A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1970.
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22. THE AUSTIN FRIARS OF STAFFORD
The only house of Austin friars in the county was that in Forebridge, a suburb to the south of Stafford borough in the parish of Castle Church. It was founded in 1344 by Ralph, Lord Stafford, for the good estate of himself, his ancestors and heirs, his wife, and their children, and of Humphrey de Hastang, Archdeacon of Coventry and apparently brother-in-law to Ralph. In November 1343, in answer to Ralph's petition, the Pope gave permission for a foundation in Forebridge provided that twelve friars could be maintained there. In June 1344 the king granted a licence for the foundation and its endowment with 5 acres as the site of the church and other priory buildings; at the same time Humphrey de Hastang was given licence to alienate to the friars a well in Forebridge from which an underground aqueduct could be built. (fn. 1) A prior and brethren were there by 1346 when Henry de Caverswall sued Prior John for a toft in Forebridge. (fn. 2) William le Heustere, chaplain, son of Richard le Heustere of Forebridge, made a grant of land in Forebridge in 1348, (fn. 3) and in 1352 Ralph, now Earl of Stafford, granted the friars a plot of land there which he had acquired from the neighbouring Hospital of St. John. (fn. 4)
The house survived until the Dissolution (fn. 5) and was a member of the administrative area (limes) of Ludlow. (fn. 6) Its first prior, John of Wirksworth, apparently continued to guide its fortunes until at least 1375. (fn. 7) Two other friars of Stafford named Wirksworth — Nicholas who was ordained deacon in 1365 (fn. 8) and Robert who occurs as a penitentiary four times between 1375 and 1382 (fn. 9) — may perhaps have been kinsfolk drawn into the order by John's influence. Twenty-four of the community were ordained during the episcopate of Robert Stretton (1360-85), six of whom attained the priesthood. Such totals, however, give merely a hint of the size of the community from which they came. (fn. 10)
The house remained obscure and received no striking benefactions. It did, however, produce men able to preach and hear confessions on the lines laid down by Boniface VIII in the bull Super Cathedram (1300) which was designed to minimize friction between mendicants and seculars. The bishop admitted one Austin friar of Stafford in accordance with that bull in 1384. (fn. 11) and on seven occasions between 1373 and 1383 friars of this house were appointed penitentiaries. (fn. 12) In 1403 the friars entertained Henry IV after his victory at Shrewsbury, and the Stafford house was one of several mendicant houses in the area to which Isabel de Sutton (d. 1397) and the justice Roger Horton by his will of 1422 each left 6s. 8d. (fn. 13)
The passing in 1536 of the Act suppressing the smaller monasteries seems to have aroused locally little or no suspicion that further measures might be in contemplation or that these might proceed from monks to friars. When the house of Austin canons at Stone was dissolved in 1537, Henry, Lord Stafford, removed his family monuments thence to what he evidently supposed to be a safe refuge with the Austin friars at Stafford. (fn. 14) In due course, however, on 9 August 1538, Richard Ingworth, Bishop of Dover, came to the house and read the injunctions which he had prepared; rather than accept them the friars, 'with one assent, without any counsel or coaction', gave their house into his hands for the king's use. He made inventories 'of the houses and implements', gave each friar 'a letter to visit his friends', and departed, leaving the possessions of the friary in the charge of William Stanford of Rowley nearby and Richard Warde of Tillington. (fn. 15) These inventories, (fn. 16) together with the details of the sale which followed on 27 September, (fn. 17) confirm Ingworth's statement that 'the Austin friars there is a poor house, with small implements, no jewels but one little chalice, no lead in the house, in rents by year 51s. 8d.' (fn. 18) The church ornaments, just adequate to meet minimum requirements, were scanty and well worn. They included four sets of vestments, old or stained altar-cloths, 'one plain cross of copper with a little image of Christ, silver, upon it', 'one little wooden cross plated over very thin with silver', a chalice weighing 13 oz. (which Ingworth took), a pair of organs, a mass book which was sold for 1s., and 'old books in the choir' which fetched 6d. The tower held one large bell valued at £8 and one small one worth 8s. There were the barest supplies of furniture and pots and platters in the hall, brewhouse, and kitchen. The total receipt from the sale of goods and buildings was £32 6s. 8d. One large purchaser of tile, shingle, timber, glass, iron, paving, and some vestments was James Leveson of Wolverhampton. In 1542 20 loads of stone from the demolished church were sold to the church of Bradley to the west of Stafford where the fine 14th-century nave arcade may well have been erected as part of a 16th-century reconstruction using this stone from Stafford. (fn. 19) In 1544 the site, such buildings as remained, and lands belonging to the former priory were granted by the Crown to Edward Stanford of Rowley. (fn. 20)
The friary site extended south-west from the Green in Forebridge, and street names on that side of Wolverhampton Road preserve the memory of the friars. The Roman Catholic church of St. Austin is so named because it stands on part of the site; the land was leased for the building of the first church in 1788 by the Berington family, who had bought the Stanfords' property in 1610. (fn. 21)
John of Wirksworth, occurs from 1346 to 1375. (fn. 22)
John Goldycar, occurs 1393 and 1395. (fn. 23)
John Stocton, occurs 1399 and 1404. (fn. 24)