Rapid expansion between 1256 and 1300 had been possible because vocations (i.e., persons joining the Order) were plentiful. An estimate of Augustinian numbers in England in the year 1300 suggests 60 of them in London, 40 each for the houses of theology in Cambridge, Oxford and York, 30 for Lincoln, 20 each for Clare, Gorleston, Leicester, Lynn, Newcastle, Norwich, Shrewsbury and Tickhill, 15 each for Canterbury, Grimsby, Huntingdon, Ludlow, Warrington and Winchester, 7 each for Berwick, Orford, Penrith and Woodhouse. This is a tally of 488 members. If added to this is the membership of the five Augustinian priories in Ireland, which were then occupied principally by Englishmen, the total in the English Province easily exceeded 500 friars.
The new religious practice of frequent sacramental Confessions increased the workload of many priests. This demand made the licensing of penitentiaries or confessors less exacting because the help of the mendicant friars was needed by the diocesan priests in the parish churches. For example, Bishop Cobham of Worcester licenced ten Augustinians in 1319, William Melton, Archbishop of York, twenty-four in 1327, the Bishop of Salisbury twelve Augustinians in 1328. Not all priests were Confessors, as a person with a lesser amount of theology could be ordained a priest but be ineligible to be a confessor.
At its peak around 1347 (i.e., immediately before the Black Death), the Province numbered over 600 friars. After the Black Death, there were probably only about 300 remaining. The tally then slowly rose to about 400, and then had sunk to less than 200 by the time of the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VII in 1538-39. The earliest extant statistical information on the number of friars comes from royal pittances (a daily donation for each friar) for which there are extant records from 1277 to 1345. By 1290 these pittances had been stabilized. From then on each friar received the pittance of one groat or of four pence per day when he participated in the royal benevolence, therefore, the number of friars can be concluded from the total contribution for each house.
The king showed himself gracious towards the friars not only because their poverty appealed to him; they also added to the splendour of his coming into a city by meeting him in solemn procession. It is unknown why the kings ceased to make these bequests after the middle of the fourteenth century. The great financial plight following the Black Death made it difficult for each Priory to support as many candidates as usual during their years of training for priesthood, even if the pre-Plague rate of incoming candidates had still been available. By 1500 the number of Austin Friars fell to 430, and by the time of its dissolution of all their friaries by King Henry VIII in 1538, the friars numbered about 317
The English houses were grouped into regions called "limits" that were centred on Cambridge, Oxford, Lincoln, and York. This indicates the failure of the Augustinians to spread to the south and west of England. One of the immediate tasks of the new Province in 1265 had been to establish a studium, a study centre for the education of candidates to the Order. This was done in 1266 at Oxford. The King assisted so greatly that he has always been considered the founder of the Oxford house. It was built on the site where Wadham College, Oxford, now stands.
Because of the high academic status of Oxford University, the Augustinian studium there was made a studium generale, i.e., a study house for Augustinians from all provinces of the Order. Within ten years it attained a reputation of being second only to the premier studium generale of the Order of Saint Augustine that was located at the University of Paris. In 1289 a sister house was opened in Cambridge, on a site next to what is now Corpus Christi College. Cambridge became the third ranking studium generale in the Order - another remarkable achievement for a young Augustinian province that was located literally on one extreme edge of the Augustinian world map.
The English Province had a greater number of graduates than any other province within the Order. This was not due to a lower standard of studies but to the greater number of chances their two universities offered. They gave the province two masters every four years while all Italian provinces could get only one and the rest of the provinces another. English scholars who took their studies seriously reached, therefore, the magisterium (today called a doctorate) within a reasonable time while on the continent many of our most famous authors obtained it only after years of waiting. Within the six years of 1387-1393 the Registers of the Prior General mention for England the names of 17 masters, 4 bachelors, 14 lectors and 4 students who received permission to become lectors. For the years 1419 to 1428 we know the names of 31 masters, 5 bachelors and 21 lectors and in 1419 a total of 24 masters attended the chapter of Winchester.
For Augnet’s details of the positive effect that the Great Schism had on Augustinian enrolments of Continental Europeans at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, click here.
These figures prove that an acceleration of studies by needless dispensations was, therefore, rightly rejected by the English Province. When the increase of universities on the Continent put an end to the long delays of graduation, England's students were even more favoured because they could take the places of continental students, whose attendance dwindled to practically nothing in the fifteenth century. English students proceeded therefore with great rapidity to the magisterium. The fastest promotion on record is that of John Capgrave O.S.A., the author, who obtained the magisterium ten years after his ordination and just within the prescribed time limit. There is well-documented evidence of opposition which the Austin Friars brought upon themselves in about the year 1350 in the episcopal city of Winchester.
The Austin Friars had been established there since the year 1300, not within the walls of the city, but in one of its suburbs. Shortly after the Black Death circa 1348 they moved their Priory (convento) from this suburb to a more favourable site in the city itself without previous licence from King Edward III. Such irregular actions were common enough at this period, and the King seems usually to have granted a belated permit, once the friars had found a favourable opportunity for stating their case. But their action in Winchester seems to have been unusually hasty and ill-advised. Bishop Edingdon had ruled the diocese since 1346, and his register shows that he was a careful administrator, and without any obvious bias against the mendicant orders. The Austin Friars had given him no notice of their intention to abandon the site which they had occupied for the past fifty years, nor had they asked him to bless the new church which they were building within the city's walls.
Photos (at right). Picture 1: A parishioner and an Augustinian at St Augustine's Church, Hammersmith, London. Picture 2: St Augustine's Church, Hammmersmith, London. Picture 3: Main leadlight windows of St Augustine's Church.
Not unnaturally, the bishop was indignant at this irregular procedure. His anger was even greater when he was informed that the friars had abandoned their former church, thus exposing to neglect and unseemly treatment the graves of those whose remains had been laid to rest within its walls. His register contains a document, dated 23rd November 1351, in which he protests most vigorously against the action of the friars, and solemnly inhibits his diocesan subjects from seeking burial within the walls of the new church of the Austin Friars. The bishop was probably conscious that he had the support of public opinion behind him, and he won his case. Just two months later King Edward III issued an order requiring the Austin Friars to hand over to the citizens of Winchester those houses, places, and tenements which they had recently acquired without obtaining his royal licence.
The King granted these properties to the City, in consideration of the waste and depression which the citizens had suffered in consequence of the late deadly pestilence. Incidents such as these must have injured the friars not a little in the estimation of many who had formerly been their friends. Yet it is evident that their popularity was generally very great. In about the year 1351 when the above difficulty at Winchester was happening, King Edward III made the Austin Friars an offer of a house in Calais, on condition that the Prior Provincial should undertake to put only English-born friars in that city, for whom he should be answerable at his peril. The offer seems to have come to nothing, no doubt because the local difficulties were too great.
And in 1355 a daring theft took place in the Priory of the Austin Friars at Bristol. Thieves broke into the convent during the winter and took seventy pounds from the treasury of the friars; but their chief haul was a sum of one thousand pounds which had been deposited in the convent for safe keeping by one Roger Cantok of the city, in gold and silver – a huge fortune in those days. To make provision for the future expansion of their church and friary, a religious order usually took advantage when an opportunity arose to acquire additional properties in their immediate vicinity. The dwellings on such properties were usually left standing, so that rental income would pay for the purchase of the property.
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