Although interrupted by the actions of King Henry VIII, the association of the Augustinian Order (Austin Friars) with Clare Priory, Suffolk, England goes back 750 years to the very arrival of the Austin Friars' predecessors in England.
Clare Priory is one of the oldest religious houses presently functioning in England.
It is situated in the shadows of Clare Castle on the banks of the River Stour, Suffolk. During medieval times, Clare Castle was used as a summer resort of the royal family.
In 1248 Richard de Clare invited from France the Tuscan hermits of the Little Union of 1244 to establish a priory at the foot of his castle.
Richard de Clare was the seventh earl of Gloucester and Hereford, and was one of the most travelled and experienced diplomats of the English kingdom.
Richard de Clare had gained support of Cardinal Richard Annibaldi for a plan to secure the Sicilian crown for Richard of Cornwall, who was the brother of King Henry III.
The Little Union of 1244 had happened four years earlier, with Annibaldi appointed by the Pope to supervise and promote this fledgling union of hermits groups in Tuscany, Italy that already had communities north of the Alps (and probably in France).
Annibaldi no doubt used the occasion of Richard de Clare's seeking his favour regarding Sicily to promote the expansion to England of this Tuscan group under Annibaldi's protection.
Richard de Clare had visited France in 1248 and, possibly after meeting a community of these friars, he guaranteed them a foundation near his castle at Clare.
He returned to England in June 1249 and obtained on behalf of these friars a letter of protection from the King to facilitate their coming to England.
This royal edict was issued on 3rd September 1249, and it is likely that the friars first came to Clare shortly afterwards. This time frame for the foundation of Clare Priory was supported a little later by two authoritative English Augustinian writers, John Capgrave O.S.A. of Lynn Priory and Osbern Bokenham O.S.A. of Clare Priory, both of whom were born in 1392.
The traditional date given for the foundation of Clare Priory is 1248; it is more probable, however, that the Austin Friars actually arrived in 1249.
A rhymed dialogue about the foundation of Clare Priory was written in 1460. Its verse is characteristic of an Augustinian who lived there, Osbern Bokenham O.S.A..
Because it was once thought that Bokenham was dead by 1460, the verse was not attributed to him. He is recorded, however, by Augustinian documents in Rome as still being alive in 1463.
Unlike monks, Austin Friars were not confined to their religious houses but were free to move about the countryside begging, preaching and teaching.
By the time that Earl Richard de Clare died in mid-1262, not much had been done to provide for the friars. His widow, Maud, however, became energetic in providing them with additional land during the following seventeen years.
There is no evidence that Earl Richard de Clare himself made any founding financial grant to Clare Priory. In July 1265 the first-recorded Augustinian Provincial Chapter in England admitted a steward of Clare, Roger de Scaccario to the Confraternity of the Order in recognition of his remittance of twenty pence annual rent for the parcel of land where the friars first houses were built, i.e., probably not the present Priory site.
The present tract of Augustinian land was progressively bought as portions became available for purchase, largely with the influence and financial assistance of the Countess Maud (Matilda), the widow of Earl Richard. Gifts of very small scattered parcels of meadowland along the nearby
River were given to Clare Priory throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which is indicative of the regard accorded to the Austin Friars locally.
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