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The Medieval Period

The former medieval Dominican priory in Newcastle

Buildings on the site of the medieval Dominican Priory in Newcastle.

At the height of the Middle Ages, the Dominican Province of England (Angliæ), established in 1221, was the most numerous in Europe and by the time of the Reformation there were 57 houses in England alone. Rich and poor alike - from the Crown and the royal family to anonymous paupers - contributed to the establishment and maintenance of these Dominican houses. The medieval friars themselves were equally employed by the Crown as royal confessors, envoys and ambassadors; two served as Chancellor of Oxford University, and several as cardinals and bishops, scholars and pre-eminent teachers. Parliament occasionally met within the walls of several Dominican priories and the divorce trial of Catherine of Aragon met in Blackfriars, London, in 1529. Thus, fr Bede Jarrett OP asserted that “democratic in principle, aristocratic by connection, the Order of Preaching Friars in its full activity in England, advising, absolving, negotiating, must directly and indirectly be recognized as a powerful influence.” This influence came to an abrupt end less than a decade after Queen Catherine’s trial in London.

View from Blackfriars Street in Canterbury of the medieval Dominican guest house, all that remains of the Priory.

Dissolution and Destruction

The Reformation and Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries led to the destruction of every single Dominican house: only the church in Norwich remains as an exhibition hall and concert venue because it was bought by the civil authorities. Otherwise, just the names of streets and areas called ‘Blackfriars’ remain as vestigial reminders of the English Dominicans’ medieval past. fr Bede Jarrett summarizes the situation during the Reformation: “The English Province, as a whole, surrendered each of its houses, but did not accept the religious innovation of the king [Henry VIII]... The friars, set between their local and central leaders [in the wider international Order] generally did nothing, but escaped if they were able to, either overseas to France, or the Low Countries, or Spain, or went north to Scotland or west to Ireland.” The reign of Mary Tudor brought a brief respite and the gift of the priory church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield in London to the Dominicans, but her reign was short and had no lasting impact.

The Province in Exile

Made Vicar of the Province in 1661, fr Philip Thomas Howard OP established a priory in Bornhem (outside Antwerp) and this became, “a real oasis in the desert” for the English friars in exile. It was followed in 1695 by a small house in Louvain from which the English friars could study and teach in the university. The tumultuous eighteenth-century and the French Revolution put an end to Bornhem and Louvain, and the friars fled to England but were they were not permitted to open a religious house. In 1810, fr Dominic Fenwick OP and several of the younger English Dominicans left for the United States of America where the prospects of a religious life looked brighter; they started what is now St Joseph's Province or the Eastern Province of the USA.

The Return to England

Although a “quasi-noviciate” had been established in Hinckley (Leicestershire), by 1850 the Province’s numbers were reduced to seven. At this time, an Oxford convert called William Leigh who was in correspondence with Ven. John Henry Cardinal Newman offered to build the Dominican friars a convent at Woodchester (Gloucestershire). fr Bede Jarrett noted that Leigh “was entirely unacquainted with any of the fathers, but had been struck by the beauty of the habit which he had seen for the first time [in July 1850].” Woodchester was created a priory on 23 June 1854 and it became the modern English Province’s new novitiate house for over a century; for a time, novices from California were also sent there.

New Growth

In 1901, the Order’s missionary activity in Grenada was given to the care of the English Province, followed by South Africa in 1918. The latter is now a Vicariate General but the former remains a vicariate of the Province.

From 1916-32, fr Bede Jarrett was Provincial and this was a period of rapid growth for the Province. As fr Simon Tugwell OP writes, “Under his provincialate the province resumed its expansion, both in its numbers (from 124 in 1916 the province rose to 183 members in 1932) and in its territory. By the end of his last term in office, the province had acquired a large new mission abroad (South Africa), was on the verge of starting a new mission in Persia, and had a new monastery of nuns (Headington), a new school (Laxton) and two major houses”. Of all these, only the houses in Oxford and Edinburgh remain part of the Province. The Edinburgh house, which includes the care of the chaplaincy of Edinburgh University, was begun in 1931, and this was joined in 1980 with a house in Glasgow, thus fulfilling the dreams of Glasgow-born fr Ian Hislop OP who was Provincial from 1966-74. In 1938, a house given by a Cambridge don whose children were members of the Order, was the basis for a new foundation in Cambridge.

The 21st Century

The Province's commitment to serving university students and staff, and to engage in an intellectual dialogue with the modern world continues apace. For instance, the Province built a new chapel for students and parishioners in Edinburgh. The Diffinitors of the 2008 Provincial Chapter described the Province today in the following way, which is perhaps the best way to end this historical survey: “In our Province we are blessed greatly in fraternal charity. Brothers dwell in unity. The divisions which might mar the unity of a province are rarely found among us. Our brothers show both academic and pastoral competence; the old are proud of the young and the young respect the old. The old continue gracefully serving the mission and our young have apostolic interests beyond their studies: preaching through the internet; using their musical talents; serving the local Church in Oxford.”

For all this, Lord, we give you thanks!

• See also 'Contact us' for histories of each of our houses 

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Ordinations at Blackfriars

Monday, July 31, 2017

Sunday 30 July saw three Dominicans and two Franciscans ordained deacons at Blackfriars, Oxford by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon OP.  Read more

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