This Sunday, a quartet of Dominican friars will complete a 230 mile pilgrimage on foot from Kent to Oxford via Canterbury to mark both the 800th anniversary of the arrival of the Dominican Order in England. 


The journey, mirroring that of the friars who first arrived from the Continent in 1221, tracks both the history of the friars and broader English church history, taking in a series of landmarks on the way.


They include Ramsgate, where St Augustine of Canterbury landed in 597 to convert Saxons to Christianity; Canterbury Cathedral, where Thomas Becket was murdered and where the first Dominicans to land here made their first recorded stop, to visit Becket’s shrine; the village of Charing, where St Richard of Chichester was Rector in 1243, and Aylesford, home of the Carmelites, which was abandoned at the Reformation, with the Friars returning in 1949. The journey has also included two days in London, visiting Charterhouse, from where Cistercians were taken and executed during the Reformation, the shrine of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, and Hampton Court, once home to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. The friars are also known as members of the Order of Preachers and the Black Friars, because of the black cloak they wear over their white habits and sites where Dominican convents and friaries once stood, including Blackfriars in London, have been passed as the brothers continue their pilgrimage along the Thames to Oxford.


While the pilgrims have visited many places linked to the bloodiest times in English church history, when Catholics and Protestants were divided, the pilgrimage has also highlighted the ecumenical bonds that now exist between Catholics and Anglicans.


The friars received a warm reception from Anglican churches along the route, including St Peter and St Paul’s, Charing, Kent and Canterbury Cathedral where they sang vespers. At Westminster Abbey, they were greeted by the Dean, the Very Revd Dr David Hoyle, who talked to them about the shrine of St Edward. Both Catholic and Anglican families along the way have offered them hospitality along the way, putting them up for the night and offering meals.


The pilgrims have stopped along the way to preach, say the Office and pray the Rosary – the Dominicans’ founder, St Dominic, was the first to preach and teach the Rosary as a form of meditative prayer. As well as embracing this traditional form of devotion, the friars have also used modern technology during their pilgrimage, uploading videos of their trip on a special pilgrimage website. They have also been praying for a range of people who have emailed them their prayer requests during the trip. Others have joined the friars to walk part of the journey.


“We don’t force our faith on anyone”, said another pilgrim friar, Fr Toby Lees. “If people ask about it while we are walking, and so invite us to talk about it, we will”.


According to Fr Martin Generi, Provincial of the Order, the first Dominicans in England travelled from the heart of the Order, from St Dominic in Bologna, “all the way up to Britain to begin a new mission in a land that had just recently seen the battles between King John and the barons. I wonder what those first men felt as they approached our shores. Trepidation? Eager anticipation? Certainly, though, their warm reception in England is undeniable”.


During the Middle Ages, England had 57 Dominican houses, more than any other European country. Parliament occasionally met within the walls of several Dominican priories and the divorce trial of Catherine of Aragon met in Blackfriars, London, in 1529 – a trial that led directly, via Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, to England’s break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries. All of the Dominican houses were destroyed during the Reformation. The English province fled to Belgium and it was not until 1854 that a new house was opened here, in Gloucestershire. The Dominicans returned to Oxford, where they had previously run a friary, in 1921.


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