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The Austin Friars

In 1342 Robert de Wodehouse, Archdeacon of Richmond and clerk to Edward III, obtained a licence to found an oratory and dwelling houses for twelve Austin Friars on the Sack Friars’ former lands in Stamford. This followed a petition to Pope Clement VI by the King.

The new priory church was at least partly complete by January 1346 when Robert was buried in its choir under a marble slab. He bequeathed to the friars all his goods within their grounds, together with £20 of silver for his funeral expenses. 

In 1370 Stamford mason Henry Paynbrigge completed work on the cloister and the solar above it, for which he received payment of £24 7s 10d. Records suggest this work was funded by Clare Priory in Suffolk, the first English Augustinian house. 

Clare Priory, Suffolk

Clare Priory, Suffolk © David Ross and Britain Express

 Robert de Wodehouse

Robert was the son of Bertram de Wodehouse, a Norfolk knight. The young Robert began his court career in July 1306 couriering money into Scotland on the service of Edward I. His reward was the first of many preferments from three successive monarchs, culminating in the offices of Archdeacon of Richmond in 1328, Treasurer of England in 1329 and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1330. Robert’s connections with the Stamford area seem to have begun in 1314 when he was granted the living of Ketton rectory. 

Two years later the Prior of St Gilbert of Sempringham in nearby St Peter's Street 

bought the friars ten acres of land from Edmund of Langley, Lord of Stamford,‘to extend the manse’. Lying between the friars’ boundary wall and ‘le green dyke’ and worth 6s 8d a year, this had probably been common land, for local resentment resulted in regular damage to the new close walls. Later records suggest the priory’s boundaries extended to the old Ermine Street, encompassing our gardens on the east side of Waterfurlong.

Despite this acquisition and the founding of a school of theology in 1392, the number of brethren does not seem to have increased. This was probably attributable to the dual scourges of the Hundred Years' War and the aftermath of the Black Death. Living in close-knit communities, the monastic orders were decimated by plague, many losing half their friars. It became increasingly difficult to attract novices, particularly when a law was introduced in 1402 preventing mendicant orders from accepting candidates younger than 14. Meanwhile, almost continuous warfare in France and at home bled the country’s coffers dry and the nobility no longer had funds to lavish on religious and philanthropic causes. No new Austin Houses were built in England in the fifteenth century and by the time Henry VIII dissolved the order in 1538 its brethren had dropped from 600 before the Black Death to fewer than 200. 

Who Were the Austin Friars?

Like the Sack Friars, their predecessors in Stamford, the Augustinians or Austin Friars were another mendicant (begging) religious order. Formed by a group of northern Italian penitents who wished to live according to the Rule of St Augustine, they were granted papal approval in 1244. Whereas the Franciscans focused (in theory at least) on salvation through poverty, the Augustinians focused on developing connection to God through communal prayer and meditation.


The order quickly became renowned for its erudition, producing many theologians and writers, the most notable of whom – Martin Luther – rose to fame after leaving.

The Austin Friars arrived in England from France and Italy in 1249 at the invitation of the powerful baron Richard de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hereford. De Clare granted the order land on his Suffolk estates where the friars built their initial base. They were welcomed by Henry III, who on 3rd September 1249 decreed “that they shall stay in this land and that good be done to them by everyone."(1) The King showed himself gracious towards the friars not only because their piety appealed to him; they also added to the splendour of his arrival in a city by meeting him in solemn procession.

The Augustinians benefited from the dissolution of the Sack Friars and other minor orders, in many cases being granted the Sack Friars’ lands and buildings, as was eventually the case in Stamford.

Unlike the Sack Friars, the Austin Friars were allowed some personal and some communal possessions and although these were supposed to be modest, human nature inevitably got in the way. The fact their Stamford priory seemed to have been of ‘some magnificence’ was not unusual and whilst the Augustinians were generally well-regarded for adhering to their founding principles, they had their fair share of bad apples. 

Stamford as a Centre of Academic Excellence

Despite the Stamford friary's modest size, it was renowned for the calibre of its teaching. At its pinnacle, the friary school produced alumni such as the distinguished theologians Thomas Winterton and William Egmond. It cannot be coincidence that this academic flourishing coincided with the 'Brazenose Schism', when disaffected scholars and tutors from two of the Oxford colleges tried (unsuccessfully) to establish a new university in Stamford. 

Martin Luther 1520

Martin Luther by Lucas

Cranach the Elder 1520

Auston friar

Portrait of an Austin friar: school of Gerard David: circa 1450

The English Province achieved a higher number of graduates than any other country. Drawing on local academic excellence, the Oxford priory established a studium generale (international school) which quickly attained a reputation second only to the order's premier studium generale attached to the University of Paris. In 1289 a sister house was opened in Cambridge, on a site next to what is now Corpus Christi College.

In October 1375 Stamford Friar John de Ocham (Oakham) was charged with breaking into the house of Hew, Vicar of Greetham and stealing two gowns, one baselard (a type of dagger), one pouch with a belt, and eight silver marks and then going into hiding in the house of Katerina Yermmuth (Yarmouth) of Ketton. Friar John tried to claim immunity saying he could only be tried in an ecclesiastical court, but no-one from the friary intervened and the jury at the Bradcroft sessions was having none of it, finding him guilty of robbery and felony and having him thrown into Oakham gaol. 


Lincolnshire-born Thomas Winterton attained a doctorate in divinity from Oxford before returning to Stamford, where he remained until his death in about 1400. The author of many learned works, in 1388 the order appointed him Prior of England and this role involved Thomas closely in political life; for example, we know he attended the 1388 autumn Parliament at Cambridge. The Augustinians were renowned for their orthodoxy and Thomas argued strongly against the dissident views of his former Oxford friend, John Wycliffe, playing a part in Wycliffe’s condemnation as a heretic. 

Thomas's near-contemporary, William Egmond, followed a similar path in the order. After some years as a Professor of Divinity at Oxford, he too returned to the Stamford friary. In 1390 William travelled to Rome where the Pope appointed him suffragan to Henry Belfort, Bishop of Lincoln (in other words, provincial bishop for the Stamford area), and in 1394 he was commissioned to investigate concerns regarding the election of the Abbot of St Mary’s, Northampton. According to the antiquary John Leland, writing in the 16th century, William Egmond was ‘of great fame and learning, an eloquent preacher, fervent and very artful in persuading.'(2)

John Wycliffe
John Wycliffe

The Stamford friary would normally have had several novices between the ages of 14 and 24. Novices were expected both to be literate before entering and to show aptitude for singing. In fact, any friar caught teaching a lay brother to read was punished with a diet of bread and water for three days. 

Even novices not destined for scholarship were required to spend at least a year studying grammar and three studying logic and basic philosophy. The more academic would then be sponsored by the friary to proceed to one of the studia generalia such as Oxford or Paris, as several friars from Stamford clearly did. 


Stamford would have had its own small library or at very least a book-cupboard and brothers would have transcribed borrowed books to add to the collection. 

Daily Life in the Friary

Heading the community was the prior, who in a small house like Stamford was probably also the theologian and tutor. The prior was housed in his own quarters, where he would have enjoyed luxuries denied the rest of the brethren, such as a feather bed and fine linen.


Next came the ordained friars, each of whom would have had specific responsibilities; the sacrist was responsible for the friary church, for tolling the bell on the hours and ensuring the community attended prayer, whilst the proctor was responsible for all the other buildings, the friary grounds and for goods and provisions. When at full strength, Stamford probably also had an almoner, an infirmerer and a novice master. All the friars would have been heavily involved in community life - preaching, hearing confession, welcoming travellers, taking part in devotional processions and delivering pastoral care.

Most friaries had one or more 'oblates', lay brethren who offered themselves and any property they owned to the community but did not seek clerical status. There was sometimes concern that lay people became oblates in order to evade property taxes. 

Originally, the brethren slept in open dormitories on straw mattresses, but as time went by most friaries constructed individual cells to allow greater peace, privacy and opportunity for undisturbed study. Few luxuries were supposed to be permitted, but exceptions included a pillow, a cloak and a rush mat. 


Each friary was required to have a set of bells and a choir and to sing all the hours. The day began with matins, after which the brethren dined in the refectory, generally in silence. On Fridays, Saturdays and other fast days there was only one meal a day but this was counter-balanced by the many feast days celebrated. Like the Sack Friars before them, the Austins venerated the Virgin Mary as well as St Augustine and his associates and observed the many high days and holidays connected with these saints.


Stamford would have welcomed visiting friars from many European countries and these visitors would have played an important role in providing spiritual support to fellow countrymen passing through the bustling town on their business as merchants, artisans or courtiers.  

The Friary Buildings

The uneven and bumpy surface of the field by what is now Austin Friars Lane is the only visible feature to suggest it once housed a medieval friary

Former friary, Stamford
The site of the former friary

Once ordained (from the age of 24) a friar 

shaved his hair into the tonsure and wore the order's black hood.


On Mondays and Fridays all brethren made confession and were also required to expose one-another's failings and misdeeds.

Clare Priory

Medieval gateway at Clare Priory  

© David Ross and Britain Express

1977 sketch of the earthworks

We have only one contemporary description (and that probably second-hand), from the chronicler John Leland: '[The friary is] of a most noble fabric, with the west front eighty yards long, and the south front ten yards; and the chapel on the north side forty yards long and twenty yards wide,the latter from the westward ranging along the 

cloisters.’(2Later authorities dispute the likelihood of these dimensions, although there is general agreement that the friary was a building of some substance.

The site was crudely excavated in February 1712 when Alderman Richard Feast obtained the Marquess of Exeter's permission to dig for stones to build a barn. Workmen began unearthing elaborately-carved artefacts and local antiquarians Francis Peck and Rev Robert Forster took a keen interest. Peck and Forster concluded the monastic buildings had been arranged around a central courtyard with a large, rectangular pond, but unfortunately their descriptions were both imprecise and inconsistent. Peck recorded human bones had been discovered, along with stone pillars and windows, which must have rendered the structure ‘very magnificent(3). 

Some of the rooms were paved in fine, glazed tiles of two different colours, each tile about nine inches square and two inches thick. 


Two ancient seals were found, one the size of a halfpenny with the bust of a bearded man and inscription Sigillum Hugonis Capellani.(3) The other,‘much more beautiful and remarkable(3) depicted the Virgin and Child, three bishops’ mitres and a bishop on his knees in supplication. This was inscribed Sigillum D’ni Thome Dei Gracia Elphinensis Ep’I(3and Peck supposed it to be the seal of Thomas Barret, Archdeacon of Enachdun in Connaught, who was consecrated in 1372 and died in 1404. It was purchased at the time by John Maddison Esq of Ketton.


Alderman Feast seems to have removed numerous stone carvings of birds, beasts, fruits and flowers to the courtyard of his house on St Peter's Hill, and other artefacts were taken to embellish various buildings around the town. The finest surviving piece is a cusped panel with a carved head at its centre, possibly a section of panelled walling or the side of a tomb chest. This is now in the care of the Lincolnshire museums.


Peck and Forster claimed evidence of stepped terraces to the west of the complex and a boundary wall nearly half a mile in length but it is unknown how far the excavations extended. Although few of us would disagree with Peck's lyrical sentiment that ‘The situation was as sweet, pleasant and delightful, as if nature here wanted no assistance from art. The south and west prospects made agreeable by the silver stream of the river Welland and its most rich and fragrant meadows’, the lack of excavation records is frustrating.(3)

The Leicester House

In trying to recreate a picture of the friary it is helpful to turn to its sister house in Leicester. Another small establishment, housing up to 20 brethren, it is one of the few whose foundations were well enough preserved to permit a useful, modern dig. This revealed the friary was a substantial sandstone building with upper floors on a site of about four acres. The main cloister was about 19 x 17 m, with a covered aisle and an inlaid tile floor depicting the arms of England and of several local families, presumably benefactors. There was a second, smaller cloister, a studium particulare (school for local students), separate accommodation for the prior, a leaded roof and imposing walls encircling the whole complex. Both church and cloister windows were decorated with elaborate stained glass.  

The Friary Gardens

Writing in 1896, Stamfordian George H Burton said 'The west front (of the friary) was faced by a beautiful garden, commanding a delightful view of the valley of the Welland and the stately woods of Easton.'(4)

Although the mendicant orders had originally subsisted on alms alone, over time they started cultivating their own produce and keeping some livestock. The Austin Friars’ grounds almost certainly included a dovecote, a fish pond, piggeries, bee hives, orchards and vegetable beds. It seems reasonable to suppose at least some of their bread came from the ovens of their neighbours in Bradcroft


Close to the friary itself would have been a small hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) for herbs and flowers such as lavender, rosemary, chamomile, madonna lilies and roses. Other medicinal plants would have been gathered in the surrounding countryside.

In the unusually mild climate of the early medieval period a wide range of fruit and nut trees would have been planted, probably including delicacies such as almonds, figs, and peaches, together with grapevines for wine-production. 

The Friary's Dissolution

Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries led to the closure of all Stamford's religious houses, including Austin Friars. Its Prior, Richard Warner, and five brethren surrendered the property to Dr John London on 6 October 1538. Dr London recorded that the friary was well leaded and sold off all the glass, 'to avoid its theft.' 

We do not know what became of Stamford's friars. Across the country thousands of friars, monks, nuns and lay servants were expelled from their houses, some finding work in parish churches, others being forced to earn a living in entirely different ways. 

The brethren were not the only people to suffer; the suppression of the religious houses caused something of a social crisis as there was no longer anywhere for the poor and the sick to turn. The religious houses had provided accommodation for travellers and run schools for the education of boys from families of limited means. Many commentators observed a huge swell in the number of beggars and vagrants and voiced concern about rising crime.

Austin Friars, London
Austin Friars, City of London

Stavesacre, grown in monastic 

gardens to treat lice and scabies.

© The Cloisters Gardens

William Cecil

William Cecil, Ist Baron Burghley. Unknown artist. National Portrait Gallery.

An archaelogical review in 1977 concluded the site was largely uninterpretable. The most prominent feature, a large rectangular depression about 2 m deep, appeared to be a pond of relatively late date and the only other discernible features were low uneven mounds, probably spoil heaps from the 1712 excavation and from trenches dug in WWII. There is some evidence of quarrying activity on the slopes leading down to the Welland, but this too has proved almost impossible to date. 

We know from other sites that the choir and dormitory would have been constructed first,

with the remaining work carried out in stages as bequests came in and funds permitted.


Maintenance, embellishment and expansion would have been ongoing challenges.

In 1863 The Stamford Mercury reported that glazed tiles from the friary now paved the parlour of a Mr Dalton's house at Pilsgate.

Brethren would have been buried within the Stamford friary 

enclosure, with those of higher status laid to rest close to the altar and the more lowly elsewhere on the campus. Benefactors would also have been buried in or close to the church itself, with friars 

giving prayers for their souls, sometimes for centuries. 

In October 1536 The Pilgrimage of Grace, a failed uprising against Henry VIII's reforms, was quashed when the rebels surrendered to the Duke of Suffolk at Stamford, provoking the King to describe the county of Lincolnshire as 'one of the most brute and beastly of the whole realm.

Inevitably, there were also those who gained from the Dissolution, chiefly the King's courtiers. Much of the land seized from Stamford's religious houses was

given to the family that will always be associated with the town, the Cecils. Whilst Austin Friars and the other religious houses were being dismantled, across the river in the hamlet of Little Burghley (from which he was to take the name) William Cecil was building one of the grandest mansions of the Tudor era. 

Nearly 300 years of monastic history had come to an end in our corner of Stamford, centuries in which the Austin Friars and their predecessors, the Sack Friars, had owned and walked the land that is now Waterfurlong, clearing woodland, tending gardens and souls, searching for medicinal herbs and spending time in prayer and contemplation. 


(1) Historia Anglorum by Matthew Paris, British Library

(2Leland's Topographical Notes c.1538-43, Bodleian Library Collection

(3) Academia Tertia Anglicana or the Antiquarian Annals of Stamford by Francis Peck, 1727

(4) Guide to Stamford and Neighbourhood by George H Burton, 1896

(5) Grateful acknowledgements to Frances Andrews for information in her book The Other Friars: The Carmelite, Augustinian, Sack and Pied Friars in the Middle Ages, Boydell Press, 2015

Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018

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