dominicans also worked as chaplains in foreign embassies in London. From 1730 the brothers felt able to hold their chapter meetings in England. 1745 was the last year a Dominican was imprisoned for being a priest. After the French Revolution, the priory at Bornhem was lost. Some friars set out for America, where the Province of St Joseph was founded in 1805. Others, together with the nuns and the school, returned to England.
The friars now focused on a few missions, including Hinckley in Leicestershire, where they refounded the school. By 1850 there were only a handful of friars but, thanks to the generosity of a benefactor named William Leigh, they were fortunate enough to be offered a church and priory in the village of Woodchester, Gloucestershire. By 1859 there were three houses, Woodchester, Hinckley, and Leicester, and more were to follow, as the number of friars grew. The Province was a true part of Victorian Christianity, as the friars set about building large churches to serve the expanding populations of English towns. A priory was founded at Newcastle in 1860, and on Haverstock Hill in London in 1861. In 1898 a priory was also built in the countryside at Hawkesyard, Staffordshire, where the friars would be educated before going on to work among the poor in one of the urban parishes. Well-known national Catholic figures included Fr Vincent McNabb.
Mission was not limited to England, however. In 1901 the English Dominicans were granted the spiritual care of the Caribbean island of Grenada, from which they later extended their mission to Barbados and Jamaica. Fr Bede Jarrett, who was Provincial from 1916 1932, was responsible for sending friars to South Africa, where an independent Province was established in 1968. He was also concerned for the intellectual traditions of the Order, and he founded a house at Edinburgh as a Catholic Chaplaincy for the University, and brought the brothers back to Oxford on 15 August 1921, 700 years to the day they had first arrived there. He also started the journal Blackfriars, which is today New Blackfriars.
After the Second World War the Province numbered some 250 brothers. From the 1960s, numbers fell and some houses were closed. Vocations continued through these years, but only began to grow again in the early 21st century as new efforts were made to strengthen community life and promote vocations, while also making new initiatives to fundraise in support of the friars’ work.
The friars continue to work in parishes, as well as university, hospital and prison chaplaincies. They benefit from a wide network of friends and supporters, working closely with the several congregations of Dominican sisters and the confraternities of Lay Dominicans who strengthen the life of this Province.
As we approach the 800th anniversary in 2021 of the English Province, there is a strong shared sense of unity and mission among the brothers, leading us to hope and pray for many good fruits in the years to come.