The first members of the Order of Saint Augustine first arrived in England in 1248, and settled at Clare in Suffolk.
The opening of a Priory at Leicester in north-central England a few years later was not of huge significance in the history of the English Province of the Order of Saint Augustine.
It is included here as an example of a smaller Augustinian Priory, and one about which sufficient public historical records exist to give an impression of Augustinian life in pre-Reformation England away from the larger centres of population.
According to the fifteenth-century English Augustinian and historian, John Capgrave O.S.A., the Leicester Priory was founded in 1254: ‘and in that same yere (1254) was biggid too conventis in Ynglond . . . on at Ludlow, a othir at Leyceter’ [Leicester].
There is no strong reason to doubt Capgrave’s proposal of the year 1254 i.e., even before the formal beginning of the Order of Saint Augustine at its Grand Union in 1256. This Leicester foundation in 1254 would have been by a participant member of the Little Union of 1244. Even so, there are no references to the Leicester Priory in historical records before the year 1274.
Leicester was earlier a Roman town named Ratae Coritanorum. The site upon which its Augustinian priory was established was the northern part of an island between two arms of the River Soar.
This land lay outside the West Gate of the city of Leicester, and north of the road which led out of the town.
It was not an especially desirable site, as it was damp and low-lying, but the Augustinians had come late to the urban scene and had to be content with what they were offered.
In Leicester only the Franciscans had obtained land near the centre of the town, and the Austins (today known as the Augustinians), like the Dominicans, were housed on less favourable sites.
The site was extended in 1304 by a grant from Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, of ‘three messuages . . . adjoining (the friars’) dwelling place, for the enlargement thereof.’ (The term messuage equates to a dwelling-house and includes outbuildings, orchard, courtyard and garden.)
It can be assumed that the three houses given by Earl Thomas stood in West Bridge Street, where development would have taken place along the road leading out of the town. The whole area of the Priory, with the exception of one parcel of land on the west side of the river, measured just under four acres.
In the course of those transactions the Augustinians appear to have acquired a tenement, perhaps also in West Bridge Street. It had formerly been occupied by the Friars of the Sack, before that mendicant religious order was progressively abolished by the Pope after the time of the Second Council of Lyons in 1275.
(A similar occurrence took place at Stamford, where the Augustinian Priory was actually founded on a site belonging to the Friars of the Sack.)
The Austins had completed their church by 1306 when John of Cowley, the parson of Heyford in Oxfordshire, made a second escape from prison in the town, where he had been in custody under an accusation of theft, and ‘escaped to the church of the Augustine Friars outside the bounds (limites) of the town’
The position of the Austin Friars’ church, outside the walls, and apparently at this time
outside the civic jurisdiction, would have made it an attractive place of sanctuary for John of Cowley, as for another notorious thief, John of Sutton, who took refuge there in 1350.
There is no documentary evidence as to the exact position of the Augustinian church, but it might be expected to lie east and west, and to the south of the Priory building, between those buildings and the graveyard.
(Continued on the next page.)