The history of the Augustinian Order (Austin Friars) in the United Kingdom is a lengthy one. The establishing of the first Augustinian Priory in England goes back to the very first days of the Order. In fact, Clare Priory was one of the Augustinian communities that already existed when the Grand Union happened in the year 1256. Although the Augustinian use of Clare is not continuous since 1256, it nevertheless is one of the relatively few original Augustinian community sites of 1256 that is still in use by the Order today.
The Order of Saint Augustine (sometimes known as the Austin Friars in England) came to Britain over 750 years ago. This was in 1249, brought about by Tuscan hermits called Gianboniti who were involved in the Grand Union that began the present Order of St Augustine only seven years later. This meant that England was one of the foundation nations of the Order when the Order formally began in 1256.
In 1248 Richard de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford, was the most powerful baron in England at that time. He invited the Tuscan hermits of the Little Union of 1244 to expand from France to his land at Suffolk, England. Richard was one of the most experienced and most travelled diplomats in England in his day, and was a contact in diplomatic circles with the Cardinal Protector of the Tuscan hermits since 1244, Richard Annibaldi. And so, through the negotiations of these two powerful figures, Clare Priory, Suffolk began.
The arrival from France of members of the Tuscan hermits (probably Frenchmen) was welcomed by the English monarch, King Henry III, who on 3rd September 1249 wrote that he intended that "they shall stay in this land and that good be done to them by everyone." The newcomers may have been attracted to accept an invitation to England because the eremitical (hermit) tradition was exceptionally strong there. And Henry III was known to have been favourably disposed towards the earlier mendicant orders; the Dominicans had come to England in 1221, the Franciscans in 1224, the Carmelites about the year 1240, and the Sack Friars before 1257. By 1300 there would be about 150 communities of various mendicant friars in England.
Regarding the arrival of the Augustinians, much was also due to the influence of the Cardinal Protector of the newcomers, Cardinal Richard Annibaldi; his powerful position in the Roman Curia had the attention of King Henry III. He had in December 1243 enlisted the aid of Annibaldi in successfully seeking the position of Archbishop of Canterbury for his uncle, Boniface of Savoy. In return, Annibaldi received financial favours from the king (a pledge of thirty marks per year for life, but which soon fell in arrears), and benefices for some of his family members. Henry was in contact with Annibaldi again in 1252 when approached by Annibaldi in his ambitious plan to have neither an Italian nor a German become the next King of Sicily. He sought Henry III's brother, Richard of Cornwall, who refused. Henry III accepted the position for his son Edmund - then a mere child.
Francis Roth O.S.A. in his book, The English Austin Friars 1249-1538 (New York), in 1966 suggested the likelihood of another Augustinian group arriving in England in 1252. This at least may have been the intention of their Prior General, Lanfranc of Milan, but there is no evidence that they actually arrived. Lanfranc was their Prior General in the Order of Hermits of Saint John the Good (called Gianboniti in Italian, and Bonites in English) - the same Lanfranc who became the first Prior General of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine at the Grand Union of 1256.
Even if these Gianboniti had arrived in 1252 they did not join the Order of St Augustine until the Grand Union of 1256 (i.e., similar to the community at Clare, Suffolk). But this was not the first mention on the possibility of a pre-1256 arrival in by the Augustinian Hermits of St John the Good (Gianboniti). Coming from five hundred years beforehand is a similar reference by John Capgrave O.S.A. in his Chronicle of England (circa 1464) that the Augustinian beginnings there happened in 1230. Capgrave was aware that the Grand Union did not happen until 1256, hence was thinking of one of the constituent religious orders that were amalgamated at the Grand Union. One such group was the Order of Hermits of Brother John the Good (the Gianboniti). They became approved as a mendicant order in 1225, and were assigned to adopt the Rule of Saint Augustine.
There is a document in the Public Records Office, London indicating that in 1227 King Henry II ordered an inquiry whether he could give the friars hermits of Saint Augustine the Chapel of St Lawrence on the road to Clayanger. (cf. Francis Roth p. 146 of Analecta Augustiniana in August 1952). Unfortunately, neither the outcome of the enquiry nor other details are available. The fact is admitted that some of the communities of Gianboniti located outside of Italy by the year 1252 may have been in England. Could this expectation, combined with the information above, have been the prompting for Capgrave’s assertion? If so, did he also have further evidence that has subsequently been lost to historians?
Back to the Austin Friars! Life at Clare was not financially easy for them. They were not given their land, but had to pay rent for it. They had a small house made of timber, and a small chapel. Their diet was meagre, and in the mendicant tradition they survived by begging whenever necessary. In 1262 King Henry III ordered the arrest of some friars who had absconded from Clare Priory. The poor and humble life of the Austin Friars was noted by the early English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, in the prologue (lines 184-188) of his famous poem, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer has a dishonest and pleasure-loving monk disparage the simple and austere life of the Austin (Augustinian) friars. (The following is a modern translation of Chaucer's actual words.)
Why on earth should he study and drive himself mad. Pouring over a book in the cloister, Or toiling with his hands, or labouring, As Austin bade? How will that help the world? Austin is welcome to his labour, and can keep it!
In 1296 King Edward I gave the Priory 29 shillings to provide for the Augustinians during his own visit to Clare Priory. In 1307 his daughter, Joan of Acre, chose to be buried there in a chapel that she had founded. The heart and bones of Lionel of Clarence, the third son of Edward III, who had died in Milan in 1368 were also interred there, leaving the remainder of his body near the tomb of St Augustine in Pavia. Further afield, by 1250 the Augustinians had opened a second house in England at Woodhouse. It was a hermitage situated approximately two miles to the west of Cleobury Mortimer, in the county of Shropshire, not far west of London. In probably 1252-53 a third convento opened, this time in London. The London foundation was made by a blood relative of the king, Lord Humphrey of Bohun, who was High Sheriff of England.
The London house became the most important house of the Order in England, and to this day the site is still known as "Austin Friars". As early as 1289 it housed sixty-three Augustinians. By 1364 they had built a magnificent church on their London site that was only two metres shorter than the famed cathedral in Canterbury. It had been out of Augustinian possession for centuries by the time it was totally destroyed in a German air raid during 1940. Before the Grand Union in 1256, there probably were further houses at Ludlow (1254), Leicester (1255) and Shrewsbury (1255). A house at Sidingborn (1255) was short-lived. In 1260 John of Gubbio O.S.A., an Italian in Italy who was called the "vicar general of [the Order in] France, England, Scotland and in the territories and dioceses of Lausanne, Verdun and Cambrai."
The inclusion of Scotland in the above list - but not Ireland - is interesting.There were no houses of the Order of Saint Augustine in Ireland in 1260, but the above description implies that there was at least one Augustinian house in Scotland in 1260. The mention of a house at "Berwae" (in Latin) in the Registers of the Prior General in 1299 possibly means that a convento existed at Berwick-upon-Tweed at least between 1260 and 1299. In the thirteenth century, Berwick had been an important religious centre with establishments of the Augustinians, the Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans and the Sack Friars. There was also a Cistercian nunnery and a Trinitarian hospital in Berwick. Berwick, or Berwick-upon-Tweed, lies on a bluff of high ground on the north side of the estuary of the River Tweed, where it enters the North Sea. It has officially been part of England since the fourteenth century, but before that it had been Scottish and a major trading centre of early medieval Scotland.
After only seventeen years of Augustinian presence, England became a separate Province of the Order. Previously the houses in England were part of the French Augustinian Province that had originally sent the first Augustinians to Clare. The first Provincial Chapter meeting in England was held at Clare Priory, Suffolk in 1265. All that is known of the first Provincial (regional superior) is that his first name was John. It is likely that he was the same John who was Prior (local superior) at Clare, and who was later described as Friar John of England in a fifteenth-century catalogue of holy Augustinians. In that in 1265 England contained as few as eight Augustinian houses, a lot of promise must have been entertained for growth of the Order in England. The confidence, however, was certainly not misplaced. By the year 1300, i.e., after only fifty-one years in England, the Order had twenty-two houses in England (mainly in the north and east) and Scotland, and five in Ireland (all staffed with English-born Augustinians at that time).
(Continued on the next page.)
Sample of Canterbury Tales (original text and parallel text in modern English)http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/CT-prolog-para.html
Website of the Anglo-Scottish Province. http://www.augustinians.org.uk
Wales and ScotlandFor the Augustinian Order's brief history in Wales and Scotland, click here.