The First Franciscan to Set Foot in England

Blessed Agnellus of Pisa

Feast Day: 10th September

Blessed Agnellus is a saint very dear to the hearts of all Franciscans in Britain because it was St. Francis himself who sent him on a mission to this country. Born in Pisa around the year 1195, Agnellus applied to join the Franciscans and it was St. Francis who received him into the Order. Evidently Francis had great confidence in him, for he sent him to Paris to set up a friary there and appointed him over the Custody of France.

On his return to Italy he attended the famous Chapter of Mats. At this Chapter, William the Englishman asked St. Francis to send friars to England, and Francis appointed Agnellus to found the English Province. Agnellus, by then a deacon, set out with seven other friars. Three of them were Englishmen. None was in priestly orders. On their way through Paris they were joined by a devout English priest, Richard Ingworth, who received the habit from Agnellus and accompanied him to England. They had no money, and the monks at Fecamp in Northern France paid their passage to Dover, where they arrived on 12 September 1224.

They made Canterbury their first stopping place, and four of them went on to London to see where they could settle. The rest were lodged at the Poor Priests' House, sleeping in a building which was used as a school during the day. The community was penned up in a small room at the back of the school and only after the students had gone home at night could they come out and make a fire for themselves. It was the winter of 1224, and the friars must have suffered great discomfort, especially as their ordinary fare was bread and a little beer, which was so thick that they had to dilute it first. The Provost of the Priests' House built them a little church and would have given them a dwelling but they said they could not own property. The matter was settled by making the dwelling over to the Corporation for use by the brethren. They had come with a commendatory letter from Pope Honorius III to the Archbishop of Canterbury. When the Archbishop announced their arrival he said, "Some religious have come to me calling themselves Penitents of the Order of Assisi, but I call them the Order of the Apostles." This is how they were first known. When some of them were to be ordained acolyte at Canterbury Cathedral four months later the Archdeacon bade them come forward. "Draw near, you Brothers of the Apostles!”

When the London community was settled, Agnellus took charge of it. Matthew Paris speaks of the latter's familiarity with King Henry III, and Henry granted them a plot of land at Oxford. Oxford was to become the foundation of the Province. It was a tremendous responsibility for a young man, not yet thirty years old, but he worked energetically to make the Franciscan presence felt. He set up a school for the friars in Oxford, and although he was not a learned man he played a part in the development of the university. He even managed to bring the famous Grosseteste to lecture at Oxford. Once his friars were trained, he sent them around the country, preaching and ministering.

Agnellus devoted the rest of his life to his adopted country. He is remembered for his zeal for holy poverty. To give an example of his poverty, the infirmary he built at Oxford did not exceed the height of a man. The rooms were so small that they held not much more than a bed.

In 1233 Agnellus was chosen to negotiate with the rebellious Earl Marshall in the Marches of Wales to bring him back to allegiance with the King. His health is said to have suffered by his efforts in this cause, and by a long painful last journey to Italy. He returned to Oxford, where he died in great suffering on 7 May 1236, at the age of 41, eleven years after arriving at Dover. His last, repeated prayer was, "Come, most sweet Jesus." His body, incorrupt, was preserved and venerated in Oxford until the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. Agnellus was declared Blessed by Pope Leo Xlll in 1882.

We owe a debt of gratitude to this dedicated Italian friar who brought the teachings of St. Francis to our country. We pray that he will watch over the Franciscan Order and help it to continue the work he began. May we also remain faithful to our vocation and come to that perfection to which we are all called.