Of the thirty to forty houses that the Austin Friars established in England, Scotland and Wales between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, the house at Winchester is chosen here for examination not because its pattern of establishment and development was particularly different to a host of other Augustinian houses in England (or elsewhere, for that matter), but because it can be taken as a general example of most of them.
Winchester is being used here partly to lay out a broader picture of the medieval English civil and ecclesiastical environment in which the Austin Friars operated. Therefore the general information included hereunder about the practices of the Austin Friars from the fourteenth century onwards apply broadly to other houses of the Austin Friars as well.
Located about 100 miles from London, Winchester has been a place of habitation continuously for over 2,000 years. It began as a Celtic hill fort, predating the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 B.C.. By the thirteenth century, it was an important centre of the wool trade, and of royal and ecclesiastical government.
At that time Winchester was a city of sufficient population and of administrative importance to attract houses of each of the four principal mendicant orders: Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite and Augustinian (Austin Friars).
The houses were named friaries by the Franciscans, and usually called priories by the other three principal mendicant orders. These residences and churches of the mendicant orders were often located on the edge of town, especially in the case of towns that were already long-established before the thirteenth-century mendicant phenomenon began. This had already happened to the Augustinians, for example, in Florence, Italy and Toulouse, France.
This fact was mutually advantageous for the mendicants and to newcomers to the town, as both were assisted by the cheaper land and housing rental prices in the suburbs. Even so, such a location was not as prestigious for a mendicant order as would have been a location inside the city walls and nearer to the town centre – a tempting factor that soon led the Austin Friars of Winchester to make an ill-advised error of judgment.
As well, such areas away from the ancient town centre were the localities where the churches and the ministry of the mendicant newcomers were most needed, rather than under the shadow of the famed Winchester Cathedral, where the bishop’s (diocesan) priests had already been serving for centuries.
In Winchester, both the Dominican and Franciscan friaries were located within the city walls in densely-populated areas where artisans and labourers lived. The Dominican friars (known as Black Friars because of their black habits) arrived about 1230 and lived in a building between the Itchen and Busket Street.
Franciscan friars (called Grey Friars because of their grey habits) also arrived in Winchester about 1230 and lived near Eastgate. The number of Dominican and Franciscans friars locally always well exceeded the number of Carmelites and Augustinians, which was parallel with the statistical situation of these mendicant orders in relation to their numbers internationally.
Carmelite friars came to Winchester about fifty years after the Franciscans, in about 1278. They lived near St Michael's Church. When the Austin Friars arrived later again – sometime before 1300 - they settled in the southern suburbs just outside the city walls at Southgate, in modest dwellings.
This Austin Friars' arrival in Winchester may have been somewhat earlier than numerous historians of recent decades have thought. They all overlooked the long and instructive document in the Close Rolls of 18th May 1352, which stated that the Austin Friars held a house on the outskirts of Winchester for over two hundred years.
Though this statement, no doubt, greatly exaggerated the age of the house, it points nevertheless to the friary's existence well before 1300, because none of the contestants of 1352 recalled of anyone occupying this house but the Austin Friars. It also shows a house well established because “many bodies of nobles and others lie buried (there),.,and others granted many goods for celebration of services for their souls.”
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