William Becchi O.S.A. of Florence was elected Prior General at the General Chapter at Siena in 1460, and in his administration proved to be quite forthright and somewhat severe. In March 1461 he deposed the Priors of the Austin Friaries at London and Oxford “because of their poor administration,” and then placed these communities under the supervision of three vicars of his choice, one of whom was an Augustinian who is remembered in the history of early English literature, Osbern Bokenham O.S.A. In 1463 Becchi spent ten days in the English Province on official visitation, but did not visit its main house, i.e., London – which could have been an intentional decision on his part.
Only a possible maximum of four Augustinian houses were founded in Scotland before the nineteenth century. These were Berwick-upon-Tweed (1299), Linlithgow (1503), Manuel (1506) and Haddington (1511), begun in Scotland at the request of the English monarchy. The final three of them were formed - and there is even doubt whether all or any of the three actually began - only a little more than two decades before the dissolution of monasteries by King Henry VIII, hence their existence was short-lived at best.
The development of the English Augustinian Province during the fifteenth century was influenced little by continental movements. Its history during this period rather reflects the spirit of the nation, which, driven from France by the victories of Joan of Arc (who had an Augustinian chaplain), lost its political leadership in European affairs. Through John Wyclif's heresies at Oxford and the rise of the new universities especially those of Padua and Bologna it lost its spiritual pre-eminence. Attendance of foreign students at English universities dropped to a tiny trickle while more and more English students set out for Italy.
Weakened by the lack of vocations, expansion ceased in all Orders and also among the Austin Friars. No charismatic Austin Friar led his confreres towards the observant movement. Photos (at right). Picture 1: Priest and people, Augustinian church, Hoxton, London. Picture 2: Priest preaching at Augustinian church, Hoxton, London. Picture 3: Priest and parishioner, Augustinian church, Hammersmith, London.Neither did any other Order in England produce a saint in this period. In Ireland, however, the Augustinian observance movement did take a foothold, but only outside the English pale and without English support. All English religious life was at a standstill - stagnant would be the right word. The church was in a weak position when Henry VIII came to power early in the sixteenth century and, with little opposition, confiscated all of its monasteries and suppressed its religious orders.
For the Austin Friars there were a number of internal danger signs as the opening decades of the sixteenth century brought to bear intolerable pressures from King Henry VIII as he increasingly defied the Church of Rome. These signs were present, the king notwithstanding: an apparent decline in the vitality of Augustinian religious life and community leadership, administrative weaknesses, and increased financial problems (see the ninth page). Some or all of these factors were certainly involved in a resultant decline in the rate of new membership, which in turn caused a decline in the number of Austin Friars.
The Augustinian Prior General in 1507 – 1518 was Giles of Viterbo O.S.A.. He one of the most celebrated Augustinian friars of all time, was distinguished for both learning and his exemplary religious life as a cardinal in Renaissance Rome. Giles clearly saw the need for reform in the Anglo-Scottish-Irish Province, as in all sectors of the Order and, indeed, in the Church as a whole. On 22 November 1510 he appointed Friar John Toneys (or Tuneys), a former Augustinian Provincial in England, as his vicar to reform the Province. Apparently Toneys achieved nothing, and Giles in 1514 then sent an Italian Augustinian friar, Giovanni Benedetto Moncetto da Castiglio (Arezzo), to carry out a visitation of the English Province.
Moncetto diplomatically took steps to ingratiate himself with King Henry VIII - this was well before Henry broke with Rome. Moncetto sent a report of his visitation to the Prior General. Evidently, it recommended various reforms, as can be deduced from Giles's subsequently addressing a long letter on reform to the English Province on 9th August 1516. In his letter, no longer extant, Giles, in keeping with his customary policy, would have emphasized the necessity of observing the common life, in effect, poverty, no personal property, the prohibition of privileges, simplicity in matters of food and clothing, and, in addition, silence.
Since the Giles' register notes that this letter was similar to that sent to the Province of Bavaria, it can be presumed that the English Province was not in worse condition than other provinces. For example, in 1522 the subsequent Prior General, Gabriele della Volta O.S.A., stated that hardly another province equalled England in terms of learned, virtuous, and holy members. Some conflicting evidence, however, makes it difficult to arrive at a definitive assessment of the state of the English Province during the first third of the sixteenth century.
The only solid, or apparently solid, evidence of a breakdown of religious observance in the English Province derives from the year 1527, that is, almost exactly ten years before the suppression of the friaries by King Henry VIII. The complaint – apparently made by one member within the community - concerned only one friary, namely Canterbury, the religious home of the soon-to-be-martyred St John Stone O.S.A. About a dozen specific charges of a serious lack of discipline were made by this sole complainant, including to total disregard of the Augustinian Constitutions, and suggestions of immorality. The allrgations were regarded as spurious and vindictive. Long before the breach with Rome and the extinction of the English Augustinian province, however, there were ominous signs of administrative weaknesses. For example, in the fifty years and more that preceded the forced suppression of the Province, not a single English Provincial or delegate had attended a General Chapter of the Order between 1482 and 1532.
Photos (at left).Picture 1: St Monica’s Church at Hoxton, London. Picture 2: Outside of St Monica’s Church at Hoxton, London. Picture 3: A parishioner of Monica’s Church at Hoxton, London.
With one exception, the Priors General in Rome had turned a blind eye to this negligence. The exception was Prior General Anselmo da Montefalco O.S.A., who in 1490 rebuked the Provincial, Robert Stokes O.S.A., for not coming to the General Chapter himself, and for not sending either a delegate or a letter of explanation. Three years later the Prior General took a very severe line with Stokes for exceeding his term of office. This violation of the Augustinian Constitutions was compounded at the most critical time of all in the history of the Augustinians in England, when Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, as papal legate, authorized, before his death in 1530, the prorogation of the Augustinian Provincial Chapter of England for seven years. Wolsey had done this at the request of the Provincial, William Wetherall O.S.A., who ten years earlier had tried to have his term of office extended to six years. The Prior General refused on the grounds that this deviation from the Constitutions would destroy the basic right of the members of the Province to elect a Provincial frequently and freely.
On another front, the failure to attract vocations (new entrants) was a sign of decline in the Anglo-Scottish Province in the last of the first four decades of the sixteenth century. Because extant records of the Province do not allow for comparison with previous centuries ordinations to the priesthood are the best or, for that matter, the only guide. The most enlightening evidence about Augustinian vocations derives from the registers of the bishops of the Diocese of London, for the statistics are instructive. Between 1490 and 1500, that is, during a period of ten years, thirty-eight Augustinians were ordained to the priesthood by bishops in London.
However, between 1506 and 1521, a period of fifteen years, only nine Augustinians were ordained. Finally, between 1522 and 1538, a period of sixteen years, the last sixteen years in the history of the English Augustinian Province, only one Augustinian was ordained to the priesthood. And the Austin Friars Priory in London was, after all, the largest and most important community in the Province. There must have been something radically wrong, a loss of nerve perhaps, because quite a number of friars of other mendicant orders, particularly the Carmelites, were ordained during those last fateful years.
(Continued on the next page.)Further reading
The Protestant Reformation and the English - Irish Province. For other Augnet pages, click here.