A History of the County of London: Volume 1, London Within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1909.
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14. THE AUSTIN FRIARS
The earliest settlement of the Friars Hermits of the order of St. Augustine in these islands was made in Wales in 1252. (fn. 1) It was here probably that Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford and Essex, and constable of England, came into contact with them on his return from the Crusade, since in 1253 he founded the house of that order near the church of St. Peter le Poor in Broad Street, London. (fn. 2) The Austin Friars never seem to have aroused in the slightest degree the enthusiasm manifested by London citizens (fn. 3) for the Franciscans, neither did they show any of the abnegation and love of poverty which were the distinguishing features of the Grey Friars in the early days of the order. The site of the house, which was very different from that of Newgate, was not, of course, chosen by them, but within thirty years of the foundation an incident occurred in which they display a distinctly grasping spirit. Sir Henry de Chikehull had given them a piece of land in Chichester subject to the condition that it was lawful for them to retain it. It was afterwards found that as the land was within a certain distance of the settlement of the Friars Minors of that city, it could not be possessed by any other order without infringing the privileges granted to the Franciscans by the pope. The Austin Friars were so reluctant to relinquish all claim to it that while they gave up the land they retained the title-deeds, until Chikehull at last, in 1382, invoked the aid of Archbishop Peckham. (fn. 4)
They were accused in 1321 of raising walls without any right in the parishes of Allhallows on the Wall and St. Peter's, Broad Street, (fn. 5) and it looks as if they had been taking advantage of the disturbances of the reign to encroach on the land on both sides. They may certainly have been tempted by their need of more space, for in 1334 they obtained some ground in order to extend their buildings, (fn. 6) and in 1345 Reginald de Cobham granted them three messuages for the same purpose, (fn. 7) while about this time other tenements were acquired from the priory of St. Mary without Bishopsgate. (fn. 8) The arrangement made with the rector of St. Peter's, Broad Street, as to tithes and oblations in 1349 points to recent acquisitions in the parish. (fn. 9) The rebuilding of their church in 1354 they owed to a descendant of their founder, another Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford and Essex, (fn. 10) and the house doubtless benefited in 1361 under the will of the earl, who left 300 marks for masses to be sung by friars of the order. (fn. 11) Repairs were very soon necessary, for the tall and slender steeple was ruined by a storm in 1362.
The convent saw something of the horrors of 1381: thirteen Flemings who had taken refuge in the church were dragged out and killed by the mob, (fn. 12) but the animosity of the rioters does not seem to have extended to the friars.
In the contest of the Mendicants with the archbishop of Armagh no special share can be assigned to the Austin Friars of London; in the controversy with Wycliffe, however, they were well represented by Banchin, a friar of their house and afterwards prior, who took an active part in exposing the errors of his teaching in the council of 1382. (fn. 13) Five years later the convent came into contact with the Lollards in a more exciting way. A certain Peter Patteshull, (fn. 14) who had once been an Austin Friar and had become a Lollard, preached in the church of St. Christopher to a congregation imbued with the same views as himself, on the iniquities practised by the members of his old order. (fn. 15) Some of the convent, being informed, came to the church to hear him, and one openly protested. The Lollards set upon him, turned the friars out of the church, and roused by the charges made by Patteshull, determined to burn down the friary. They were checked by the prayers of two of the friars, and by that time one of the sheriffs arrived and persuaded them to disperse without doing any damage. How much foundation Patteshull had for his accusations—which were aimed at no particular friary, but at the order generally—it is impossible to say. Two friars had left the London house in 1364, taking with them books and other goods, (fn. 16) apparently owing to a disagreement with their superiors, and another had apostatized in 1387, (fn. 17) but neither case proves anything as to the state of the convent.
The formation of libraries seems to have been a feature of the age, and in this respect the Austin Friars were not behind the London friars of other orders, Prior John Low making great additions to the books of the house in the early fifteenth century. (fn. 18) Two members at least of the London convent besides Banchin and Low were renowned for their learning: Thomas Pemchet, D.D., who taught divinity at Pavia, became provincial of England, and died in London in 1487; and John Tonney, at one time also provincial, who died in 1490. (fn. 19)
The dynastic struggles which follow are not marked in any way in the history of the house except by the burial in their church of nobles who died on the scaffold or the battlefield, (fn. 20) for this church, like those of the other London friars, was a favourite place of sepulture with persons of high degree. (fn. 21) The friary probably profited considerably in this way: the Marquis of Berkeley gave the convent £100 for perpetual masses for the soul of his first wife Joan, who was buried there; (fn. 22) and Sir Thomas Brandon, who married the marquis's widow, bequeathed £60 in 1509 to establish a chantry for the marquis and this lady. (fn. 23)
In the reign of Henry VIII some light is thrown on the condition of the priory. In 1525 some of the friars were put in the Tower because a friar had died in their prison. (fn. 24) Whether anything was discovered detrimental to the priory or not, it was to this house that Dr. Barnes was sent in 1526 after he had done penance at St. Paul's for his heretical opinions. (fn. 25) Little restraint can have been put on him as the account of a heretic shows to whom he sold an English New Testament. Tyball went to the Austin Friars for the express purpose of getting the book and found Barnes in his rooms and several people with him, among them a merchant. (fn. 26) As Barnes was allowed to receive any visitors he chose he can have had little difficulty in obtaining these books, for the convent was surrounded by foreign merchants (fn. 27) who lived in houses within the close. (fn. 28) Apart, however, from the views of individual friars the priory's attitude with regard to the king's marriage and the questions arising from it is easily explicable. Cromwell lived near, and in 1532 began to build his huge house on land leased from the convent and adjoining their churchyard. (fn. 29) He therefore had exceptional opportunities for interference and influence, (fn. 30) of which he undoubtedly took advantage. He found a willing instrument in the prior, George Brown, who identified himself with the king's side, (fn. 31) and was duly rewarded afterwards by being chosen to be one of the commissioners to visit all the houses of friars in England. (fn. 32) The principles of the rest of the house were not likely to prove an obstacle to Cromwell's wishes if some anonymous information (fn. 33) about 1534 against the friars be true. In this it is said that the services were scamped and neglected while the friars sat drinking in bad company; there was no common refectory, but they dined in sets in their rooms; no rules were kept, and the authority of the prior, who was incapable of maintaining discipline, was utterly disregarded. Although Brown does not seem to have been prior at this date (fn. 34) he must be held in some measure responsible for a state of things which could not have been of sudden development. (fn. 35) As is not unusual, the friars, while forgetting their duties, had a keen idea of their rights, and in October, 1532, six of them had to do penance for a contest with the priest of St. Dunstan's in the East over the body of a stranger who had died in that parish. (fn. 36)
When in August, 1538, their church was used by the Lutheran preacher who came in the train of the Saxon and Hessian ambassadors (fn. 37) the end of the friary must have been felt to be near. In the following November the house was surrendered by the prior Thomas Hamond and twelve friars. (fn. 38)
The income of the convent, estimated at £57 os. 4d., (fn. 39) was derived from tenements in various London parishes, St. Benet Fink, (fn. 40) St. Andrew Eastcheap, (fn. 41) St. Lawrence, (fn. 42) Allhallows the Great, St. Martin (?) Queenhithe, and St. Christopher, (fn. 43) besides its principal holding in the parish of St. Peter le Poor, where one of its earliest possessions was the ground on which the church of St. Olave had stood. (fn. 44) A piece of their property can still be identified, for Cromwell's house after his attainder was sold to the Drapers' Company, (fn. 45) whose hall now occupies the site. The friars seem also to have had possessions in the counties of Essex and Sussex. (fn. 46)
Priors of the Austin Friars
John, occurs 1349 (fn. 47)
William de Ainukelan, occurs 1364 (fn. 48)
Thomas Asshebourne, occurs 1380 (fn. 49)
Banchin, occurs 1387 (fn. 50)
John Low, occurs c. 1430 (fn. 51)
John Bury, occurs 1471 (fn. 52)
R. Blenet, occurs 1475 (fn. 53)
Master Bellond, S.T.P., occurs 1522 (fn. 54)
George Brown, D.D., occurs 1532 (fn. 55) and 1533 (fn. 56)
Thomas Hamond, (fn. 57) surrendered the friary, 1538 (fn. 58)
There is a seal of the thirteenth century, (fn. 59) in shape a pointed oval, which represents the Virgin half-length. She wears a crown and holds the Child on her left arm. On the left-hand side in the field a hand issues holding a censer. In the base, under a trefoiled arch, a friar to the right kneels in prayer between two stars.
A seal of the fourteenth century (fn. 60) bears a representation of the Ascension with four friars looking upwards. In the base there is an ornamental scroll of foliage; overhead, a crescent inclosing a star of six points, and wavy clouds. In the field is the word DIPINITORES Legend:—
A later seal of the fifteenth century (fn. 61) is a pointed oval. On this there are two canopied niches; on the one to the left a saint stands holding a sword and book, on the other stands a sainted bishop with a pastoral staff in his left hand. In the base, under a carved arch, is a lion dormant. Legend:—