The Film

“Great Houses Make Not Men Holy: Mendicant Architecture in Medieval Oxford”

Created by Jim Knowles (NC State) and Michal Koszycki (Princeton University)

Please note: the film includes an audio track, so turn on your speakers or plug in headphones prior to viewing.
There is a nine-second gap at the beginning of the playback. Film begins at 00:10. Film ends at 11:30.

 Film Script

[00:24] In 1538, King Henry the Eighth ordered the dissolution of England’s religious houses. For much of the previous three centuries, the most prominent of these buildings in Oxford had belonged to the Dominican Order, or Blackfriars, and to the Greyfriars of the Franciscan Order

[00:45] On this late sixteenth century map of Oxford made by land surveyor Ralph Agas, almost no trace remains of the friars’ churches and conventual buildings. So little was left for the mapmaker to see, in fact, that he misapplied the label “graie friers” – attaching it instead to the site of the Blackfriars next door.

[01:08] Where had they gone? What had become of these “vast houses” that English writers of the previous centuries had so loudly railed against? What had become of the churches, cloisters, and great libraries that were once upon a time the daily haunts of such eminent Oxford friars as John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Robert Holcot?

[01:30] In order to tell this story, we need to go back to the beginning, to the time of the friars’ first arrival in this small university town – back to a time, as the poet William Langland puts it, when Charity himself wore a friar’s frock.

[01:46] As our narrative moves back into the previous centuries, this three-dimensional model of the Agas map will provide a visual backdrop for our hypothetical exploration of the friars’ medieval settlements.

[02:03] The first party of Franciscan friars arrived in Oxford in the Autumn of 1224. They lived in borrowed lodgings, and erected their first small chapel just inside the city wall, close to the parish church of St. Ebbes. There was probably a simple schoolhouse adjacent to the chapel

[02:21] The Dominicans had arrived three years earlier and settled closer to the city center, near St. Aldate’s church and a stone’s throw from the later site of Christ Church cathedral. Here they built a small chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

[02:37] No archaeological evidence remains for these earliest structures

[02:44] The friars’ first modest buildings were soon outgrown. By the end of the 1230s, both orders had acquired parcels of land on the outskirts of town. In a short time they would expand these holdings to enclose churches and conventual buildings of extraordinary size.

[03:01] But this expansion posed a problem. From their earliest years, the friars of both orders had displayed a deep ambivalence towards architectural growth.

[03:10] On the one hand, St. Francis had founded his new order on the basis of a divine mandate to rebuild the church.

[03:19] St. Dominic, meanwhile, had expressed grave concern about the risks that such building posed to the mendicant ideal: “Do you wish to give up poverty so quickly,” he asked his brothers, “and build great palaces?”

[03:37] Now settled at the edge of the city, the Greyfriars built their second church directly into the city wall. This was a simple stone structure with no aisles and a wooden roof.

[03:56] Just to the south of the Franciscan site, on swampy land bordered by the river Thames, the Blackfriars began work on their second church and an adjacent complex of residential and academic buildings. Work on this complex would continue throughout the 1240s and 1250s.

[04:14] By this time, though, the friars’ own anxieties about architectural excess were beginning to be accompanied by critical voices from outside the mendicant orders. Writing in 1243, the Benedictine monk Matthew Paris complains:

[04:30] In enlarging their sumptuous edifices and erecting lofty walls, [the brothers in England transgress] the limits of their original poverty, and [violate] the basis of their religious profession.” (1243: Chronicon Angliae)

[04:43] We cannot say for sure whether the “lofty walls” described by the monk were in Oxford or elsewhere. But our reconstruction of Blackfriars suggests that he was not exaggerating about the scale of these “sumptuous edifices.”

[04:58] The models you see here are based on archaeological evidence gathered from excavations in the 1960s and 70s.

[05:09] Back at the Franciscan site, the Greyfriars were embarking on their own series of expansions. In the 1260s they completed a major addition to the north and west, incorporating the existing church as the friars’ choir. A central bell-tower was erected, and the main cloister was likely added at this phase.

[05:30] Next, the friars expanded the nave on its western end, and added heavy buttressing on one corner, presumably to support a larger tower.

[05:44] Probably early in the 14th century the crossing of the church was reconfigured. A new larger northern nave was constructed, including seven private sepulchral chapels along the eastern wall. By mid-century, the friars had added three more chapels, bringing the total to ten. The cloisters were expanded again, both here at Greyfriars and at the Blackfriars next door.

[06:16] The model as shown here represents the Franciscan complex at its largest. Along with the neighboring Blackfriars, its development corresponds chronologically with the happiest hundred years of the friars’ lives in medieval England. In this period the fraternal orders had grown from a small reform movement within the church to a position of unprecedented influence and prestige. As confessors to the kings and queens of Europe, they had seats at the centers of political power. In the universities, they had led an intellectual revival, doing pathbreaking work in theology, philosophy, and the physical sciences.

[06:55] But darker times were approaching. Building on earlier critiques, by the second half of the 14th century the anti-fraternal voices in England were growing louder.

[07:06] Preaching in London in the spring of 1357, Archbishop Richard Fitzralph, onetime chancellor of Oxford university, is both explicit and detailed in his disapproval of the friars’ buildings:

[07:21] They have churches finer than our cathedrals, their cellars are full of good wine, they have ornaments more splendid than those of any prelate in the world, save only our Lord Pope. Their belfries are most costly; [and] they have double cloisters in which armed knights could do battle with lances erect.

[07:40] By the 1380s, the Oxford-based followers of the reformist theologian John Wycliffe were expressing their distaste for the friars’ buildings in even stronger terms. One such text, written in vigorous Middle English prose, argues that “great housis make not men holy” and links the costliness of the friars’ buildings directly to the decay and abandonment of local parish churches—churches like St. Ebbes, which stood in the shadow of the Franciscan complex. I’ll read a portion of this text in the original language:

[08:16] Frerris bylden mony grete chirchis and costily vast housis, and cloystris as it were castels… whereby parische chirchis ben impayred and in mony placis undone … For by this new housinge of freris, though hit rayne on tho altar of tho parische chirch, tho blynde peple is so disseyved that thei wil rather gif to waste housis of freris then to parische chirchis…. And if men seyn that in these grete chirchis God is feyr served, certis grete housis make not men holy, onely by holynesse is God wel served.

[09:00] Other criticisms of the friars went well beyond complaints about their buildings. For some anti-fraternal writers of this period, the friars were nothing less than walking, talking, overfed signs of the end times…they were pseudo-apostles, pharisees, and agents of the antichrist.

[09:18] By the start of the 15th century, there are signs that this animosity was beginning to take its toll. New building projects appear to have ceased completely, and there is some evidence that the friars’ buildings were already in a state of decline. Regardless of the buildings’ actual condition, however, the critique of the friars and their architecture flourished well into the sixteenth century. Henry the Eighth’s Reformation opened the way for the friars’ enemies to conclusively suppress the mendicant orders in England.

[09:50] As the Agas map shows, their buildings disappeared with them.

Film Credits


  • “Pavan Lachrimae Antiquae” by John Dowland. Performed by Fretwork.

Images (in order of appearance):

  • Map of Britain by Matthew Paris. British Library MS Cotton Claudius D VI, fol. 12v. Reproduced in Daniel K. Connolly, The Maps of Matthew Paris: Medieval Journeys through Space, Time, and Liturgy, (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2009).
  • Agas Map of Oxford. Reproduced from Old Plans of Oxford, Oxford Historical Society Publications, vol. 38 (Oxford, 1899).
  • Giotto (attrib.), Cross of San Damiano Speaks to Saint Francis, c. 1290s. Fresco. Basilica of San Francesco, Upper Church, Assisi.
  • Fra Angelico, portrait of Saint Dominic from Perugia Altarpiece (left panel), c. 1447-48. Tempera and gold on panel, 95 x 73 cm. Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia.
  • Portrait of Matthew Paris. Engraving reproduced from frontispiece to Matthew Paris’s English History, ed. and trans. J. A. Giles, 3 vols. (London: Bohn, 1852).
  • Blackfriars Excavation Plan. From George Lambrick and Humphrey Woods, “Further Excavations on the Second Site of the Dominican Priory, Oxford.” Oxoniensia 50 (1985): 131–208, at 136.
  • Greyfriars Excavation Plan. From T. G. Hassall, C. E. Halpin, and M. Mellor, “Excavations in St. Ebbe’s, Oxford, 1967–1976: Part I: Late Saxon and Medieval Domestic Occupation and Tenements, and the Medieval Greyfriars,” Oxoniensia, Vol. 54 (1989): 72–277, at 185-90.
  • Manuscript page from Richard Fitzralph, De Pauperie Salvatoris. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 180, fol. 1r. Image viewable at
  • Portrait of John Wyclif. 18th Century Engraving. London, National Portrait Gallery (NPG ID D24009).
  • Manuscript page from Wycliffite tract. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 296, fol. 49r. Image viewable at
  • Portrait of Henry VIII. Hans Holbein the Younger, Henry VIII, c. 1537. Oil on panel, 28 x 20 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza , Madrid.

Recorded texts:

  • Matthew Paris, from Chronicon Angliae, 1243: quoted from Matthew Paris’s English History, ed. and trans. J. A. Giles, 3 vols. (London: Bohn, 1852), I:475 (translation slightly altered).
  • Richard Fitzralph, Sermon at Paul’s Cross, London, March 1357: quoted from Aubrey Gwynn, The English Austin Friars in the Time of Wyclif (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940), 87.
  • “Great Houses Make Not Men Holy”: quoted from “Fifty Heresies and Errors of the Friars,” in Thomas Arnold, ed. Select English Works of John Wycliffe, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1871), 3: 380.

Select Bibliography:

  • Armstrong, Regis and Ignatius Brady, eds. Francis and Clare: The Complete Works. New York: Paulist Press, 1982.
  • Bonaventure, Saint. The Minor Legend of Saint Francis. In Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Vol. II. Ed. and trans. Regis Armstrong, et al. New York: New City Press, 2000. 684–717.
  • Hassall, T. G., C. E. Halpin, and M. Mellor. “Excavations in St. Ebbe’s,  Oxford, 1967–1976: Part I: Late Saxon and Medieval Domestic Occupation and Tenements, and the Medieval Greyfriars.” Oxoniensia, Vol. 54 (1989): 72–277.
  • Hinnebusch, William A., O.P. “The Pre-Reformation Sites of the Oxford Blackfriars.” Oxoniensia 3 (1938): 57–82.
  • Hinnebusch, William A., O.P. The Early English Friars Preachers. Roma, Sta. Sabina: Instituto Storico Domenicano, 1951.
  • Knowles, Dom David. The Religious Orders in England, Vol. 2: The End of the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955). Vol. 3: The Tudor Age (1959).
  • Lambrick, George, and Humphrey Woods. “Excavations on the Second Site of the Dominican Priory, Oxford.” Oxoniensia 41 (1976): 168–231.
  • Lambrick, George, and Humphrey Woods. “Further Excavations on the Second Site of the Dominican Priory, Oxford.” Oxoniensia 50 (1985): 131–208.
  • Little, A. G. “The House of Black Friars.” The Victoria History of the Counties of England (VCH): Oxfordshire, vol. II. London: Archibald Constable, 1907. 107–22.
  • Little, A. G. The Grey Friars in Oxford. Oxford: Oxford Historical Society, 1892.
  • Martin, A. R. Franciscan Architecture in England. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1937. Reptd. 1966 by Gregg Press, Ltd.
  • Szittya, Penn. The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature. (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986).
  • Wood, Anthony. Survey of the Antiquities of the City of Oxford, composed in 1661-6. Vol. 2, Churches and Religious Houses. Publications of the Oxford Historical Society, Vol. 17. Ed. Andrew Clark. Oxford: Oxford Historical Society, 1890.