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.
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.
John Throsby in his book of 1791, The History and Antiquities of the Ancient Town of Leicester, recorded that traces of the church had been found by people ‘who have lately dug in this place to make a garden…. the church was ‘in length about 150 feet, and in width 90 feet’. Details of the history of the Priory are limited. The house was not a large one. Royal pittances, occasional sums paid by the king for the maintenance of the friars and distributed at the rate of 4 pence a day for each man, indicate a community of about twenty men in the early 14th century.
The first of these payments was made in December 1300 and was of 6 shillings and 8 pence, which would support 20 men. In 1320 9 shillings was paid for 27 men, but there were only 20 a few years later, and 22 in 1329. Despite the small size of their house, the Augustinians at Leicester were hosts to a chapter of the order in England in 1372. To pay for this expense, the fabulously wealthy John of Gaunt (1340-1399), the Duke of Lancaster, the third son of King Edward III and the largest landowner in northern England, gave the Priory £10.
In William Shakespeare's play Richard II, the famous speech about England - this scepter'd isle - is attributed to John of Gaunt as he lay on his deathbed - Act II, scene i, 42–54). The patronage of the earls and dukes of Lancaster was extended to all three houses of friars in the city of Leicester. (Gaunt gave each of them two oak trees in 1375). There is no indication that the lords of Leicester favoured one religious order more than the others. The Austin friars in Oxford, Cambridge, and London were considerable scholars, deeply involved in politics and religious controversy, and there was frequent movement from the various houses of friars who went to study either in another house or at one of the universities.
There is no evidence that the smaller community of Augustinians at Leicester was like this. There was, however, a studium particulure (a grammar school for candidates to the Order) at Leicester in the late 14th century, when a scholar from Bruges in Belgium, Giles Juvenis or Ywenis, was sent there. Nothing more is known of the scholastic pursuits of the Leicester Austins (Augustinians), and no books from their library have survived. The priestly ordinations of Augustinians from Leicester are noted in the registers of successive bishops of Lincoln and elsewhere, and some were licensed as confessors (e,g., the ordination in 1425 of Richard Catell and William Bentley; and William Blount, prior of Leicester, was licensed in 1329 to hear confessions in the archdeaconry of Leicester). None of these Augustinians are known to have proceeded to either Oxford or Cambridge.
Unlike the Leicester Franciscans, several of whom were prosecuted in 1402 for favouring the deposed and murdered King Richard II, the Leicester Augustinians appear not to have involved themselves in the political upheavals of the late 14th century. At that time, however, there were a considerable number of bequests to the Augustinian Priory. In 1398 Sir William Chaworth left the house ten marks. Twelve years later Lady Alice Bassett of Castle Bytham, Lincolnshire, left the friars 40 shillings to pray for her soul and for the souls of all faithful departed.
It was as the providers of intercessory prayers, a service that was continuous in all religious houses but is apt to be forgotten in their histories, that the Augustinians of Leicester have left their most prominent mark in the last century and a half of their house’s life. The fulfilment of such liturgical duties must have been a considerable demand on them, but at the same time the benefits were undoubtedly equally considerable, especially for a small house without other endowments. Bequests to the Leicester friary varied from the 100 shillings left by William, Lord Hastings, in 1481 to the 12 pence mentioned in the will of John Hawes of Leicester in 1517.
Some testators lived outside the town, like Hugh Willoughby of Wollaton, Nottinghamshire, who gave 20 shillings in 1443 for prayers for his father Edmund, augmenting the bequest made in 1415 by his mother who had asked also for prayers for Lady Joan Bassett, the widow of the founder of the Augustinian Priory at Atherstone, Warwickshire. Occasionally a will included a gift in kind, not in money, like a quarter of malt and the ‘ronte’ (small) steer left by Thomas Fundern of Ratcliffe on Soar, Nottinghamshire, in 1525. The greatest number of bequests, as might be expected, were made by citizens of Leicester itself. There was a close connection between the Augustinians and the Leicester guild of shoemakers.
Picture (at right): In the late 15th century, Leicester still retained most of its original Roman walls, which were built of strongly mortared granite and about 2.5m thick. Suburbs existed outside of the walls to the north, east and south, with the River Soar to the west.In February 1531-32 the guild cast its accounts, which included a yearly payment of 10 shillings to ‘ye Austin Frears in Leicester for all the bretherne and sisterne to be prayed for’. A guild of ‘our Lady beyond the Water’ attached to the church of the Austin Friars is mentioned in the will of Thomas Smith in 1522, and may have been connected with the shoemakers; the testator was however a draper. They were prayed for in life, but the friars were frequently called upon to accompany others to the grave. In 1524 John Martin, draper, left 3 shillings and 4 pence to each of the three religious orders of mendicant friars in Leicester ‘to bring me to church’ in procession at his funeral.
In 1517 the Augustinians received 10 shillings under the will of Thomas Newton after they had carried his body to St Martin’s Church. Testators often specified memorial services to be held in the friars’ own church: Ralph Gells in 1516 and Alderman Miles Lambert in 1517 both gave money for services in all three friary churches in Leicester. The Austins’ church was specifically mentioned in the wills of John Dawson in 1520 and Isabella Gyllott in 1523, both of whom asked for trentals (a cycle of 30 masses) to be said there after their funerals.
All these bequests must be seen in the context of a multiplicity of other gifts to lights and altars, for prayers and masses, and the generally rich pattern of late medieval parish life, in which it is clear that the Augustinian friars still kept their place. The frequency with which they are mentioned in Leicester wills shows that contact with the people, which had originally been the purpose and chief characteristic of the mendicant orders, had not been lost.
A provincial chapter of the English Augustinian Province was held at Leicester in 1532, but the days of the Priory were already numbered (i.e., with the dissolution of monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1538). The Augustinian community at Leicester, which never was large, may have dwindled considerably in the last years. A rental of the Priory lands made after the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII shows that only the conventual (community) buildings and a 'vacant place on the south side of the church' were actually in the friars' own occupation immediately before 1538.
The rest of the land was leased in the months before the Priory was surrendered, perhaps because there was a need for cash in hand, and because both entry fines and rents would accrue from such leases. The deed of surrender was signed on 10th November 1538 by the prior, Richard Preston, the sub-prior, Richard Holmes, and by two friars, John Whyte and John Hunter, by then the only brothers. It was sealed with the only known representation of the common seal of the house, which shows St Katherine, to whom the Priory was dedicated.
The Augustinian property remained initially in the king’s possession. Four years later, at the time of its rental, all the buildings there had been destroyed. The king’s receiver accounted for 2 shillings ‘for the soil and land within the precinct of the said late house where the houses and buildings there once were built and situate.’ For example, the dormitory (Priory sleeping quarters) had been sold to the dean of the Newarke College in 1538 -39, and demolished for re-use of the building materials.
The land area was still called Austin Friars in 1832, when it was advertised as the terminus of a railway. About 1884 most of post-Reformation buildings on the southern part of the site were demolished for the construction of St Augustine Street. The memory of the friary is now preserved only in the name of St Augustine Street, which itself is now largely bereft of buildings.
Near a roadway stood St Augustine’s Well. It had probably served as the Augustinian Priory’s water supply, and it survived into the early years of the 19th century. In 1666-7 it had been repaired by order of the mayor. Throsby, writing in 1791, says that the well was ‘surrounded with a brick wall, a yard high, covered with stone’. The well was finally destroyed during road widening shortly before 1815.
Augustinian Friary, Leicester. By Katherine Walsh in Analecta Augustiniana periodical, Year:1970, Edition:33, Pages:151-261 and Analecta Augustiniana, Year:1971, Ed.:34, Pp.:5-83. AN4210