The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, on
the site of the Palace of Placentia, principal home
to Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon
The Greyfriars are the Franciscans, so named for the color of the Franciscan habit in the middle ages when it was made of undyed wool. (Today elements of the Franciscan family have returned to wearing grey rather than the brown robes we usually associate with the family of the Assisi saint.) Dominicans were called “Blackfriars” and Carmelites “Whitefriars” for the color of the mantles of their habits for the same reason. But the Greenwich Greyfriars were not merely Franciscans, they were Franciscan Observants. Almost from the time of the death of Saint Francis in 1224 there had been a faction among the friars calling for a reform that would keep alive the simplicity of Francis. The pressures of the Church for the friars to be highly educated and the pressures of civil society for the friars to become involved in civic affairs were challenging the Franciscan spirit. Francis had wanted his sons to remain simple brothers who by their poverty and gentle spirits would witness to the humility of Christ. In the developing economic culture of medieval Europe with the rise of mercantile capitalism and the polarization of society into a small very wealthy capital class and large and semi-impoverished working class (hmm, sound familiar) Francis felt that the witness of men voluntarily adopting the life of the working class would align the Church with true Christianity of the masses rather than being the Church being coopted by the hierarchy for the service of the wealthy. (hmmm, and why did the current Pope choose the regnal name “Francis?” Cardinal Burke, Archbishop Lori, and others, are you paying attention?) This was especially true because most of Francis’ followers came, as he did, from the wealthy merchant class not from the lower working classes. For the sons of the wealthy to embrace voluntary poverty in witness to the poverty of Jesus the Carpenter, was indeed a powerful evangelism tool, as the current Pope keeps telling us. Nevertheless the temptations of a comfortable life were hard to resist. Bonaventure, Francis’ seventh successor as head of the movement, pushed education. The brothers should study at the University. Even in Francis’ lifetime students and professors had flocked to the Franciscan movement and education is an important tool for the clergy. Simplicity is fine, but not stupidity. Ultimately a sound theological education would have to be part of the friars’ formation. But education requires books and books were a very expensive luxury in the thirteenth century. And in education you constantly talk about abstract ideas and ideals—and few are less savvy in the everyday practicalities of life than the intellectuals. Just spend some time among university faculty today and you will see the difference between knowledge and wisdom. It was not long after the death of the Saint that the Franciscan spirit began to slide down the slippery slope to spiritual mediocrity. The friars, once educated, were entrusted by the bishops with urban ministries among the professional classes. The friars were invited to build churches and convents in the better neighborhoods. The wealthy began showering them with gifts. “Nothing is too good for the friars…” and the friars began to believe that themselves. They wanted to look respectable and the patched robes of Francis’ day were replaced by habits of better fabric and more elegant tailoring. They were living in the better neighborhoods so the ramshackle barns or wattle huts of Francis’ days gave way to fine stone convents with large rooms and airy courtyards. The occasional treats which people sent for their table for feast days became the ordinary fare ordered from the grocer. But some of the brothers could not let go of the ideals of their saintly founder and tried to return to the original spirit. The first movement in this direction went overboard and the “Spirituals” as they were called were condemned by John XXII and ordered to give up their extreme poverty or face excommunication. But the spirit of reform did not die and it was not long before new reform movements, very careful to avoid criticism of the wealth of the Church lest the face the fate of the Spirituals, sprang up. They wore simpler habits. They lived in smaller houses, often in more out of the way towns or villages rather than in the large cities. They did not disdain education but neither did they allow their members to give in to its conceits. In 1517 Pope Leo X separated the “Observants” from the “Conventuals” and the various observant groups became independent of the unreformed friars. It was to one of these “observant” movements that then Greenwich friars belonged. The observant Franciscans were admired throughout Europe, wherever the movement spread, but they had especially strong ties to the English royal family and to the Spanish royal family of Katherine as well. Isabella’s confessor and spiritual mentor, Cardinal Ximénez de Cisneros was an Observant Franciscan. Indeed Ximénez and Isabella had been responsible for great reforms in the Spanish Church that purged it of much of the decay that in other countries would lead to the Protestant Reformations that would break out in Europe in the middle of the sixteenth century. And the Franciscans at Greenwich were a sign of reform beginning in the English Church as well—reform that had it continued on a Catholic trajectory could have resulted in a very different England that would eventually come about. But historians know you can’t play the game of “what if?”
The Church in England, like the Church in most of Europe, was in desperate need of reform. The Spanish Church, due to Isabella and Ximénez, had faced its decay and reversed the trend early on, creating an almost puritanical and certainly a rabid Catholicism, but a spiritually healthy one none the less. England had potential for reform. There was a strong and educated professional class—families of guildsmen—whose sons entered the service of the Church and the Crown—often entering the service of the Crown by beginning in the Church and then as bishops and abbots holding royal appointments. Among the laity, the professional classes tended to be devout and had a taste for spiritual reading. The Rhineland mysticism of Eckhardt, Ruysbroeck, Tauler and others had spilled over into England and England had its own mystics and spiritual writers in Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and others. While most of the monasteries of England had settled into comfortable complacency there were those such as Glastonbury which had undertaken some reform and observance. In addition to the Franciscan Observants, the Charterhouse monks (Carthusians) were known for their zeal and integrity. Intellectual circles were alive with discussion of Church reform. The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus spent much time in England where he was friends with Dean Colet of Saint Pauls’ in London, Bishop Fisher of Rochester who had been tutor to the young Henry VIII, and Thomas More who was later to be Lord Chancellor.
The type of reform envisioned by Erasmus, Colet, Fisher, and More was the culture of the old fashioned pan-European “Christendom” rooted in Christian antiquity and patristics that saw the Church as a transnational Christian imperium, the ark of salvation in which all humanity could be gathered without distinction of race or nation. This was distinctly out of step, however, with the growing national consciousness of the emerging nations of Europe where people no longer saw themselves primarily as Christians with a commonality with other Christians but as Frenchmen, or Englishmen, or Spaniards, or as Portuguese, or as Scots, or as Genoese or Neapolitans, or Franconians, or as Saxons. (Germany or Italy would emerge as nations only much later than the French or English or Spaniards.)
In any event, the impetus for reform from within the Church would not have time to mature in England as it had in Spain. Reform in England would initially be imported by the universities, Cambridge in particular, from Luther’s Germany and then become of tool of the Crown for ends more political than religious. Finally the Crown would lose control of Church Reform and it would become a tool of the landed aristocracy for self-enrichment and then of the mercantile classes to justify their self-interested commercial revolution. In the process the Church of England would first become far less Catholic and then more Calvinist and finally attain a sui generis identity as England’s organ of moral self-validation. This would transplant to America where the expectation of religion would be to uphold the traditional social order and, in the case of Catholicism, give us the Spellman Catholicism of the 1950’s. But all that is in the future.