Led by one Nicholas Smith of Norwich in 1535 - he was quick to act indeed - they were dispensed from their religious vows, except chastity, by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and thus became eligible for employment as secular priests if they could secure a bishop who would endow them with a benefice (an ecclesiastical position with a guaranteed annual stipend). Understandably enough, the Austin Friars who remained in their friaries until ejected were in no hurry to leave, as the alternative was homelessness and deprivation of the means of keeping body and soul together. To resist seemed useless, and worse. For one Austin Friar of a number who resisted, it cost him his life – Saint John Stone O.S.A. of Canterbury.
With the exception of the few Austin Friars who followed the new teaching, most of the expelled friars appear to have passed the rest of their lives in the service of the church as diocesan priests. Since vocations to the priesthood during the previous decades had greatly decreased, most friars in good standing could find a benefice or serve as assistants in parishes (like those in Norwich mentioned above) once their capacities arrived.
The ecclesiastical term capacity was used in the time of King Henry VIII to refer to permission to accept a benefice, a church-derived income. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the term was extended to include the friars expelled from their monasteries, who needed permission from the Crown to serve in the diocesan church structure and to be recompensed for doing so. The capacity was extended to include royal permission for the friar to lay aside his religious habit, as well as clearance to apply for and to accept a church benefice or income.
This inclusion of friars in the practice of requiring capacities enabled Thomas Cromwell to exercise his well-known practice of extortion. It should be re-called that extortion was one of the reasons for which Cromwell was executed in 1540, shortly after he had been made Earl of Essex. A detailed system of fees had been developed two years before the suppression took place. It demanded £15 from every mendicant seeking his capacity. Of this sum, decreasing proportions were to go the king, the chancellor, the clerks and the Archbishop of Canterbury as the senior prelate in England, and finally his commissary and scribe. Once the friaries were suppressed Cromwell had to lower his demands. Some friars paid £15 but most of the friars were able to give only £4.
In order to gain the largest possible amount Cromwell gave the friars at least a year to raise the required sum of money from their relatives and friends, during which time the friar was not legally able to earn money from the exercise of any priestly ministry. Those former friars who had proved themselves amenable to the political regime of Henry VIII received their capacities promptly and free of charge.
The viciousness of this system has not been described so far because the only source, the Computus which contains Cranmer's receipts for capacities, had remained unknown to modern historians until recent decades. Despite all these pressures the friars were not anxious to lay aside their Augustinian habit, although transgressors were quickly reported to Thomas Cromwell. Friar Patrick, an Austin Friar of Rye, was denounced in 1535 because he continued to wear his religious garb, and Stephen Luskyn O.S.A. of Clare Priory will ever hold a place of honour among Augustinians because he actually volunteered to pay for the privilege of continuing to wear his Augustinian habit underneath his newly-acquired garb of a secular priest.
Officially in the Register of the Prior General, Girolamo Seripando, dated 1539, the English Province became extinct seven years earlier, in 1532. This entry is an incorrect conclusion for a number of reasons. The rationale for assigning the demise of the Province to 1532 was that the last recorded Chapter of the Province was held in that year, and its Acts (official decisions) were sent to Rome for confirmation by the then Prior General, Gabriele della Volta. He duly confirmed the Acts, as well as the prorogation of the next Provincial Chapter for seven years, that is, until 1539. But even then, although all the houses in England had been dissolved, some friars still remained at least nominally Augustinian, and in fact John Stone O.S.A. was not executed until the last days of that same year.
Photos (at left).St Mary's Anglican Church at Atherstone in Warwickshire. It contains sections of the original pre-Reformation church - including the tower - built and conducted by the Austin Friars until their suppression by King Henry VIII circa 1538.
The English friaries of all the mendicant orders – that is, not just the Augustinian friaries - were never officially suppressed, neither by act of British Parliament, as in the case of the lesser friaries, and then the greater priories and abbeys, nor by fiat of King Henry VIII. By royal pressure, they were surrendered by their friars, and thereby possessed by the Crown. The land possession of the Austin Friars in all of England did not add up to a total exceeding 350 acres. The value of the Priory buildings on these lands was not realised by the king, for generally the roof of the Priory was stripped of its lead, and the weather then destroyed the roofless structures. Rental income from these properties probably gained the king no more than £150 annually.
In such exposure, libraries wasted away, or books were sold to merchants as waste or as wrapping paper. Buildings in cities were demolished and building materials re-used on other projects. Now that the former priory lands were now taxable, however, the royal treasury received land taxes from the new owners of these properties. Medieval Augustinian-built structures that still remain in England are now few. The most notable is Clare Priory in Suffolk, which the Oder purchased back in 1953, and where remain some newer sections of pre-Reformation buildings of the Augustinian era. As well, the former Augustinian church in Atherstone, in Warwickshire, England, now in use by the Anglican Church, contains sections from its Augustinian era, and an Austin Friars public chapel built in Rye, Sussex, in 1379 still stands, but is no longer used for religious purposes. Portion of the large Austin Friars Church in London remained until demolished during aerial bombing by the German Luftwaffe in 1940.
The Augustinians (and, indeed, numerous other religious orders) were not in the best condition possible to oppose the English Reformation. (For Augnet pages giving details of the Augustinian Order during the English Reformation, click here.) Except for John Stone (killed at Canterbury in 1539) and a very few others, the Augustinians capitulated to the will of King Henry VIII, and their houses were closed and confiscated. This was the end of the English Province of the Order, and for more than 300 years the Order ceased to exist in England. Various Augustinian Priors General in Rome devised plans in an effort to recommence Augustinian communities in England, but without success. Likewise, other mendicant orders - the Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites – made efforts of their own, usually with not much more success than the Augustinians had. The Prior General, Cristofero da Padua O.S.A., in 1556 contacted Maurice O'Flynn, an Augustinian in Ireland, and asked him if, with the help of any influential friends he might have in England, he might be able to send Augustinians from Ireland to establish communities in England once again.
This idea was wishful thinking, and showed the Prior General's considerable ignorance of the political and ecclesiastical situation in both Ireland and England. At about the same time, the Prior General decided to petition through official channels for the recovery of the former Augustinian monasteries in England. For political reasons he approached the Provincial of the Castile Province in Spain, Alonso Garcia de Madrid O.S.A., because the King of England, Philip II, being also the future king of Spain, was well acquainted with the Spanish Augustinians. The Prior General asked Alonso Garcia de Madrid O.S.A. to appoint a capable friar who not only could negotiate with the Queen in England but also would then remain in England to lead the Augustinian restoration in the role of Commissary Provincial (i.e., a Provincial commissioned by the Prior General, rather than elected locally by the friars). The best-known of three friars considered for appointment to England was Blessed Alonso de Orozco O.S.A. (1500-1591). He had been prior in several houses of the Spanish Province, and a year earlier on 13th March 1554 was made a preacher at the Spanish royal court by Charles V. Through his position he was well placed for the English enterprise.
The friar finally chosen, however, was Fr Sebastigo Toscano O.S.A. Of Portuguese origin, he made his profession in the monastery of Salamanca in 1533, studied in Rome and later on at Bologna in Italy, had been secretary of the previous Prior General, Girolamo Seripando O.S.A., and was regent of studies in the Augustinian observantine congregation of St John of Carbonara at Naples. In 1547 he went to Portugal to become a preacher at the court of King John III, and by 1554 was a member of the famed Augustinian convento at Salamanca, Spain.
His impressive background notwithstanding, Toscano only travelled as far as Brussels in Belgium, where by September 1555 Phillip II resided after his departure from England. Not only was Toscano apparently reluctant to go to England, but also the English authorities were reluctant to permit his passage to England, in spite of (or maybe also because of) Philip’s intervention in the matter. Toscano returned to Portugal, and then in early 1558 declined a second proposal from the Prior General that he re-attempt to reach England. A Spanish friar was appointed in his place, but this plan was stillborn because Queen Mary died on 17th November 1558 and her successor, Queen Elizabeth I, quickly began to banish Catholicism from her realm. The entire Augustinian restoration project had been hampered both by the appointment of a reluctant friar to lead it, and by an incomplete and imperfect understanding of the real situation in England on the part of the Prior General in Rome. The sending of a leader with a Spanish background was problematic in England, where Queen Mary’s marriage to a Spaniard in the person of Philip II (who later sent the Spanish Armada against England) had caused protest and had not lasted.
(Continued on the next page.)
A thirty-page historical booklet, The Austin Friars, was written by the late Rev. Dr. Michael Benedict Hackett O.S.A. in 1998, and published by Augustinian Press, Clare Priory, Suffolk CO10 8NX, England.AN4821