In the summer of 1487 the impressive Thomas Penketh was succeeded as the Augustinian Provincial in England by the less-than-impressive Robert Stokes. Having obtained the magisterium (doctorate in theology) at the University of Cambridge only a year earlier, Stokes was so puffed up with his new honours that he tried to govern without the involvement of the Augustinian Curia in Rome.
He did not pay any assessments during his first term in office, had himself re-elected in 1490 without the required papal dispensation, submitted to the Prior General the Acts of the Provincial Chapter a year late, and did not excuse himself for his absence from the General Chapter held at Rome in 1491. While the Prior General, Anselm Mandestri of Montefalco O.S.A., sent him a sharply-worded rebuke, he also seems to have shown too much mercy in sending Stokes the unsolicited permission to continue in office until the next Chapter. Stokes seems to have regarded this kindness of the Prior General as a weakness, and had himself re-elected yet again in 1493, as can be deduced from the fact that he owed the Prior General an accumulated total of 120 ducats in assessed taxes by the end of that year.
Such continuous disobedience by Stokes could not be permitted. The Prior General employed Jerome Frescobaldi, a Florentine banker, to collect the whole debt, empowering him to take Stokes to court if necessary. He also made Robert Warner O.S.A., the excellent Prior of the Austin Friars at Orford (not to be confused with Oxford), his vicar and charged him to demand proof of Stokes' dispensation from the Martiniana (prohibition from staying in office for another consecutive term). If such proof were not found, Warner was to depose Stokes. As it turned out, the latter could not produce the dispensation and was, therefore, forced to resign. In his directives for the coming chapter, the Prior General excluded Stokes and his abettors “forever” from future elections.
The Prior General would scarcely have proceeded with such vigour had he not received direct orders from Pope Innocent VIII to do so. In 1487 Simon Berengar, the Augustinian Provincial of Toulouse, had obtained a dispensation from the Martiniana. The Pope revoked this permission, and ordered the Prior General to depose every Provincial who had not followed the prescripts of this bull. In addition to this papal command another matter weighed heavily against Stokes. Pressed by many needs for more money he had obtained in 1494, for a large sum of money that Stokes had to pay in advance, the right to sell a plenary indulgence within the English Province. This was one of the first major indulgences of its kind to be promoted for fund-raising in England.
News of this indulgence caused such anger amongst other clergy that John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, summoned the Provincial and all local Augustinian Priors before him. Earlier he had written to Alcock, Bishop of Ely, to charge that the Austin Friars “with intent to deceive and obtain money under false pretences have presumed under the guise of a recent papal confirmation of their privileges to publish in the convents of their Order throughout the diocese that they have been empowered to grant plenary indulgence to all who frequent their churches, as also the Franciscans had done recently in Paris, as well as the Benedictines of St Andomer in Picardy until Pope Innocent VIII condemned them. The Bishop of Ely is to forbid the Austin Friars to continue the practice until their claims have been examined by him."
The examination, however, prove that the indulgence was not based on an attempted extension of earlier Augustinian privileges but on a new contract specifically approved by the Pope; all talk of fraud then ceased. Even so, partially due to the opposition of the bishops the indulgence did not bring the expected monetary gain. Stokes unfortunately committed the unpardonable mistake of not paying the 1,030 ducats owed to the bank which had made the loan. The papal treasury could not stand for such irresponsible management which would endanger so many similar projects, and no doubt prodded the Prior General to take action. Stokes was deposed, but his deposition did not, however, produce the desired effect; the debt was still unpaid in 1496. Stokes' reckless leadership had grave consequences.
His reprehensible scheme of raising a great deal of money quickly by a method little known in England put the province on a ruinous financial path which brought impoverishment to all Augustinian houses in England, made the break with Rome easier and helped lay the groundwork of the poor leadership and low morale within the Austin Friars leading to the suppression of the monasteries and mendicant friaries in England by King Henry VIII in 1538-1539.
The English Austin Friars 1249 – 1538 (Vol 1 & Vol II) by Francis Roth O.S.A. (Augustinian Historical Institute, New York: 1966 & 1961 respectively). This Augnet page relies heavily on Fr Roth’s impressions of Robert Stokes. AN4375