Although interrupted by the actions of King Henry VIII, the association of the Augustinian Order (Austin Friars) with Clare Priory, Suffolk, England goes back 750 years to the very arrival of the Austin Friars' predecessors in England. Clare Priory is one of the oldest religious houses presently functioning in England.
It is situated in the shadows of Clare Castle on the banks of the River Stour, Suffolk. During medieval times, Clare Castle was used as a summer resort of the royal family. In 1248 Richard de Clare invited from France the Tuscan hermits of the Little Union of 1244 to establish a priory at the foot of his castle.
Richard de Clare was the seventh earl of Gloucester and Hereford, and was one of the most travelled and experienced diplomats of the English kingdom. Richard de Clare had gained support of Cardinal Richard Annibaldi for a plan to secure the Sicilian crown for Richard of Cornwall, who was the brother of King Henry III. The Augustinian Little Union of 1244 had happened four years earlier, with Annibaldi appointed by the Pope to supervise and promote this fledgling union of hermits groups in Tuscany, Italy that already had communities north of the Alps (and probably in France). Annibaldi no doubt used the occasion of Richard de Clare's seeking his favour regarding Sicily to promote the expansion to England of this Tuscan group under Annibaldi's protection.
Richard de Clare had visited France in 1248 and, possibly after meeting a community of these friars, he guaranteed them a foundation near his castle at Clare. He returned to England in June 1249 and obtained on behalf of these friars a letter of protection from the King to facilitate their coming to England. This royal edict was issued on 3rd September 1249, and it is likely that the friars first came to Clare shortly afterwards. This time frame for the foundation of Clare Priory was supported a little later by two authoritative English Augustinian writers, John Capgrave O.S.A. of Lynn Priory and Osbern Bokenham O.S.A. of Clare Priory, both of whom were born in 1392.
The traditional date given for the foundation of Clare Priory is 1248; it is more probable, however, that the Austin Friars actually arrived in 1249. A rhymed dialogue about the foundation of Clare Priory was written in 1460. Its verse is characteristic of an Augustinian who lived there, Osbern Bokenham O.S.A.. Because it was once thought that Bokenham was dead by 1460, the verse was not attributed to him. He is recorded, however, by Augustinian documents in Rome as still being alive in 1463. Unlike monks, Austin Friars were not confined to their religious houses but were free to move about the countryside begging, preaching and teaching. By the time that Earl Richard de Clare died in mid-1262, not much had been done to provide for the friars. His widow, Maud, however, became energetic in providing them with additional land during the following seventeen years.
There is no evidence that Earl Richard de Clare himself made any founding financial grant to Clare Priory. In July 1265 the first-recorded Augustinian Provincial Chapter in England admitted a steward of Clare, Roger de Scaccario to the Confraternity of the Order in recognition of his remittance of twenty pence annual rent for the parcel of land where the friars first houses were built, i.e., probably not the present Priory site. The present tract of Augustinian land was progressively bought as portions became available for purchase, largely with the influence and financial assistance of the Countess Maud (Matilda), the widow of Earl Richard. Gifts of very small scattered parcels of meadowland along the nearby Stour River were given to Clare Priory throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.This was indicative of the regard accorded to the Austin Friars locally. Monetary alms were also forthcoming. These were usually small amounts, but King Edward I upon his own arrival at Clare on 30th November 1296 gave twenty-nine shillings for the maintenance of three friars. A daughter of King Edward I also assisted Clare Priory. She was Joan of Acre (April 1272 – 23 April 1307), a Princess of England. She was the daughter of King Edward I of England and Eleanor of Castile.
She is most notable for her marriage to Ralph de Monthermer and the claim that miracles have allegedly taken place at her grave. She is also notable for the multiple references of her in literature. Joan of Acre (or Joanna, as she is sometimes called, or Joan Plantagenet) was born in the spring of 1272 in Acre, Palestine (now in Israel), while her parents, Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, were on crusade. At the time of Joan's birth, her grandfather, Henry III, was still alive and thus her father was not yet king of England. Her parents departed from Acre shortly after her birth, traveling to Sicily and Spain before leaving Joan with Eleanor's mother, Joan, Countess of Ponthieu, in France.
Bequests were another source of income. For example, Elizabeth de Burgh I, who was a granddaughter of King Edward and a daughter of Joan of Acre, bequeathed ten English pounds sterling to the Priory. During her lifetime, the same Elizabeth had built the Austin Friars at Clare a dormitory, chapter house and refectory. It has been estimated that between 30% and 40% of all wills written in England during the late Middle Ages left a sum of money to at least one of the Orders of friars, usually with a request for Masses to be celebrated in memory of the deceased. The two larger and older mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, were more frequently the beneficiaries than the Austin Friars.
On 10th November 1262 a royal writ was issued for the capture by the king's officers of various vagabond Austin Friars of Clare who were wandering the countryside. No cause of the problem was recorded; it may have been a disruption following the death of Earl Richard de Clare four months earlier, some reaction to efforts to implement changes required by the Grand Union of 1256, or for a number of less dramatic unrelated causes.
The Priory must have been habitable and with a chapel by 1265, when the first English Provincial Chapter of the Order took place there. Donations towards the buildings were encouraged by the granting of a series of episcopal indulgences between 1279 and 1324. Permission to consecrate a cemetery on Priory lands was granted on 20th February 1278 by the Bishop of Norwich, and a ceremony took place on 24th April 1279. Clare Priory became known nationally when Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I, was buried there in 1307. To her funeral had come her brother, the future King Edward II, who thus knew the friars there.
The best-known mistress of Clare Castle was Joan's daughter, Elizabeth de Burgh (already mentioned in the second paragraph on this page), who amassed considerable wealth by several marriages. Elizabeth de Burgh also assigned the Austin Friars two chaplaincy positions in Clare Castle. She arranged that two Austin Friars should go daily to sing Mass in Clare Castle; in return the friars were granted ten quarters of wheat and ten quarters of malt from the mill next to the friary, to be paid yearly by the reeve.
A separate house for the Augustinian prior (the leader of the community) was built in the 14th century and remodelled in the fifteenth century. It still stands in good condition. (See photo above, and links on the pages following.) The friars’ ministry of visitation of households and the quest for alms extended over a wide geographical area. By agreement with other priories of Austin Friars, each Priory had its own designated area of visitation so that the visiting districts of no two priories of Austin Friars overlapped.
The agreed visitation district of each Priory was called its limits, and hence its visiting friars were known as limitors. At a household, the friar prayed with the family, heard Confessions, blessed the crops and livestock, and accepted donations – akin to the practice of various friars in well into the second half of the twentieth century and popularly called the Quest.Donations towards the buildings were encouraged by the granting of a series of episcopal indulgences between 1279 and 1324. Clare Priory became nationally known when Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I, was buried there in 1307. In the years before the Austin Friars succeeded in 1338 in building a large new church on their property at Clare, there were disagreements with Richard Schordych, the perpetual vicar of the Parish of Clare, in which Clare Priory was located. The Austin Friars were drawing a congregation, which obviously impacted on the size of both the congregation and income at the parish church.
On 1st August 1329 the matter was solved according to articles of peace proposed by Geoffrey de Cannafield. Firstly, the parish priest, Richard Schordych, had to announce at the Sunday Mass in the parish church that the Austin Friars had the right to hear Confessions (as apparently he had tried to forbid this). Secondly, he had to agree to live in peace with the Austin Friars. In return, the Austin Friars would agree to stop the process of official complaint against him.
Besides founding Clare College at Cambridge, Elizabeth de Burgh rebuilt Clare Priory, surrounded the Austin Friars property with a high wall to assist flood mitigation, and contributed a large sum for the building of a new church there, which was blessed on 26th August 1338 by the Augustinian bishop, Benedict Icenus.
This church was fifty metres long, which made it exceptionally large for a rural area. Its chancel had six bays. A small central bell tower was built about the year 1363. Enough remains archaeologically to reveal much about this church and the adjacent buildings. The site was excavated by Sir William St John Hope in 1904, and more has been discovered in recent years.
The church featured a quire, nave, a small central tower, and a south chapel (possibly dedicated to St Vincent). It had a narrow north aisle, at the east end of which the Chapel of Annunciation, mentioned in 1361, may have been built. The south wall of the church still stands, and at its east end are the remains of a sedilia and an altar recess which may be the tomb of Joan of Acre (mentioned above).
The cloisters are south of the nave, with the east wall almost complete. In it is the entrance to the chapter house, above the east end of which was the dormitory, a two-storeyed building reached by stairs approached through a door in the north east of the cloisters, but only the foundations remain. The dormitory at the south-east was connected with the infirmary, behind which was the rere-dorter. South of the cloister was the refectory with a cellar below, but this part has been considerably altered.
A separate house for the Augustinian Prior (the leader of the community) was built in the fourteenh century and remodelled in the fifteenth century. It still stands in good condition. This dwelling was a development from the main rooms in the friary, the parlour, the pantry and buttery and the cellarer's hall, probably with the guest rooms and Prior's lodging above. The present hall has a magnificent ceiling dating from the late fifteenth century.
Near the kitchen is a small lobby with a vaulted floor; its windows still contain some of the original glass. Elsewhere there is a part of the fourteenth-century staircase leading to the upper rooms. Upstairs there is a finely panelled room wherein is carved the date, 1604, and the initials of Thomas Barnardiston, who died in 1618.
In 1266 the Austin Friars established a house in Oxford with the help of King Henry III, and in 1289 opened another one in Cambridge. In 1456 several of this small community had reached the high level of learning required to make them teachers of theology and philosophy in the schools of the Order. John of Clare was the first Augustinian to graduate as a Doctor of Divinity of Cambridge; he may have been the same person as John of England, who was associated with an outstanding holy life.
Another Augustinian at Clare, Henry Bederic, became a professor of the Sorbonne in Paris. Little is known of the friary in the latter Middle Ages. An Austin Friar known as a scholar was Thomas Edwardston, chaplain to Lionel of Clarence. At the same time there is evidence that some of the Clare friars were suspect of heresy. Two of their number, Nicholas Bacon and John Oxeford, took part in the Peasants Revolt in 1381.
The medieval age had practices no longer seen. For example, in 1385 Robert de Baybroke, bishop of London, forced Sir Thomas Mortimer and six other men to do public penance for having violated church sanctuary. They had dragged John de Quinton from the Augustinian Church in Clare, cut off his ears, and returned him to sanctuary afterwards. On the Sunday before Lent, 12th February1385, at the hour of Vespers they were made to walk barefooted to the friary, holding candles in their hands. They offered their candles, placed a valuable cloth of gold on the high altar, and were absolved.
And in 1453 Thomas Ffoster (or Foster) sought sanctuary in church of the Austin Friars at Clare. John Bamburg, the public coroner (coronarius) for the County of Essex, by threatening to take him out of the church by force, obtained a confession of guilt and a promise not to leave the monastery for forty days. Thomas Kempe, Bishop of London (1448-1489) and conservator of Augustinian privileges, rejected the demands of Bamburg, ordered his condemnation made public, and gave the Prior at Clare, James Exall O.S.A., the right to proceed with canonical punishment against Ffoster, if needed.
And in the early sixteenth century there are signs of the new Protestantism in the neighbourhood. Thomas Topley, one of the Austin Friars, confessed to the Bishop of London that he had walked in the fields of Bumpstead and discussed doctrinal matters with Miles Coverdale, an ex-Augustinian who became a Lutheran and a personal acquaintance of Martin Luther in Germany.
It was Coverdale who made the only known English Augustinian converts to his creed, which in 1528 was Luther-inspired and an amalgam of Lollard elements, garnished with Erasmus's destructive lampooning of the religious life of friars. Four friars of Clare Priory, Suffolk, in East Anglia, succumbed to the influence of Coverdale. They were the Topley brothers, Robert and Thomas, William Gardiner, and John Wygge. These four were charged in particular with holding that the Eucharist was only bread and wine, that bishops and priests should be free to marry, that sacramental confession was useless, that a layman could administer the sacraments as validly as any ordained priest, that fasting was no use as a penance, and that sea water was as good as holy water, and so forth. All four friars were denounced for heresy to the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, before whom, on 11th May 1528, Thomas Topley, William Gardiner, and John Wygge recanted. Thomas's brother, Robert Topley, at first managed to avoid detection, but in 1532 he was arrested and then recanted. He was compelled to do penance in the priory prison at Clare for his errors and for having taken a wife, but he managed to escape and rejoined his wife.
There may have been other Protestant-minded Austin Friars at Clare Priory, but, if so, they kept their thoughts and ideas to themselves. As far as extant records go, it would seem that the tide of Lutheranism did not inundate the English Province, and perhaps for good reason. From 1520, and down to the death of Henry VIII in 1547, anyone who valued his liberty and life would have taken good care not to be apprehended in possession of Lutheran writings.
Except for Saint John Stone O.S.A. and a very few others, the English members of the Order accepted the will of King Henry VIII Of the church at Clare Priory in pre-Reformation times, the ruins of one wall is all that remains standing today. This had been the church of Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I, and buried there was Lionel Duke of Clarence (the third son of King Edward I), whose body was brought from Pavia in Italy to be buried beside his wife, Elizabeth de Burgh.
Taken from the Order by King Henry VIII in 1538, Clare Priory passed into private ownership. It has been estimated that close to three hundred or more Augustinians were evicted from their religious houses in 1538 and 1539. What became of them, where they went, what they did are questions that admit of no easy, certain answer. A dozen of the friars, possibly more, saw what was coming and made provision in time for their future, that is, by asking to be dispensed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer from their religious profession, thereby becoming eligible for a benefice as secular priests. The application almost invariably was accompanied with a request to be allowed to take off their Augustinian habit.
One of the most interesting cases is that of a friar of Clare Priory, Stephen Luskyn. He was dispensed on 20th December 1537 and permitted to wear the habit of the Augustinian Order under the robe of a secular priest in common form. The dispensation cost Luskyn four pounds, but he could hardly complain. After all, he was getting good value for his money, the best of both worlds: if the Catholic Church and the Augustinian Order were restored after the death of King Henry VIII, Luskyn could always truthfully say that he had never apostatized against the Order, and had continued to wear his Augustinian habit. On the other hand, he could go about dressed as a secular priest and, therefore, save himself from Thomas Cromwell's ire had the all-powerful minister of state espied him in his Augustinian habit.
As in the case of the vast majority of the dispossessed friars, there is no record of Luskyn's movements immediately after 1537. But twenty-nine years later he reappears in written records in the Parish of Borley in Essex, only a few miles from Clare. When its rector, William Cooper, died, the Anglican Bishop of London, in whose diocese the parish was, instituted Luskyn as the new rector on 5th January 1566. It is a safe presumption to make that not many of Luskyn's fellow Augustinians lived out their days in such relative security.
The last Augustinian Prior of Clare in medieval times, John Hallibread, alias Stokes, doctor of theology, was incardinated in the Diocese of Norwich within a year of the suppression of Clare Priory, and became one of the Anglican canons of Norwich Cathedral. Taken from the Order in 1538, Clare Priory passed into private ownership. The Priory buildings and land, about 38 acres, were granted to Richard Frende, "Trumpatur (trumpeter) unto the kinges maiestie". The property was alienated to John Killingworth in 1589, and in 1596 it was granted to Sir Thomas Barnardiston, in whose family it remained for the greater part of the seventeenth century.
From the Barnardistons the estate passed by way of a lawyer, Thomas Poulter, to the Barker family and continued to be in the possession of this family until 1953. From around 1862 until the about 1885 the buildings and grounds were used as a small private boarding school. Boys aged between nine and fourteen years attended it. There were usually three masters and twenty five students. The last person to occupy the building as a private residence was the daughter of Sir George Digby Barker and the widow of Sir Henry May, Helena Augusta Victoria, who died in 1945. Before her death Lady May and her children had decided that the conditions to be expected after the Second World War would make it financially prohibitive for the Priory and its grounds to be maintained as the family's private property. Although not a Catholic, Lady May desired that, if at all possible, the Priory be bought back by its original owners.
This was made possible in 1953 by the heirs of Lady May, through which the Order of Saint Augustine acquired the property for only a fraction of its true value. The prime mover in this had been the daughter of Lady May, Stella de Fonblanque, who now lies at rest in grave near the church, the first Catholic to be buried there since the Reformation. In 1970 when an Augustinian Province was officially re-established in the United Kingdom after a gap exceeding four hundred years, Clare Priory again became the venue of a Provincial Chapter.Video clip (below): A look at the Priory, the grounds and the new parish church adjoining the Priory's Pre-reformation infirmary building that for the past fifty years has served as a chapel. (5.50 minutes)
The present Clare Parish, created in 1953, is dedicated to Our Mother of Good Counsel, and encompasses the villages of Clare, Cavendish, Glemsford, Hundon and Stoke-by-Clare. It is "twinned" with the Augustinian parish at Baba Dogo in Nairobi, Kenya. Part of this commitment involves raising funds for Baba Dogo annually. In the first half of 2006, for example, £3,525 (pounds sterling) raised through Clare Parish and Priory was used in Baba Dogo to pay school fees, and to provide medical care and rent assistance for the unemployed.
Sunday parish Masses are celebrated in the Priory Church of Mother of Good Counsel, and in the Chapel at the Sue Ryder Care Home in Cavendish. Mass is celebrated daily in the Oratory at Clare Priory. Although the Priory itself is the home of the Augustinian community, the parish church in the grounds is open to the public, and so is a shrine, established in 1998 to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the first arrival of the Augustinians in Clare. The shrine is dedicated to Mary as the Mother of Good Counsel, a reference to the wedding at Cana when Mary asked the servants to 'do whatever he tells you'. This philosophy of always putting oneself out to serve is central to the Augustinian spiritual tradition.
As well as being the worship centre of the local Catholic parish, Clare Priory (i.e., the actual house on the property) is now an Augustinian retreat centre, as well as the dwelling place of the resident Augustinians. This building was a development from the original Priory that was destroyed and demolished in the Reformation era. The building that stands is referred to as the Prior's house, as guests (and possibly the Augustinian Prior himself) stayed there. Today the building is entered through a massive fourteenth century door, and its magnificent ceiling is probably late fifteenth century.
Between the Priory dining-room and its kitchen is a small lobby with a vaulted floor; its windows have some of the original glass and there is a part of the fourteenth-century stairway leading to the upper rooms. Upstairs is a finely panelled room and on the carving is the date, 1604, and the initials of Thomas Barnardiston, who died in 1618. (For further details, see the web page of the Priory, which is mentioned below.)
The New Parish Church at Clare Priory
Until recently the former Pre-Reformation infirmary of Clare Prior served as both the Augustinians' chapel and also as a small parish church. This building escaped demolition by the men of King Henry VIII probably because it easily served as farm storage space. In 2006 plans reached finality for a new church in the Priory grounds. Because of heritage laws, the development of plans satisfactory to heritage regulations took five years. The intention was to establish a new church beside the present one, (See images below.) The new church built on the south side of the property between the present church and a neighbouring farm. The new church would link to the old one by a passageway. The new church now exists! It has a square shape, with the altar positioned near one of its corners. The isle fans out, such that the congregation will be on three sides of the altar, but nowhere facing each other.
At the parish meeting on Sunday, 14th November 2010, progress was reported on the building of the church extension. Conditional permission to build had been granted by the various planning authorities in mid-2008. Many agencies have been involved in the fourteen years since the start of the project. The site is Grade 1 Heritage Listed. It is an ancient site and a site of historical importance. English Heritage authorities saw nowhere within the Priory grounds for a stand-alone church to be built. Earlier in the negotiations, these English Heritage authorities hinted that the south side of the church would be out of view of the ancient and historical site and close to a boundary. Over the years, re-arranging pews or building a platform or mezzanine gallery in the present church was given consideration, but one or more additional agencies connected with fire and safety regulations were against such schemes. To them, aisle width and speed of exit in an emergency were major considerations.
On the other hand, the future clustering and merging of nearby parishes could lead to more attending the Priory. Proper liturgy requires adequate space. Construction of the new church began in July 2011. The cost estimate was from £1,159,000 to £1.5m. About £360,000 had then already been at hand; the Augustinian Province has donated £360,000, and the remainder still has to be raised. In June 2012 it was reported that the construction of the new church was progressing, with the concrete foundations laid and work about to commence on the delicate task of breaking into the wall of the old church. The contracted construction company suddenly went into receivership, and a new company has to be located. Unfortunately, costs increases are anticipated therein, and also because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has revoked VAT exemption from heritage buildings, hence a second additional cost of 20% in now expected in that regard. All challenges overcome, the church was opened, and has been recommended for architectural and Heritage Site awards.
Clare Priory Ashen Road Clare, Suffolk CO10 8NX Tel: 01787 277326
Web site of the Anglo-Scottish Province of the Order of Saint Augustinehttp://www.augustinians.org.uk
Clare Priory – new Church. A website by the National Churches Trust. http://www.nationalchurchestrust.org/news/clare-priory-church-extension-shortlisted-labc-award
Clare Priory and Church photographs. http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/clarepriory/Recent
Clare Priory web site: A website with numerous features. http://www.clarepriory.org.uk
The House of the Austin Friars, Clare. A coverage by the local tourist authority. http://www.clare-uk.com/about/short_history/page7.html
Clare Priory. This is a very comprehensive history in PDF format. Twenty-eight pages. (PDF:AX294)http://www.clare-uk.com/Hatton_Book/Clare_Book_III.pdf Clare Priory. History. http://www.clare-uk.com/pages/the-house-of-austin-friars-124.htm
Talks (Clare Priory): http://www.clarepriory.org.uk/audio.html
The Interior of Clare Priory Church in the year 1810. Used as a barn. AX1759ahttp://www.londonancestor.com/suffolk/clare-priory-church.htm