There was for almost two hundred years an Augustinian friary (convent in Italian) in Conduit Street, Rye, Sussex, England. Founded at an earlier site on the East cliff in 1364, the community transferred to the new site in town c.1380, but was dissolved in 1538 as part of the dissolution of monasteries by King Henry VIII.
The only building remaining intact is the friary chapel, known as the Monastery, which is a Grade Two heritage listed two storey building. It is scheduled as an Ancient Monument and, owing to its poor condition, it is also on the Heritage at Risk Register. The chapel building has served a number of purposes over the years: it has been a Salvation Army barracks, a community hall and most recently a pottery workshop. All of these matters will be examined in detail on the web page.
This small Austin Friary existed in Rye between the years 1364 and 1538. It has gained more historical attention than almost any other small Austin Friary probably because the public chapel built there by the Augustinians late in the fourteenth century still exists, although somewhat altered internally. It is of similar interest as Atherstone, where the former Augustinian church – now much enlarged – is the local Anglican parish church, and Clare Priory, where still can be seen two pre-Reformation Augustinian buildings, plus the barest remnants of other buildings in ruin.
The Augustinian Provincial of the English Province, Geoffrey Herdeby O.S.A. wrote to Pope Urban V in April 1364 that “whereas there are in England many cities and considerable towns in which the Augustinian hermits 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 offices, in which they shall enjoy their privileges, immunities and indulgences."
Pope Urban V granted Herdeby’s request. He authorised the establishment of four new places "for twelve friars, with the consent of the diocesan authorities and saving the rights of the parish church and others.” The first of these eventuated in Rye, Sussex, which turned out to be the only Austin Friary in south-eastern England. Rye is one of the Cinque Ports amongst the coastal towns of Kent and Sussex at the eastern end of the English Channel.
The Friary’s initial local benefactors were William Taillour and Benedict Zely, who in 1364 were allowed by the civic authorities to give the Augustinians two acres of land at East Cliff, on which once had stood five properties that already had been destroyed by the sea and to which the present Ockman’s Lane used to lead. The King did not oblige the friars to pay the annual rent of 2/10d (two shillings and ten pence) on the property because the Lord Warden had reported it as having no current value, being endangered by erosion by the sea. In return for this exemption, the Austin Friars were to celebrate Mass for the good of the King and the donors of the land, and for their souls, progenitors and heirs.
The Augustinian chapel and priory on East Cliff were among the buildings that suffered from the raid by marauding French sailors in 1377, which destroyed most of Rye by fire. As the site was already being undermined by the sea, it was deemed unwise to rebuild on the same site. The Augustinians applied to the Corporation of Rye for a new site, which was duly granted in 1379 at a place called La Haltone. Here the friars soon built a new chapel, and other buildings which no longer survive. The Chapel, which did survive, is known today as the Monastery.
This chapel faced Conduit Hall and is 68 feet long, 26 feet wide (within the walls), and 31 feet high. At either end was a large handsome window surmounted by a Gothic arch, the lower part of each ornamented or supported by a corbel, representing some grotesque human head. These windows are 11 feet wide and l8 feet high. On the south side are remains of four gothic arched windows with rich tracery forming the mullions; they are 7 feet wide and 11 feet high. As there were no houses on the south side to obscure them, the windows were visible from this part of High Street and showed to advantage.
On the north side considerable alteration was made at the recent restoration. On this side of the chapel, there are also traces of the foundations of a building, which was probably the friary. At the beginning of the fifteenth century this friary like so many other religious houses suffered from a lack of candidates. Several times the Prior General in Rome had to assign brethren from other English Augustinian houses to this friary in Rye, but he always did so for only a limited period of time. But when in 1439 the house was almost devoid of brethren he gave permission to accept four brethren for life with the condition that Rye attract at least four novices of its own within the next four years.
One of the probable reasons for lack of membership was the bad example given by the non-observance of the common life, evidence of which is seen in the last wills and bequests of benefactors. (Other general factors are mentioned elsewhere in this Augnet web site.) For example, in Rye in 1424 William Marchaunt bequeathed 6s8d (six shillings and eight pence) to the friary, and also gave also each priest 2s8d personally for a trental of Masses and 12d (twelve pence) to each novice to pray for his soul. Such a step as granting money to individual friars was certainly against the ideal of the Augustinian common life.
A Gregorian trental, as mentioned in the above paragraph, involved the celebration of a total of thirty Masses on thirty consecutive days for the eternal deliverance of deceased. The patron saint of the Austin Friary at Rye was St Augustine of Hippo. Since his feast on 28th August coincided with the dedication festival of the parish, John Arundel, Bishop of Chichester, ordered on 9th July 1476 that the annual celebration of the dedication of the parish church in Rye should be advanced to 15th August.
Shortly before the suppression of monasteries in 1538, the Friary must have had an excellent superior who strove with energy to repair the ruinous buildings. In 1524-1525 a local benefactor, William Marsh, provided a new roof for the Friary. The will of Henry Harworth of Playden made in 1535 is one of those rare documents which gives either the entire or partial membership of a house. In the list in the next paragraph, a priest in that era could be called Sir as a respectful gesture, and had nothing to do with knighthood.
Prior Nicholas Unkely was to receive 6s8d (six shillings and eight pence) to sing half a trental; Sir William Browne 20s for a trental; Fr William Nesbott 5s for a trental and Fr William Kyrry 5s for half a trental. To William Nlychell, who was either a novice or a lay brother, he willed 20d to pray for him. The writing of this will in 1535, only three years before the suppression of monasteries, shows continuing respect for the Austin Friars of Rye at that very trying political period.
The decade of the 1530s was most trying for any Austin Friar who wished to retain his principles and maintain his traditional values and practices of Augustinian religious life. The three successive Augustinian Provincials from 1526 until the suppression of the monasteries and friaries by King Henry VIII in 1538 were brought to office at the insistence of the King, who demanded the election of politically-pliant candidates who would follow his bidding and support his desires re royal divorce and remarriage.
One of these Provincials, William Wetherall O.S.A. was appointed for the period from 1526 to 1534. He did not in fact remain in office for the full seven years; he either died during that period, or else was deposed by Thomas Cromwell, King Henry’s most powerful public officer, because he could not keep his friars in line with attitudes that the king sorely wanted. For example, some of the Austin Friars were too outspoken against the king's divorce, while a very small number of other Austin Friars propagated new Lutheran-tinged doctrines. This was true of an Austin Friar at Rye who is known to history only as Sir James. In that era, referring to a priest as Sir was a respectful gesture used especially when the priest’s first name was unknown, or if he was being named in a formal context.
On 17th October 1533, the Austin Friar referred to as Sir James was arrested upon the command of Thomas Cromwell “for uttering malicious words against the king and the queen,” an expression regularly used against persons who voiced disapproval of the king's bigamy. Sir James was sent to Sir Edward Guildford, warden of Cinq Ports, but must have remained steadfast in his opinion and attitude because on 28th October Guildford inquired of Cromwell what to do with him.
This is the last know recorded reference to Sir James. He may very well have been one of the two Augustinians of this era who died for their faith in addition to Blessed John Stone O.S.A. at Canterbury. Apparently Rye was a hotbed of royal discontent. Its diocesan pastor, William Inold, was arrested several times for speaking his mind. In 1538 an Austin Friar at Rye who was named Patrick was accused for holding services in his Augustinian religious habit, i.e., after the Friary was suppressed. The subsequent fate of both friars is unknown.
The Act of Surrender of the Austin Friary at Rye is a document that is no longer extant. It was signed on l8th December 1538. The king’s official visitator to Rye, Richard Ingworth, had just visited Canterbury where he had encountered the opposition of Blessed John Stone O.S.A.. The Austin Friary, with a garden, an orchard and a small close containing about one acre, was valued at 8s4d a year. Since no one bought it, it remained in the hands of the king until 1545.
It was purchased in 1545 by Thomas Goodwyn, with all its buildings and property, with the exception of the legacies definitely left for Masses for the dead. Thomas Goodwyn paid the large sum of £1,112.2.6 for the Friary buildings and contents. The former Augustinian buildings were by then in a dilapidated condition. Later, the chapel was used as a place of worship for French Huguenots, as also had happened with the famous large Austin Friars Church in London. In 1646 the Friary was owned by an Anthony Norton, who was a strong Royalist and was often in trouble with the Corporation of Rye for his strong words against that body, as also was his wife. He owned not only the Friary but the land to its north, up to the town wall, as well as other lands and houses in the town. In about 1711, Ralph Norton, a descendant of Anthony Norton, owned as well as the house opposite the former Augustinian site.
The former Austin Friars chapel was used as a malt house, a salt and provision store, and a wool warehouse. It became a Salvation Army barracks for some time, until they moved to their new Citadel in Rope Walk, which in turn later became an antique shop. It then came into the possession of the Church of England for use as a Sunday school and for other purposes. In 1903, the then Vicar in Rye of the Church of England, the Rev Howes, interested himself in the chapel building, and proposed its conversion into a Church House. It was then extensively altered by a syndicate of churchmen, and was formally opened in 1905. After this it was used for many community events, especially during the Second World War, when dances were held here. As well, movie films were shown there after the German aerial bombing of Rye’s cinema. On 30th May 1964 the building became the home of Cinque Ports Pottery, which closed in July 2007.
In 2014 the Monastery awaited decisions as to its next use. A group of influential local citizens have formed The Fletcher Group and are hoping this unique heritage from Rye’s past can become the focus of a cultural centre with theatre (commemorating the 16th century playwright John Fletcher who was born in Rye), cinema, restaurant and even a library.
Former Austin Friary at Rye http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rye_Austin_Friary
Rye monastery landmark goes up for sale. Newspaper article, 24 April 2014. [AW728] http://www.ryeandbattleobserver.co.uk/news/local/rye-monastery-landmark-goes-up-for-sale-1-6008197
Rye Castle Museum. A page of history, with illustrations. http://www.ryemuseum.co.uk/the-monastery AN4214