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Heritage & Archive

Carmel in Britain: The Middle Ages

Ruins of the infirmary at Hulne Carmelite Priory near Alnwick
Ruins of the infirmary at Hulne Carmelite Priory near Alnwick, Northumberland.

The hermit brothers from Mount Carmel were first brought to Britain in 1242 by returning crusaders; arriving first at Hulne near Alnwick in the north east of England, and then later in the same year at Aylesford in the southern county of Kent.

At that time we were still a group of hermits but, following a historic General Chapter (meeting of the Order) held at Aylesford in 1247, we became part of the newly formed movement of mendicant friars (begging brothers). Because of our white cloaks, we became known as the Whitefriars.

From England the Order soon spread to Wales (where there was one medieval house in Denbigh), to Scotland and also to Ireland. The first division came in either 1291 or 1294 into the English and the Irish-Scots Provinces. This division lasted only until 1300. The Irish Province became an independent Province in 1305. There was an independent Scots Province from 1324-1560. In ancient records the English Province was ranked third in seniority in the Order, after the Holy Land and Sicily.

At its height there were more than 1,000 friars in the English Province in some 40 communities (known as priories, friaries or convents), divided into four 'distinctions' with regional headquarters at London, Oxford, Norwich and York. To see images of some of the remains of medieval Carmelite houses in Britain, click here.


A beautifully illustrated liturgical book, commonly known as the 'Reconstructed Carmelite Missal' because it was pieced together from fragments, was owned by the Whitefriars in London. It is now one of the treasures of the British Library in London.

Carmelite friars were pastors and theologians, confessors to kings and servants of the poor. To read an article about Carmelite spirituality in the fourteenth century, please click here.

Although there was no 'Third Order' of Lay Carmelites and no Carmelite nuns in Britain before the Reformation, we do know of many lay people  - including women - who had varying degrees of affiliation to the Order.

The Carmelite presence disappeared from Britain in 1538 with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII. At the Reformation the friars were dispersed and the houses were either desecrated and destroyed or handed out to private individuals as rewards by the Crown.

The last active friar we know of, George Rayner, died for the Faith in chains (in odium fidei) in York prison during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

A number of studies and further information on the medieval province can be found at the Carmelite Studies section of the website.

To read about the restoration of the Carmelite presence in Britain, please visit the next page of this section of the website via the menu on the right.


A map of Carmelite friaries in medieval Britain & Ireland
by Charmian & Paul Woodfield