Friaries: Austin friars, Cambridge

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1948.

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'Friaries: Austin friars, Cambridge', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 287-290. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

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The Order of Friars of St. Augustine was constituted in the middle of the 13th century to bring under one rule various congregations of hermits, and they were therefore sometimes known as Friars Hermits. Although the Order did not obtain full equality with the other three great Orders of Friars until 1241, (fn. 1) a house of Austin Friars was established at Clare in Suffolk apparently about 1248. (fn. 2) In June 1290 Sir Geoffrey de Picheford, who was Constable of Windsor and active in the service of Edward I (fn. 3) but is not known to have had any connexion with Cambridge, obtained licence to alienate to the Austin Friars a messuage in Cambridge, subject to a rent of 7s. to the Crown. (fn. 4) This was evidently the nucleus of the site which they subsequently occupied on Peas Hill. Sir Geoffrey, who apparently founded the house in memory of his son Arnulf, intended to enlarge the site, (fn. 5) but died early in 1299 (fn. 6) before he had done so. On 7 April 1292 the prior and convent had licence to enclose a strip of ground 200 ft. long by 30 ft. wide, extending from their wall to the King's Ditch, provided that they made a gate at each end with a way between for the defence of the town. (fn. 7) Two messuages adjoining their site were granted to the friars in 1305, (fn. 8) and in 1319 the king remitted, in support of the lights and ornaments of their church, the rent payable to the Exchequer for their site, here stated to be 3s. 4d. (fn. 9) In 1335, in belated fulfilment of the founder's intention, Robert de Comberton, a burgess of Cambridge, and Thurstan, bedell of the University, gave to the king two more messuages for the use of the friars, (fn. 10) to whom he promptly granted them. (fn. 11) Two years later, in 1337, they had licence to acquire another 1½ acres, (fn. 12) under which they acquired four more messuages. (fn. 13) Finally, in 1376 they were pardoned, on condition of praying for the souls of Edward III and Queen Philippa, for having acquired without licence a messuage and toft in Lurteburgh Lane (fn. 14) (now Free School Lane).

The Friary had now apparently reached its full extent, and occupied, as it did at the Dissolution, the whole space lying between the modern thoroughfares of Peas Hill on the north, Pembroke Street on the south, Free School Lane on the west, and Corn Exchange Street on the east. (fn. 15) Probably some of the messuages were retained as received, with their dwelling-houses upon them, and let to selected tenants. (fn. 16) The site being within the parish of St. Edward, and the friars having papal exemption from all forms of tithe, they agreed in 1290 to pay 4s. a year to the vicar, and to increase the amount proportionately as they increased their bounds; they also undertook not to receive any parishioner to the sacraments, but to send their own secular servants who received wages to St. Edward's, and to see that they paid their dues there. (fn. 17) In 1289 the Pope had given to the Austin Friars an indulgence of 100 days for those who visited their churches on certain feasts, (fn. 18) and in 1302 the right of burial, (fn. 19) as well as that of preaching and hearing confessions, was given them. The Austin Friars of Cambridge had thus spiritual advantages to offer to their benefactors in the church. That the right of burial was used is shown by the female skeletons—four in number, with, apparently, the remains of two children— found when the church was excavated in 1908. (fn. 20) The friars' own cemetery lay to the south of the church, on the other side of the main roadway to the domestic buildings, (fn. 21) of which a part, reputed to have been the refectory but more probably either the infirmary or guest hall, existed until 1746. (fn. 22) On the south, in the wall by the King's Ditch, one of the two gates ordered in 1292 was to be seen towards the end of the 16th century, and in the 18th Cole remembered 'good old gates' with a larger and a smaller wicket, opening upon Peas Hill. (fn. 23) The church, which in the 15th century and perhaps earlier, played an important part in University functions, (fn. 24) as did that of the Austins at Oxford, (fn. 25) occupied the north range of the cloister. It was apparently repaired, and perhaps enlarged, in the middle of the 14th century, as in 1356 protection was given to the servants of the friars employed with a cart and three horses in the counties of Cambridge and Huntingdon fetching victuals and stone and timber for the repair of their church. (fn. 26)

That their system resembled that of the Franciscans is shown by Bishop Montacute's licence to seven limitors among the Austin Friars of Cambridge in 1340. These were Robert atte Lee, the prior; the sub-prior Peter de Wisbech, Hugh de Over, Hamo de Hythe, William Braughing, Henry de Kingston, and Nicholas de Parys. (fn. 27) The two first were appointed surrogates, and all seven, with five other friars, were licensed as penitentiaries on 2 November 1340, (fn. 28) their licences being renewed for a further 3 years on 10 March 1342. (fn. 29) Of the five other penitentiaries four— William Walcote, John de Lynne, Simon de Lynne, and Walter de Berewyco—were Bachelors of Divinity. On 3 February 1387 Arundel, as Bishop of Ely, manumitted John, son of William Gybbe of Wivelingham, an Austin Friar of Cambridge, his nativus. (fn. 30)

The Austin Friars were deeply involved in trouble between town and gown which became acute about 1413. In 1417, when John de Rykinghale, the Chancellor, was at the Council of Constance, and Henry Stokton his Vicechancellor was acting for him, the differences were laid before Henry V at Southampton. (fn. 31) The townsmen alleged that Thomas Cressale, Prior of the Friars Hermits, Henry Stokton his friar, Vicechancellor of the University, with the proctors, bedell, and sub-bedell, had encouraged riotous scholars to insult and threaten the mayor, and had themselves imprisoned Thomas Hierman, a servant of the commonalty who had a suit for debt against a servant of the Prior of Barnwell, and a burgess named Henry Dunmowe. The affair dragged on, and Bilney, the ex-mayor, when he was summoned, on Rykinghale's return, to appear before him in the church of the Austin Friars, offered to fight the Chancellor and threatened to resist arrest with 100 armed men. He himself had arrested Cressale, the prior, and another friar named Nicholas Swafham, both Doctors of Divinity, with two scholars' servants and had kept them all in prison pending the payment of fines which the University alone had the right to demand. Bilney was also accused of a false plea that the Prior of the Austin Friars had attempted his life while he was mayor and had entered Hierman's house illegally. (fn. 32)

In 1494 Archbishop Morton wrote to the Bishop of Ely that the Austin Friars of Cambridge 'with intent to make money by fraud' have, under cover of a confirmation of their privileges recently obtained from the Pope, proclaimed that they have the right to grant plenary remission to all who resort to them. He bade the bishop inhibit them until the instrument on which they based their claims had been examined. (fn. 33)

It is probable that Cambridge was in touch with the reformation movement in Germany from its inception there in 1493. If 'Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched', its nest was the Austin Friary. The reforming friars in Germany obtained a bull giving them self-government under their own Vicar-General Staupitz, an intimate friend of Luther: while Staupitz was Dean of the Faculty of Theology at Wittenberg an English Austin Friar, Robert Barnes, (fn. 34) was studying at Louvain. He returned to England, was incorporated B.D. at Cambridge, and took his degree of D.D. there in 1522-3: in the same year Luther's these were adopted by the Provincial Chapter of the Austin Friars of Saxony at Wittenberg. Soon after this Barnes was made Prior of the Cambridge convent, and at once began to read Terence, Plautus, and Cicero in the friary with the assistance of his pupil, Thomas Parnell, whom he had brought from Louvain. He collected a group of like-minded scholars, most of them Austin Friars, who met at the White Horse Inn, near the friary, nicknamed 'Little Germany' from their activities. Academically, the members were not the most prominent friars of their time, and little is heard of them in the University records, possibly because the group was broken up while most of them were still young. In 1515 Thomas Swillington, D.D., who describes himself as 'Vicar of the Order of Friars Hermit of the Order of St. Augustine of Cambridge', presented four friars to the bishop for ordination, (fn. 35) of whom one, Thomas Cambridge, was probably the 'Master Cambridge' who, with Miles Coverdale, Christopher Coleman, and 'Masters Feld and Burley', formed the circle within his convent which actively supported Barnes. Of these Coverdale alone is known to have attained distinction, but Christopher Coleman, or Foster, was preaching to a non-conforming congregation in London in 1567, and still agitating for Puritan reforms in 1570. (fn. 36) John Stokes, (fn. 37) the predecessor of Barnes as prior, incepted with him, and went to Norwich where, as prior, he tried in 1531 to persuade Bilney to recant. He preached against the changes and was imprisoned, but submitted and sought from Cromwell permission to 'leave his habit'. In 1525 Erfurt, Martin Luther's friary, ceased to exist as such, and on Christmas Eve of that year Dr. Barnes preached his famous sermon in St. Edward's, which broke up 'Little Germany' and caused him to be brought before Cardinal Wolsey, charged with heresy. He was condemned to 'bear a fagot' at Paul's Cross, which he did on the following 11 February, and to perpetual prison at Northampton, from which he escaped and went abroad. He was taken back into favour and had a part in negotiating the marriage of the king with Anne of Cleves, but he was condemned as a relapsed heretic and burnt in 1540.

Miles Coverdale, (fn. 38) who later took an important part in the translation of the Bible into English, and became Bishop of Exeter under Edward VI, is perhaps the best known of the frequenters of 'Little Germany'. He was ordained priest in 1514, and was Barnes's secretary at the time of his trial for heresy in 1526. During 1527 he was in correspondence with Cromwell, and, having preached a sermon against images in 1528, left his Order and fled the country. He returned to England when the lesser monasteries were dissolved and became one of the most prominent of the Reformers who lived into Elizabeth's reign.

The Austin Friars of Cambridge, having been the moving spirits in the Reformation there, practically dissolved themselves. The surrender is signed only by John Hardyman, the prior, and three other friars, whose names are not found in the Grace Books and who had taken no prominent part in the White Horse group. The surrender, like those of the Franciscans and Dominicans, has a blank left for the date and is unsealed. (fn. 39) Of the signatories, Thomas Norley was probably identical with the vicar of that name presented to Harston 12 September 1539 by the patron to whom Barnwell 'conceded' the living; (fn. 40) he was still vicar in 1547; John Barber may be the John Barber, priest, who witnessed a will in Trumpington in 1542, (fn. 41) but apparently held no preferment; of Thomas Watson nothing is known. 'Dr. Hardyman, late prior', was left in charge of the house after the Dissolution, and when the commissioners came in 1539 they found it in his custody. (fn. 42) The Visitors had sold the bells, but there was still some lead, in spite of earlier sales by Hardyman and George Browne. A good deal of slate from the 'late Austin Friars' was used for the new steeple at Great St. Mary's in 1545 and at the same time much of the friary was demolished. (fn. 43)

When Leland visited the convent shortly before its dissolution he noted in the library five works of William Ockham and two of John Capgrave, the famous Austin Friar of Lynn, and a volume of sermons by Ralph the Almoner of Westminster. (fn. 44) The only book known to have survived from this library is now at Trinity College, Dublin (MS. 115), a volume of miscellaneous tracts, some written by Adam de Stockton at Cambridge in 1375. (fn. 45)

Priors of Austin Friars

Robert atte Lee, occurs 1340 (fn. 46)

Richard de Walpole, occurs 1337 (fn. 47)

John de Comberton, occurs 1343, 1348 (fn. 48)

John Tuylet, occurs 1350 (fn. 49)

John Blyclyng, occurs 1375 (fn. 50)

Thomas Cressale, occurs, 1417 (fn. 51)

Thomas Swillington, D.D., occurs 1520 (fn. 52)

John Stokys, D.D., occurs 1521, (fn. 53) 1522 (fn. 54)

Robert Barnes, D.D., c. 1523-5 (fn. 55)

John Hardyman, D.D., (fn. 56) occurs 1536, surrendered 1538.


  • 1. Empoli, Bullarium Ord. Erem. Sci. Aug. (Rome 1628), 100.
  • 2. V.C.H. Suffolk, ii, 127.
  • 3. Moore, Knights of Edward I (Harl. Soc.), iv, 63-4. He had property in Wendy in this county; ibid.
  • 4. Rolls of Parlt. i, 62; Cal. Pat. 1281-92, p. 368; Inq. ad q.d. xii, 15.
  • 5. Cal. Close, 1333-7, p. 511.
  • 6. Cal. Fine. R. i, 412; Cal. Inq. p.m. iii, 566.
  • 7. Cal. Pat. 1281-92, p. 482.
  • 8. Ibid. 1301-7, p. 324.
  • 9. Ibid. 1317-21, p. 396. Cf. ibid. 1321-4, p. 399.
  • 10. Cal. Close, 1333-7, p. 511.
  • 11. Cal. Pat. 1334-8, p. 150.
  • 12. Ibid. p. 419.
  • 13. Ibid. p. 501; ibid. 1338-40, p. 43; ibid. 1348-50, p. 353.
  • 14. Ibid. 1374-7, p. 393.
  • 15. H. P. Stokes, 'The Augustinian Friary in Cambridge' (C.A.S. xxii), 56.
  • 16. Ibid. 57. This no doubt accounts for the Austin Friars paying 3s. on rents to the subsidy of 1312: Cooper, Annals, i, 72.
  • 17. Liber Memor. de. Bernewelle, 212-14.
  • 18. Empoli, op. cit. 259.
  • 19. Ibid. 50-2.
  • 20. C.A.S. xiv (no. lv), 7-38.
  • 21. Ibid. xxii, 74.
  • 22. Ibid. 72.
  • 23. Ibid. 73.
  • 24. Ibid. 62.
  • 25. V.C.H. Oxford, ii, 145.
  • 26. Cal. Pat. 1354-8, p. 439.
  • 27. Ely Epis. Reg. Montacute; Cole MS. xxiii, fol. 44.
  • 28. Ibid.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Ely Epis. Reg. Arundel, fol. 59; E.D.R. (1896), p. 89.
  • 31. Cooper, Annals, i, 158.
  • 32. Ibid. 161-5.
  • 33. Ely Epis. Reg. Alcock, fol. 217; E.D.R. 1910, pp. 29, 49.
  • 34. Cooper, Ath. Cant. i, 74-5; Dict. Nat. Biog.; Cooper, Annals, i, 311-23.
  • 35. Cole MS. xxvi, fol. 149.
  • 36. Cooper, Ath. Cant. i, 283.
  • 37. Ibid. 65.
  • 38. Ibid. 268-74; Dict. Nat. Biog.
  • 39. Dep. Keeper's Rep. viii, app. 14.
  • 40. Ely Epis. Reg. Goodrich, fol. 122; E.D.R. 1912, p. 36.
  • 41. Cole MS. lx, fol. 25.
  • 42. Mins. Accts. (P.R.O.), Hen. VIII, no. 7286.
  • 43. Stokes, op. cit. 62.
  • 44. Leland, Collectanea, iv, 15.
  • 45. Ker, Medieval Libraries, 16.
  • 46. Cole MS. xxiii, fol. 44.
  • 47. Ibid. fol. 45.
  • 48. Ibid. fol. 46, 118.
  • 49. Ibid. fol. 121.
  • 50. Ibid. xxiv, fol. 10.
  • 51. Cooper, Annals, i, 161-5.
  • 52. Cooper, Ath. Cant. i, 90.
  • 53. Ibid. 65.
  • 54. Nichols, Test. Vet. 578 (printed 'Stobs').
  • 55. See above.
  • 56. Cooper, Ath. Cant. 251.