The Poor Clares were founded by Clare of Assisi in the year 1212. Little is known of Clare's early life, although popular tradition hints that she came from a fairly well-to-do family in Assisi. At the age of eighteen, inspired by the preaching of Francis in the cathedral, Clare ran away from home to join his community of friars at the Portiuncula, some way outside the town. Although, according to tradition, her family wanted to take her back by force, Clare's dedication to holiness and poverty inspired the friars to accept her resolution. She was given the habit of a nun and transferred to Benedictine monasteries, first at Bastia and then at Sant' Angelo di Panzo, for her monastic formation.
By 1216 Francis was able to offer Clare and her companions a monastery adjoining the chapel of San Damiano where she became abbess. Clare's mother, two of her sisters and some other wealthy women from Florence soon joined her new Order. Clare dedicated her Order to the strict principles of Francis, setting a rule of extreme poverty far more severe than that of any female Order of the time. Clare's determination that her Order not be wealthy or own property, and that the nuns live entirely from alms given by local people, was initially protected by the papal bull Privilegium paupertatis, issued by Pope Innocent III. By this time the Order had grown to number three monasteries.
The movement quickly spread, though in a somewhat disorganized fashion, with several monasteries of women devoted to the Franciscan ideal springing up elsewhere in Northern Italy. At this point Ugolino, Cardinal Bishop of Ostia (the future Pope Gregory IX), was given the task of overseeing all such monasteries and preparing a formal Rule. Although monasteries at Monticello, Perugia, Siena, Gattajola and elsewhere adopted the new Rule - which allowed for property to be held in trust by the papacy for the various communities - it was not adopted by Clare herself or her monastery at San Damiano. Ugolino's Rule, originally based on the Benedictine one, was amended in 1263 by Pope Urban IV to allow for the communal ownership of property, and was adopted by a growing number of monasteries across Europe. Communities adopting this less rigorous rule came to be known as the Order of Saint Clare (O.S.C.) or the Urbanist Poor Clares.
Clare herself resisted the Ugolino Rule, since it did not closely enough follow the ideal of complete poverty advocated by Francis. On 9 August 1253, she managed to obtain a papal bull, Solet annuere, establishing a Rule of her own, more closely following that of the friars, which forbade the possession of property either individually or as a community. Originally applying only to Clare's community at San Damiano, this Rule was also adopted by many monasteries. Communities that followed this stricter rule were fewer in number than the followers of the Rule formulated by Cardinal Ugolino, and became known simply as Poor Clares (P.C.), or Primitives.
The situation was further complicated a century later when Saint Colette of Corbie restored the primitive rule of strict poverty to 17 French monasteries. Her followers came to be called the Colettine Poor Clares (P.C.C.). Two further branches, the Capuchin Poor Clares (O.S.C. Cap.) and the Alcantarines, also followed the strict observance. The later group disappeared as a distinct group when their Observance among the friars was ended, with the friars being merged by the Holy See into the wider Observant branch of the First Order.
The first Poor Clare monastery in England was founded in 1286 in Newcastle upon Tyne. In Medieval England, where the nuns were known as "Minoresses", their principal monastery was located near Aldgate, known as the Abbey of the Order of St Clare. The Order gave its name to the still-extant street known as Minories on the eastern boundary of the City of London.
In Ireland there are seven monasteries of the Colettine Observance. The community with the oldest historical roots is the monastery on Nuns' Island in Lough Lene, Galway, which traces its history back to the monastery in Gravelines. Originally a separate community of Irish women under a common mother superior with the English nuns, they moved to Dublin in 1629, the first monastic community in Ireland for a century. War forced the community to relocate to Galway in 1642. From that point on, persecution under the Penal Laws and war led to repeated destruction of their monastery and scattering of the community over two centuries, until 1825, when fifteen nuns were able to re-establish monastic life permanently on the site.
After an abortive attempt to establish the Order in the United States in the early 1800s by three nuns who were refugees of Revolutionary France, the Poor Clares were not permanently established in the country until the late 1870s.
A small group of Colettine nuns arrived from Düsseldorf, Germany, seeking a refuge for the community, which had been expelled from their monastery by the government policies of the Kulturkampf. They found a welcome in the Diocese of Cleveland, and in 1877 established a monastery in that city. At the urging of Mother Ignatius Hayes, O.S.F., in 1875 Pope Pius IX had already authorized the sending of nuns to establish a monastery of Poor Clares of the Primitive Observance from San Damiano in Assisi. After the reluctance on the part of many bishops to accept them, due to their reliance upon donations for their maintenance, a community was finally established in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1878.
The Poor Clares were introduced to the Philippines in the 17th century, when a small community of Colettine nuns were authorized by the King of Spain and the Minister General of the Order to go there to found a monastery. They were led by Mother Jeronima of the Assumption, P.C.C., who was appointed Abbess. Leaving Madrid in April 1620, they arrived in Manila on 5 August 1621. The monastery still stands and serves an active community of nuns.
In June and July 2006 BBC Two broadcast a television series called The Convent, in which four women were admitted to a Poor Clare monastery in southern England, for a period of six weeks, to observe the life.