The pressure of financial concerns increased the malaise and uncertainty that the Augustinian priories of England experienced in the four decades before the dissolution by King Henry VIII of the last remaining Augustinian Priory - at Hull – in 1539. There was a large debt unwisely caused by Robert Stokes O.S.A., who had become a doctor of divinity at Cambridge in 1486, after he became the English Provincial in 1487. This happened when in 1494 he obtained from the Pope, for a large up-front fee that was paid through further borrowing, the right to promote in all Austin Friars priories the granting of a plenary indulgence in return for financial contributions by people to the Augustinians' Priory at Cambridge.
The practice of selling indulgences was at that time relatively new in England. The Archbishop of Canterbury vigorously protested it, but he was powerless to halt this papal edict. Even so, partially due to the opposition of local bishops to this Augustinian fundraising among the people in their dioceses, the expected monetary influx failed to occur. Precise financial figures are no longer extant. This reprehensible scheme left the Province on a ruinous financial footing. It brought impoverishment to all priories of the Austin Friars, exacerbated alienation with the Augustinian Curia in Rome, and laid the foundations for the lamentable weakness of morale that was present when the royal visitors of Henry VIII came knocking on the priory doors for the dissolution of monasteries in the 1538-1539.
Robert Warner O.S.A., a reputable friar who succeeded Robert Stokes as English Provincial later in 1494, successfully repaid part of the Province debt, but died in office in 1496 before the task was completed. In 1516 a second edict for granting plenary indulgences was obtained by the Austin Friars, this time intended for the benefit of the Augustinian priory at Oxford. As early as from 1508 onwards, however, the English Province began to become increasingly alienated from the Augustinian Curia in Rome, variously through poor or mutually-misunderstood communications. This was exacerbated as English Provincials either found themselves in a vice between the conflicting purposes of the English king and the Augustinian Curia in Rome, or else were supporting the royal stance.
Between 1528 and its final occurrence in 1538, there was a sense abroad that the dissolution of monasteries was a serious and increasingly inevitable option. In 1532 the British Parliament commanded the members of the Austin Friars’ Provincial Chapter, contrary to the Augustinian Constitutions, to reappoint William Wetherall O.S.A. as Provincial, they did so. This was political interference. Further untoward behaviour is suspected in April 1532 when an indenture was drawn up between William Wetherall O.S.A. (Provincial), and George Browne O.S.A., Prior of the Augustinian Priory in London, for a lease for ninety-nine years to Thomas Cromwell, Master of the Royal Jewels, of land within the Augustinian enclosure so that Cromwell could build his great house there.
The Prior General in Rome confirmed these decisions, most probably because he was effectively unable to do otherwise. That was the final official communication between the Order in England and the General Curia in Rome. A year later in 1533 Henry VIII forbade the Austin Friars to have any communication with Rome, and the Augustinian General Curia could no longer consider the English Augustinians as a functioning part of the Order of Saint Augustine. Yet this was 1533, and Austin Friars priories containing community members still existed, albeit barely, for another five years.
When, as agents of King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell started to dominate the English ecclesiastical scene, they saw to it that only men of their own kind would rule within the church in England. This was the principal reason why its final collapse was so easy. For example, the Austin Friars could no longer vote for a superior of their own choice who would have kept up discipline and fostered the right spirit. Instead they were forced to vote into office men like William Wetherall O.S.A. and George Browne O.S.A., who promoted the ruination of the friaries both house spiritually and physically. That there were many friars left who had the right spirit can be gathered from the vicious epithets of Foxe, who called them “caterpillars” for wishing to maintain the practices of the Augustinian Constitutions.
In 1534-1536 the Austin Friars had a Provincial who favoured and promoted Protestantism. George Browne was an active partisan of Thomas Cromwell, who had him declared – without any reference to Rome - to be the English Augustinian Provincial. Browne was also appointed by Cromwell as one of the two royal visitors (commissioners) to inspect all mendicant houses and to reduce them to uniformity and to fealty to the king. The commissioners were armed with the authority to call in secular force if necessary. As of 13th April 1534, the Austin Friars now had Thomas Cromwell’s enforcer of mendicants as their Provincial.
As a vehicle of this enforcement, in May 1534 the Provincials of all mendicant orders in England were required by Henry VIII to sign a declaration of fealty to himself as king. In this document they had to acknowledge his marriage with Anne Boleyn, to repudiate the bishop of Rome, and to accept Henry as the supreme head of the church in England. Another challenge to ordinary friars occurred in 1536. Cromwell appointed Browne and a Dominican as royal commissioners to visit all mendicant houses for the purpose of having every friar swear an oath of allegiance to the king, which was contrary to papal authority. Each friar then had also to sign a document declaring that he was surrendering the Priory freely. With almost all the Austin Friars except John Stone O.S.A. of Canterbury, these two tasks were accomplished.
It is estimated that there were still about 317 Austin Friars living in their priories in England just before the dissolution of monasteries was completed in 1539. To blame the friars for the so-called "voluntary" surrender of their houses would be false. Photos (at right)
Images of the tenth international Augustinian Youth Encounter, held near London, England in August 2010. Over 270 persons attended from all continents, under the theme of the words of Jesus, "I call you friends."
Such free surrender consisted in the signature of a legal form, copies of which were brought along by the visitors. Whether this form was signed or not did not make a particle of difference. In the case of Austin Friary at Huntingdon, for example, no signature was taken. The houses were suppressed with or without signatures. After the official suppression had been signed (or not signed), an inventory of possessions was sent to the Augmentation Office, but only a few of these inventories have been preserved. Chalices and bells, jewels and plate were sent to the royal treasury. Big trees or woods were reserved to the king. Most buildings and lands were sold to speculators who paid far less than the actual value. Some properties - for example, Clare Priory - were sold to favourites of the king at extremely low prices. Because vocations to the priesthood had decreased generally in England in the tumultuous previous decades, these expelled and penniless Austin Friars were generally able to find positions as assistant priests in local parishes.
The one community that fared best of all was that of Bristol in the west country of England. At the time of the suppression of monasteries and friaries in 1537-38 the community numbered eight friars. Of these, the prior and one other were appointed pastors; two more got positions as curates or assistant priests in parishes; and another two became chantry priests or chaplains. Thus six found employment and, with that, a livelihood, but the remaining two of the eight friars got nothing. This was generally the case. Perhaps they were unable to get their "capacities" (i.e., the necessary dispensations for becoming secular priests and, therefore, become eligible for a benefice).
Only a miniscule number of them followed the new Lutheran teaching. Only one Austin Friar is known to have moved overseas – in 1544 to an Augustinian house at Naples, Italy – so as to continue living as an Augustinian friar. The Catholic religion was not abolished under Henry VIII; this happened later under Elizabeth I, by which time most of these former Austin Friars were dead. The greatest disappointment with the demise of the English Augustinian Province was its Provincials since royal intervention in their appointment from 1532 onwards: William Wetherall (1526-1531, and 1532-1534), George Browne (1534-1536) and John Hardiman (1536-1538).
Photo (above): Austin Friars house, a commercial building on part of the site today of the former Augustinian monastery in central London. The niche contains a statue of an Austin Friar.Instead of supporting the Province and the Order, these three successive Provincials undermined them. One redeeming feature was that none of them had been chosen by the Austin Friars themselves; they had been imposed by the king to promote and execute the will of the Crown. The year 1533 saw the last formal communication between the English Province and the Augustinian Curia, and that was not only the extinction of the link between the Augustinian Order and its English friars, but the passing of any semblance of a real connectedness of the Austin Friars with their Order beyond English shores.
The three Crown-appointed Provincials from 1533 onwards merely served the king’s intent of acquiring the Augustinian properties and evicting the friars. Under such a regime, especially after 1533 when contact with Rome not only ceased but henceforth was explicitly forbidden by the king, it would have been extremely difficult for any individual Austin Friar to protest against the action of king, bishops and successive Augustinian Provincials who wished them to attest fealty to the king and to abjure all Roman authority and direction. In the end, the English Austin Friars, numbering some three hundred, were forcibly ejected from their thirty-five religious houses between June 1538 and March 1539. A dozen or so of the friars had not waited for the blow to fall.
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