Encountering Capuchins in 1630s London


By Dr Liam Peter Temple

Dr Temple is the Capuchin Fellow in the History of Catholicism at the Centre for Catholic Studies, Durham University. He is currently engaged on a research project exploring the influence of Capuchins in Britain from the seventeenth century to the present day. 


The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin have a rich and important history. They first emerged in the 1520s, desiring to live a strictly regulated life that they believed was the true Franciscan spirit of the Rule of their founder, Francis of Assisi.  The Capuchins combined both the active and contemplative lives, living out a Franciscan charism which focused on preaching, radical poverty, and service to the poor, while equally stressing prayer, contemplation, and regular observance in their friaries.

Despite early disruptions, the Capuchin movement spread rapidly across Europe and beyond, with missions after 1587 to Brazil, Egypt, Persia, Ethiopia, and India, among others. In many parts of Catholic Europe their presence expanded at a remarkable rate. Their first public appearance in Paris, for example, was at the funeral of Charles IX in 1574. By 1650, the Capuchins in France were divided into ten provinces, in which there were 287 friaries, and over 5,000 friars, about a quarter of the entire strength of the Capuchin order at the time.[1]

Capuchins were often referred to as the ‘poor man’s Jesuits’ in the early modern period, a reference to their eagerness to work with the poor, uneducated, and sick in their provinces. Paradoxically, their eagerness to do so resulted in them often finding favour with the most influential, becoming the favourites of popes, emperors, kings, and princes. They were often to be found as confessors to nobility, preachers at royal courts, and even chaplains in various armies.[2] We need only look at the influence of François Leclerc du Tremblay, the original éminence grise and closest advisor of Cardinal Richelieu in France, to see the heights Capuchins soared to in the early modern period.

IMAGE: Portrait of François Leclerc du Tremblay by Pieter de Jode, 1628 – 1670. Image courtesy of Rijksstudio.

Britain was, for most of the period, considered a low priority for the Capuchins, and it was only through the efforts of the Irish Capuchin, Francis Nugent, to convince Pope Paul V of its importance, that a mission to England, Scotland and Ireland was established in 1608.[3] Both before and after the establishment of the mission, there were only a handful of Capuchins in Britain at any one time. This small presence is perhaps one of the reasons why the historiography concerning Capuchins, at least in English, is remarkably thin, consisting of a magisterial work by Father Cuthbert of Brighton written in 1928 and a smattering of other work expressly concerned with the order since then.[4] My project on the Capuchin influence in Britain seeks to recover the influence of the friars, arguing that their activities had real and important impact on wider events and developments in the period.

Here I focus on one interesting example of the Capuchin influence in Britain and draw attention to only one aspect of that example. It is perhaps not widely known that in 1630 twelve French Capuchins arrived from Paris to serve at the chapels of Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, and the French Ambassador. Details about this French Capuchin presence in England are preserved in a manuscript account of one of the friars, Fr Cyprien de Gamache, written many years later. This manuscript, written in French, provides an incredibly rare glimpse into the lives of Capuchins in the period beyond official rules, constitutions, and theological works.[5]

One aspect of Fr Cyprien’s account that is particularly interesting is the relationship it describes between French Capuchins in London and the Protestant majority they attempted to convert to Catholicism. It details the mindset of a group of Capuchins, situated in the chapel of a French queen, but in a country very much alien to their sensibilities. It reveals much, for example, about the extent of their ambitions to secure conversions. Fr Cyprien tells us that one of the key decisions taken almost immediately after their arrival in London was for them to begin learning English to preach, undertake confession, and engage with the populous. While their native French would have more than sufficed with Henrietta Maria and the royal court, many of whom spoke French, the Capuchins clearly sought wider impact beyond the elite circles they had been brought into. Like Capuchins in many other countries in the period, they saw a wider public ministry and engagement with the poorer classes as an important element of their mission and identity.

In one humorous passage, Fr Cyprien describes how the Capuchins played up their identities as the foreign and Catholic ‘other’ in London to attract conversions. Since their arrival in London, they had been the subject of many rumours and gossip. They would soon find crowds of visitors eager to look around their cells and find out more about their way of life:

People talked of them in their houses; they said that they were persons so strange, wearing dresses so extraordinary, leading so austere a life, that every one conceived a desire to see them. Accordingly, persons of quality, ministers, people of all conditions, who had never been out of the kingdom, came to see them, as one goes to see Indians, Malays, Savages, and men from the extremities of the earth.[6]

As a result, the Capuchins harnessed this curiosity and controlled how they were perceived. They decided, for example, to remove their straw mattresses and pillows, leaving nothing but the bare boards to lie on. ‘This little self-denial’, Fr Cyprien tells us, ‘was admired by the English whom curiosity had brought into their chambers’. While touring the cells, the Capuchins would tell the crowds that England had been ‘full of monasteries and of holy friars’ like them before the schisms of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and spoke about their earnest desire to fully imitate Christ. This approach, bordering on a form of ‘religious tourism’ in 1630s London, provided ample opportunity for the Capuchins to generate conversation with Protestant onlookers. ‘The English language had become more familiar to us, and easier’, Fr Cyprien notes, ‘one converted person brought several others, who were either related to him, or friends of his’.

Equally, once a new Catholic chapel at Somerset House, staffed by the French Capuchins, was opened in 1636, Fr Cyprien records that the doors could not be closed for three successive days, only then being closed so Charles I and some of his courtiers could see the sight for themselves. The chapel, with its optical illusions, grand paintings and 40-foot-tall monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament, would have been striking to the public crowds that flocked in to see it. Fr Cyprien tells us that the chapel remained open to ‘satisfy the devotion of the Catholics and the curiosity of the Protestants’. The Capuchins at the chapel would hear confession, celebrate Mass, carry the sacrament to the ill or imprisoned, lead confraternities, deliver lectures and even teach children. Much of this was done in both French and English, and such a sight must have been impactful on the curious who visited the chapel.[7]

The opportunity to focus on this element of Fr Cyprien’s account came about due to a generous invitation to speak at the LERMA-QMCRLE conference ‘Lived Religion in Europe 1500-1800: Individual and Communal Practice’. My paper drew on Robert A. Orsi’s claim that lived religion is essentially ‘religion-in-action, religion-in-relationships between people, between the ways the world is and the way people imagine or want it to be’.[8] As a result, I came to appreciate another layer to Fr Cyprien’s account. While it contains priceless details about the role of Capuchins in London in the 1630s and their movements at court, it also contains a rare glimpse into how a Capuchin saw the world and how his Franciscan charism influenced how he acted in that world. Removing everything from their cells when curious Protestants visited them was not only a form of religious tourism; it also highlights the central role played by radical poverty in the self-fashioning of their own identities as Capuchins.

While their cells and the chapel were primarily sights of conversion in the eyes of the Capuchin missionaries, they were also, in a period of growing political tension and anti-Catholicism, places of curiosity and conversation for Protestants in London in the 1630s. That is perhaps the strength of the approach of lived religion, in focusing on individuals and personal experience it reveals nuances and details that other large-scale historical approaches often overlook.

While I have focused on one small element of Fr Cyprien’s account here, it is fair to say that it has much more insight to offer on key events in early modern Britain, with Fr Cyprien witnessing the outbreak of the Civil Wars, the activities of the Stuart court in exile in the 1650s, and the restoration of Charles II in 1660. His is a vital eye-witness account to many important moments. As my research continues, I hope to reveal more of Fr Cyprien’s importance. I also hope to reveal the Capuchin influence in Britain more widely and return them to their rightful place in mainstream narratives and historical accounts of the period.

[1] Father Cuthbert O.S.F.C., The Capuchins: A Contribution to the History of the Counter-Reformation (London, 1928), pp. 203, 211.

[2] R. Po-Chia Hsia, The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540-1700 (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 30, 73.

[3] See F. X. Martin, Friar Nugent: A Study of Francis Lavalin Nugent (1596-1635): Agent of the Counter-Reformation (London, 1962).

[4] See, for example, Fr Cuthbert, The Capuchins; Elisabeth G. Gleason, ‘The Capuchin Order in the Sixteenth Century’, in Richard L. DeMolen (ed.), Religious Orders of the Catholic Reformation (New York, 1994); The Capuchin Reform: Essays in Commemoration of its 450th Anniversary, 1528-1978, trans. Ignatius McCormick O.F.M. Cap (Youngstown, OH., 1983). Sebastian Holland O.F.M. Cap., The Capuchins (Liverpool, 1984) features a condensed recapitulation of Fr Cuthbert’s work.

[5] I will be quoting from a modern translation of the manuscript found in Thomas Birch (ed.), The Court and Times of Charles the First (2 vols, London, 1848). The translation of ‘Memoirs of the Mission in England of the Capuchin Friars in the Service of Henrietta Maria’ is in volume two. A French transcript was published as Mémoires de la mission des Capucins de la Province de Paris près la Reine d’Angleterre depuis 1630 jusqu’à 1669 (Paris, 1881).

[6] Birch (ed.), The Court and Times, p. 309.

[7] Birch (ed.), The Court and Times, pp. 310-15.

[8] Robert A. Orsi, ‘Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World We Live in?’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42 (2003), pp. 169-74, p. 172.

Cite this blog post
Laurence Lux-Sterritt (2022, February 25). Encountering Capuchins in 1630s London. Britaix 17-18 - Seminar on the early-modern anglophone world (Aix-Marseille University, LERMA, UR 853) . Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/m587

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