At the beginning of the year 1331 new Augustinian friaries were begun in Droitwich (Wyche) and Dartmouth. While little is known of Droitwich's long history, Dartmouth has preserved more details of its short existence than any other house in English Augustinian history. Its foundation marked the Order's first attempt of spreading into southwestern England.
As early as 1286 the people of the port-town of Clifton-Dartmouth called the king's attention to their very long and arduous climb up to their parish church in Tunstal. Thereupon King Edward III granted William Bacon, mayor of the city, the request to designate and alienate a certain house for the use of a chapel. The parish church, St Clement's Church in Tunstal, however, was appropriated to the great Abbey of Torre at Torquay in Devon (founded in 1196), whose abbot steadfastly resisted the wishes of the faithful in Dartmouth for a church in their area, and thereby causing deep resentment.
When in January 1331 the citizens heard that the Augustinians were coming to settle within the Diocese of Exeter, they were invited by William Bacon to select Dartmouth as their destination. The countermove of the abbot was to obtain license in June of the same year for holding services in the disused chapel of St Clare in Dartmouth. The Augustinian friars, however, erected their oratory on ground donated by William Bacon and in 1335 successfully appealed to the bishop, whose Commission had previously forbidden them to use it. In the next round, however (1340) the abbey secured a verdict at the Exeter Assize (civil court) that the friars' chapel was built on land “unjustly taken from the widow of Robert Cora,” and that restitution should be made. The abbot also threatened to demolish the Augustinians’ buildings by basing his stand on a papal privilege which allowed no one to erect a parish or build an oratory within the territory of any church held in advowson by his Order (i.e., any church of which his Order had the right to designate who would receive its benefice). In response, the Augustinians who had both episcopal and papal permission for their endeavor, appealed to Rome. There the expensive process dragged on endlessly.
In order to foil the abbot's threat the Augustinians in 1342 called on their confrere John Hugh O.S.A., Titular Archbishop of Damascus and Auxiliary Bishop of York, to bless their buildings. Because the abbot's guards lay in wait for him to keep him out, Hugh dressed as a layman “in a short tight buttoned jacket with a long sword and buckler on his side.” At the Augustinian friary he doffed his lay attire, vested in his black Augustinian habit and, with his Episcopal crozier in his hand and his mitre on his head, assembled the people of Dartmouth and consecrated the chapel. The case was referred to John Stafford, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
As Hugh was able to clear himself from a number of false accusations, the archbishop refused to proceed with the case, and referred the whole matter to the coming ecclesiastical Council of Canterbury. Nothing is known of Hugh’s being assigned any fine; the assembled bishops probably laughed heartily at the bizarre action of their Augustinian Episcopal confrere against what appeared to be a rapacious abbot. Rome denied the appeal of the Augustinians. Again the local Cluniac abbot successfully suppressed the new undertaking, even despite Rome's declaration that in this case the traditional Cluniac privileges should not apply.
Bishop Grandisson of Exeter insisted on obedience to Rome, and thus the Augustinians thus had to leave Dartmouth in 1347. The bishop granted them another foundation in his diocese in 1353, this time in Barnstaple. Several years before the attempt in Barnstaple the Austins had turned to the North. In 1340 William of Alverton had given them eight acres for the erection of a church and friary in Northallerton, but nothing came of it. Earl Thomas Beauchamp undertook to remedy the situation in 1387 with a grant of land in Bernard Castle, a town on the boundary line of North Riding of Yorkshire and Durham; there also the attempt failed.
Photo (above): St Austin’s Catholic Church, Stafford (at left). Standing on former land of the Austin Friary in Stafford, this Roman Catholic Parish has operated there since 1791. Dedicated to St Augustine of Hippo.Equally unsuccessful was the effort to establish a house in Coventry, where the priest Nicholas Rivel, a clerk of the king's court, had obtained permission of alienating a property to the Augustinians in 1363. In addition to Droitwich two other foundations were successful. They were Stamford, Lincolnshire in 1342 and Stafford, the capital of Staffordshire, in 1345. Success was due to the patronage of King Edward III (see portrait above), who himself obtained the Pope's permission for Stamford.
More detailed records of the foundation of the Augustinians in Stafford show the interlocking permissions that were required before mendicant friars could establish a new foundation. Papal permission for the Austin Friary at Stafford was obtained in 1344 by Ralph, baron of Stafford. It was located just outside the city gate at Forbrugge, (now Forebridge) a suburb to the south of Stafford borough in the (land) parish of Castle Church, Staffordshire.
In November 1343, in answer to Ralph's petition, the Pope gave permission for an Augustinian foundation in Forebridge provided that twelve friars could be maintained there. In June 1344 the king granted a licence for the foundation and its endowment with five acres as the site of the church and other priory buildings; at the same time Humphrey de Hastang was given royal licence to alienate to the friars a well in Forebridge from which an underground aqueduct could be built. An Augustinian prior and brethren were resident there by 1346.
The Augustinian Priory at Stafford enjoyed a quiet existence; it is recorded that in 1403 the friars entertained King Henry IV after his victory at Shrewsbury. The battle itself was dramatized in William Shakespeare's play, Henry IV, Part 1. Thus a thirty years war with the great abbeys (1331-63) ended with victory for the abbeys. Of eight foundations undertaken only three succeeded. Pope John XXII having foreseen the bitter onslaught against all Mendicants had issued the bull Etsi quibus libet in which he appointed for each episcopal province three bishops whom he called conservatores privilegiorum papalium (“The Conservators of Papal Privileges”).
It was sent on 18 April 1317 to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops of Exeter and London with the command to see that the Austin Friars could freely exercise their apostolic privileges of preaching and of hearing sacramental confessions and would not be molested. The appointment of the Conservators enabled the friars to bring any complaint to their protectors who in turn were bound to investigate; this did not assure success in each case but it guaranteed a hearing.
One of the few such cases known is connected once again with Bishop Grandisson. The Austin Friars of Gorleston (or Little Yarmouth), Norfolk had built their friary on the boundary line between two parishes which were held in advowson by the powerful priory of St Bartholomew's in London. Both pastors harassed them to such an extent that in the spring of 1341 their prior Robert complained to Bishop Grandisson. The bishop appointed as his representatives William Bergeveny, chancellor of the University of Oxford, and two canons.
They called the parties before their judgment seat in St Frideswide Church, Oxford, but it seems that they were more interested in bringing about a modus vivendi or a compromise than in examining the merit of the case.