On 28th April 1364 the Austin Friars in England petitioned Pope Urban V thus: Whereas in England there are many cities and considerable towns in which the Austin Friars have no place, and many faithful desire to found places for them, they pray for licence to accept the same and to build oratories with bell towers and necessary living quarters in which they shall enjoy their privileges, immunities and indulgences.
In response to this request the Pope granted them licence for four new Augustinian houses in England on condition in each case the bishop of the diocese in question gave his consent and that at least twelve Austin Friars could be supported. Over the next thirty-five years, the four Augustinian priories that resulted from the Pope's approval were built at Rye (1364), the second was at Atherstone (1375), the third at Newport in Wales (1377) and the fourth either at Tawstock in 1385 or (because of the failure of Tawstock) at Thetford in 1389. This Augnet page will focus on Atherstone. Although one of the smaller Augustinian (Austin) friaries in England, Atherstone consistently still draws attention because its fourteenth-century Augustinian-built church still stands and, subsequently enlarged and amended, is still in use; it is now the Anglican parish church.
The generosity of Ralph Lord Basset of Drayton made possible the foundation of the Austin Friary at Atherstone in 1374. He donated to them twelve acres (4.9 hectares) of land that earlier belonged to the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Bec in Normandy, and had contained the ancient St. Mary’s Chapel that dated from the early 12th century. Even though Pope Urban V in 1364 had demanded that the four new Austin Friars Priories should be able to maintain twelve brethren, it seems doubtful that this friary ever reached this complement. Neither did the small town of Atherstone, with a population of only about 250 people, offer a chance for great material expansion and, therefore, this house always remained small. Like other similar attempts in the latter part of the fourteenth century it was to serve the religious needs of the local people whose parish church at Mancetter in North Warwickshire was difficult for them to reach. The pastor at Mancetter, Richard Bulcot, understood the problem and came in July 1375 to an amicable understanding with John Combe O.S.A., the procurator for the Austin Friars.
The construction of a church in Atherstone was the principal need. It was erected on the foundations of an ancient chapel which had belonged to the Benedictine Royal Abbey of Bec (in French: Abbaye Notre-Dame du Bec: The Abbey of Our Lady of Bec) in Le Bec Hellouin, near Rouen in Normandy, France. The chapel was 55 feet (17 metres) in length and 22 feet (7 metres) wide.
When Lord Ralph bequeathed in his will 500 marks towards the completion of the church, the Austin Friars added a nave 95 x 31 feet (33 x 10 metres), converted the first church into their choir and connected both by an octagonal tower which was 12 feet (4.2 metres) square. The building still stands today, and serves as the Anglican parish church in Atherstone. In 1485, on the evening before the battle of Bosworth which was to win him the Crown of England, King Henry VII received in this church Holy Communion from the hands of an Austin Friar. He did not sleep in the Austin Friary overnight, but in the Three Tunns Inn nearby.
The addition to the church seems to have increased attendance. This and some other reasons led in 1404 to a bitter attack on the local Austin Friars by the Catholic parish priest William Brinkelow. The issues in contention were principally the same points of dispute which had engaged religious and secular (diocesan) clergy for so many decades. Some of the complaints of the pastor were fully justified. The people of Atherstone, not having a parish church of their own, had become attached to the Augustinian friary and attended its church rather than what officially was their parish church in distant Mancetter. The Bishop of Lichfield, John Bourgh, a Dominican friar, saw the difficulties but thought the accusations of the pastor were without merit, and hence refused to receive his complaint. Thereupon the pastor complained to Rome, which ordered the bishop to conduct a formal investigation.
The willingness of the Austin Friars to arbitrate is evident from every page of the long legal document, while some demands of the pastor show an acrimonious and unchristian spirit. He resented not only the burials in the friary but was also was incensed by the style of pews in their church, which made services more comfortable. The Austin Friars were so sure of their cause that they left it entirely to the judgment of a board of arbiters, but were to be deeply disappointed. The arbiters were all diocesan priests; they sided with the pastor even in matters which had nothing to do with parochial rights and which were handled differently both elsewhere in the Diocese of Lichfield and in all other dioceses where mendicants had houses.
Photos (at right) St Mary’s Anglican Church at Atherstone, Warwickshire, England. Part of it was built by the Order of St Augustine (not the Augustinian Canons Regular) during their tenure there in the years 1375 – 1538. The ancient Augustinian section is underneath the tower. The present "Gothic" tower was a reshaping in 1872 of the original Austin Friars' square tower.
As a result of the arbitration the Austin Friars at Atherstone were forbidden to preach on Sundays, to announce lost articles, to bless bread and to distribute holy water. The much-disputed question whether parents had the right to decide on the burial place for their children was decided in favour of the pastor. Even the canonical portion (one quarter of the total amount) of the Augustinian church’s income was extended to cover income gifts and stipends, which sources were not included in the directives of Pope Boniface VIII.
With the closure of religious houses by King Henry VIII, the Atherstone Priory was suppressed in August 1538. Beforehand, on 23rd May 1538 the king’s official visitator, Richard Ingworth reported to Thomas Cromwell, “At Atherstone I have appointed the Prior to see God served till that I know further of your pleasure; but all is gone, so that they were not able to make shift to pay for my costs nor to give me one penny of contribution to their visitor accustomed. That house is a proper house and certain lands belonging to it lying round about it to the value as it is let out by lease, of four marks per year. All the stuff is not worth 40s besides a chalice and a bell, and there is no lead here. Atherstone is a little house in decay, but may spend four marks a Year of which they pay four nobles a year in rent. One Ameas Hyll, a servant of the king, has most of the ground by lease.”
On 7th August 1538 Ingworth then sent Cromwell a copy of the inventory, and asked Cromwell to send the friars their warrants so they could legally remove their habits (and seek a position as diocesan clergy). For one chalice, made of silver and plated with gold, he received 8s4d. Ingworth reported that the annual income of this Augustinian priory was a mere 30s 2d (thirty shillings and two pence), which had increased by 20s (twenty shillings) per annum when in 1536 the Prior (Augustinian superior), Robert Spayne O.S.A., leased the monastic orchard to Thomas Chelwyn. In 1543 the Priory buildings and site were granted to Henry Cartwright for 38s4d per annum, with the exception of the church which remained reserved to the inhabitants.
After the suppression of the Atherstone Priory in 1538, the adjacent Augustinian churchwas left unused and abandoned until about 1692, when Samuel Bracebridge settled a yearly sum for the parson of Manceter to preach there every other Sunday in the winter season. After this, St. Mary’s Chapel seems to have experienced something of a revival, with its Augustinian square tower being rebuilt in the then-fashionable Gothic style in 1782. This drastic alteration probably aroused some controversy, although the fine architectural drawing of the chapel made by Mr Schnebbelie in 1790 prompted Nichols to assert that “the new tower provides a good effect”. St Mary's was further redesigned in 1849 by Thomas Henry Wyatt and David Brandon.
Although reshaped in 1872, the Atherstone church is the only remaining example of such Augustinian architecture, which originally featured a splendid octagonal tower between its nave and choir. The church is still used. It is St Mary's Anglican Church at Atherstone. It contains sections of the original pre-Reformation church - including the tower - built and used by the Austin Friars until their suppression by King Henry VIII circa 1538.
The ancient St. Mary’s Church. Located in Atherstone dates from the early 12th century, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Mary%27s_Church,_Atherstone
St Mary’s Atherstone. History of the church, without any reference to its Augustinian background. http://www.stmarysatherstone.co.uk/ourheritage.htm