The Augustinian Canons, “black canons” or Austin canons depending on your preference arrived in England during the Twelfth Century. They were all priests and rather than living in enclosed orders they sought to work within the community.
John was born at Twing just outside Bridlington in 1320. By the time he was twelve he had taken vows of chastity.
His education had begun locally but he went to Oxford from about 1336 to 1339. In 1340 he became a monk in Bridlington Priory. He gradually rose within the priory carrying out different roles: novice master, almsgiver, preacher and sub-prior. Then in 1346 he became a canon. Ten years later he was elected prior.
He served as prior for 17 years before dying October 10, 1379.
Pope Boniface IX canonised him in 1401 – which is unusual I don’t think that there are that many Augustinian saints, unless we include Thomas Becket who was a secular canon rather than a regular canon. Ie John followed the monastic rule. Essentially he miraculously saved fishermen from drowning and on another about to get into trouble for giving the priory bread away as alms to the poor he opened his bag to reveal stones for road mending. His saint’s day should you need to turn bread into stones is October 10th.
He can be found dressed in his Augustinian black cloak in the Beaufort Book of Hours which includes a prayer to him. The Beaufort Book of Hours is in The British Library.
There is another Yorkshire saint – St John of Beverley who gets mentioned by Henry V at Agincourt.
First things first – it should actually be Newstead Priory rather than Newstead Abbey given that it was the home to Austin Canons or Augustine Canons. They are also described as Black Canons because of their robes. All Austin Canons were priests as well as monks. They were not an enclosed order they believed that they should serve within the wider community.
The priory of St. Mary of Newstead in Sherwood was founded by Henry II in about 1170. The charter granted the manor of Papplewick, it’s church and mill to the new priory as well as meadowland at Bestwood and 100s. of rent in Shapwick and Walkeringham.
The charter was confirmed by King John and added to by other Plantagenet monarchs including Henry III, Edward I, Edward II and Edward III. Queen Joan of Scotland left many of her goods to the priory.
Despite this the priory faced a variety of financial difficulties across the decades. So it wa probably just as well that the Austin Canons who had a reputation or being good hosts entertained Edward I when he was hunting in Sherwood Forest and also Edward II. The royal hunting lodge at Clipstone isn’t that far away but the relationship between the Plantagenets and the priory protected the canons from the problems of financial constraint.
The Plantagenet desire to ensure that the canons of Newstead Priory could meet their financial obligations meant that they gained more church livings, mortmain lands, tenements, and rents. They were also excused many of the fees that were liable to the Crown due to the priory’s status as Lord of the Manor.
Richard II continued the Plantagenet patronage of the Austin Canons at Newstead by granting them an annual allowance of a tun of wine in the port of Hull in aid of the maintenance of divine service.
Both Henry VI and Edward IV continued the tradition of granting lands to the priory. The rent that Henry VI charged for eight acres within Sherwood Forest was one midsummer rose to be delivered to the exchequer.
There were various visitations across the centuries. Archbishop Ludham of York visited personal in 1259 and whilst he approved the rule of the prior he added a note that the canons shouldn’t drink after compline and they shouldn’t wander around the cloister. In 1280 Archbishop Wickwane required the prior to be more earnest about divine service, canons shouldn’t keep private property and they were still drinking after compline. Later a visitation said that the canons should maintain silence and that when anyone took a new set of clothes they had to return the old ones to the common store.
By 1535 and the Valor Ecclesiasticus that gave a value to the wealth of the monasteries, Newstead was worth £167 16s 11 1/2d of which 20s was given on a Maundy Thursday to the poor in commemoration of Henry II who founded the priory. It was clearly worth less than £200, making it a lesser monastery. The act for their suppression was passed in 1536.
The canons managed to avoid this by paying a fine of £233 6s 8d but on the 21st July 1539 they succumbed to the inevitable. Cromwell’s commissioner – London- took the surrender. The prior received £26 pension, the sub prior £6 and the ten canons who also signed the surrender document received a pension ranging between £3 and £5.
In 1540 the property passed into the possession of the Byron family – as in mad, bad and dangerous to know.
In later years, the eighteenth century, whilst the monk’s fish pond was dredged a medieval lectern was discovered. It appears to have been thrown there by the canons hoping to save it from Henry VIII’s commissioners. It can now be seen in Southwell Minster.
In 1817 the property was sold to Colonel Thomas Wildman and from him into the Webb family. It was finally bequeathed together with its gardens to the City of Nottingham in 1931.
‘Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Newstead’, in A History of the County of Nottingham: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1910), pp. 112-117. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/notts/vol2/pp112-117 [accessed 27 December 2020].
I often refer to Bolton Priory, standing on the edge of the River Wharfe, as Bolton Abbey – it’s a fairly common mistake but the fact is that Bolton was home to a priory of Augustinian Canons. They had originally set up home at Embsay having travelled to Yorkshire from Huntingdon in 1120. The Augustinians were not only monks they were all also ordained priests.
It had a varied history which the History Jar has skirted in other posts. In 1154 Lady Alice de Romille, the owner of nearby Skipton Castle, gave the land where the priory now stands to the Augustinian order. The story goes that Lady Alice’s son Egremond had drowned in the the Strid, where the Wharfe narrows it heads downstream. The land near where Egremond drowned was given to the monks – Wordsworth waxed lyrical on the subject. A cynic might think that the real reason for the support of the Augustinians was that Henry I was keen to promote them and his aristocracy were keen to get in their monarch’s good books.
There was a Bishop’s Visitation in 1267 when Archbishop Gifford came to check the monastic accounts and to ensure that the inhabitants were following the Rule of St Benedict. The Victoria County History reveals that everything was not running smoothly Brother Hugh de Ebor’ rather than living in poverty and money which he had handed to a member of his family in York for safekeeping. There were also charges of incontinence. Generally speaking the visitation did not go well. the cellarer was not fit for office, the monks talked too much, a novice called John de Ottele wasn’t keen on some of the rules and had no desire to enter the monastic life and the sick weren’t looked after. Gifford was the broom that undertook a clean sweep, appointed a new prior and told the malefactors to buck up their ideas.
Unfortunately a later visitation, made in 1280, reveals that monks were buying clothes and shoes that failed to meet the monastic ideal. A number of them had private property. The monks also seem to have continued with unnecessary chatter. The Bishop told them to stop gossiping and start paying more attention to divine service.
The Augustinians got on with running their priory until the fourteenth century at which point the Anglo-Scottish Wars went rather badly for the English when Edward II took over from his father and demonstrated a singular lack of skill at the Battle of Bannockburn. Scottish raiders did some serious damage to the buildings. An existent priory account roll details the cost of repairing the vandalism. The site was temporarily abandoned in 1320 after a skirmish at Myton-on-Swale called the “White Battle”the previous year when some 12,000 Scots led by the Earl of Moray arrived on the scene.
The Black Death did not help matters. The hay day of Bolton Priory was over but this did not prevent the Augustinians from returning to their monastery and beginning building work.
Building work was still going on at the Dissolution funded from the extensive sheep farms that the monastery owned. The accounts also reveal that the monks owned a lead mine. A new tower was begun in 1520 which was not yet finished. The land was initially acquired by the Clifford family as their ancestors were interred there but it then passed into the hands of the Cavendishes – where it remains to this day.
Ultimately a wall was built across the east end of the nave in the monastery church so that it could function as a parish church.
The image from the start of the post was painted by Turner in 1825. It is in possession of the Tate.
Butler, Lionel & Given-Wilson, Chris. (1979) Medieval Monasteries of Great Britain. London: Michael Jospeh
Before Nostell Priory came into being there was a hermitage but when the Augustinian Canons were introduced to Britain a priory was established soon afterwards on its site. The story of Nostell’s foundation is told in a fourteenth century manuscript detailing twelfth century events.
Apparently King Henry I was on his way to do nasty things to the Scots when his chaplain was taken ill at Pontefract. Whilst he was recovering the chaplain, Ralph Adlave or Adulphus, went hunting and came across the hermits in St Oswald’s Wood (we don’t know how many of them and it was quite normal to be on your own in a group if you were a medieval hermit). Adulphus decided on the spot that he wanted found a priory on the exact spot where he’d encountered the hermits and to become a monastic. Obviously you don’t resign from a job with a Plantagenet king, you ask nicely if it would be possible. King Henry I, having finished with the Scots for the time being gave his gracious consent. Adulphus became an Augustinian Canon in charge of eleven canons. Henry I favoured the new establishment, after all Adulphus had been his confessor, and made a grant of 12d. a day to it from his revenues in Yorkshire.
It was a good thing for a king to become a patron of a monastery. Nobles tended to trip over themselves to follow suit in order to win royal favour. Ilbert or Robert de Lacy swiftly handed over the land on which the priory would sit along with several churches including those at Huddersfield and Batley along with other property.
King Henry II, following the bust up between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, reconfirmed the grants including a three-day fair at the end of February each year coinciding with St Oswald’s feast day.
Nostell Priory was undoubtedly well endowed. As a result it ended up with six daughter houses. The two most important were at Bamburgh in Northumberland, and Breedon in Leicestershire.
Of course, things didn’t always go so swimmingly. The reign of King Edward II was not, in general, noted for its successes. The Scots raided deep into England and the revenue from Bamburgh turned into a loss for fifteen years in succession. The arrival of the Black Death didn’t help matters, neither did the politics of the period nor the fact that avaricious archbishops kept trying to snaffle the most profitable churches from the care of the canons. By 1438 the canons of Nostell Priory were in so much financial difficulty that the young and pious King Henry VI granted to the canons the hospital of St. Nicholas, in Pontefract. These financial woes were not unusual. Bottomley notes that about a fifth of all Augustinian foundations failed because of lack of income.
Nostell Priory,however, was able to overcome its difficulties. It developed a reputation for fine manuscripts that ensured a steady flow of income from their commission. In 1536 it’s gross income was £606 9s. 3½d in part also because it had become a site of pilgrimage to St Oswald which Cromwell’s commissioners recorded as superstition. Dr Legh, one of the most notorious of Cromwell’s henchmen, was granted the site on which Nostell Priory stood.
Nothing medieval remains at Nostell Priory. In its place is the eighteenth century house and gardens created by the Winn family. There are three buildings that date from the monastic period “Wragby church, which, though it stands within the park, served the parish and not the monastery; and buildings called ‘The Brewhouse’ and ‘The Refectory’ which lie within the precincts of the adjacent 18th-century Nostell Home Farm. These are all at some distance from the Winns’ house”(Wrathmell ).
Where the Augustinian Canons had parochial responsibilities their priory churches survive rather better. Carlisle Cathedral was an Augustinian priory church as was Hexham Abbey. It is interesting to note that despite the fact that Carlisle, Lanercost and Hexham were Augustinian establishments that the main stronghold of the Augustinians was in fact the Midlands. Derby for instance was home to a number of Augustinian priories but little or nothing of their buildings have survived.
Bottomley, Frank. (1995). Abbey Explorer’s Guide. Otley: Smith Settle
Augustinian Canons, or ‘Black Canons’ because of their black cloaks were all priests who followed the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo. They were similar to monks in that they lived in religious communities, shared property in common and took religious vows including poverty and obedience. They were required to take part in Divine Service just like the monks but the stipulations with regard to the number of services and amount of physical labour were slimmed down so that the canon could preach, teach and care for the needy. Their order proved very popular during the twelfth century and many of their houses boast huge churches as they attracted very large congregations to hear them preach.
Thus the key differences between the Augustinians and monks of other orders was that they were all priests – you could not become an Augustinian canon unless you were a priest whereas you could be a monk without being a priest. Monks stayed in their houses whereas Augustinians went out into the community often being sent in ones or twos to minister to the parish churches that had been granted to them by their patrons.
In a sense because the religious Rule was a ‘light’ rule the Black Canons eventually gained a reputation for enjoying the comforts of life. They were certainly well-known for their hospitality.
Inevitably more zealous groups of priests sought to reform the rule. This happened in Premontre in France in 1123 when a wandering preacher called Norbert (he was later sainted) arrived on the scene. The reformed rule followed the Cistercians more closely than the Benedictines – poverty and austerity were the order of the day. The Premonstratensians distinguished themselves from their Augustinian brethren with a white habit. They arrived in England in 1147 at Alnwick. The Premonstratensians are also sometimes called Norbertines which is at least easier to spell.
Both the Black and the White canons had separate priories for canonesses who were nuns, some communities lived an enclosed life but others were of service to their wider communities e.g. caring for the sick.
Another similarity shared by the two groups of canons was that they were known as ‘regular’ canon. Regular comes from regulus which is Latin for rule: they were priests who followed the rule.
Regular canon can be distinguished from secular canon not because of their beliefs but because of where and how they lived. Regular canon lived like monks for the most part whereas secular canon served in large churches, often in shared accommodation, but they were simply priests rather than having taken any additional monastic vows. Thomas Becket is a patron saint of secular canon.
A final group of canons need also be mentioned. The Gilbertines were the only English monastic order. Gilbert of Sempringham founded a small convent in 1131 for seven women who wanted to follow a religious life. In time the convent expanded to become a double house with women on one side and men on the other – strictly separated of course. The nuns did not go out into the world – so there needed to be a community of lay sisters to do the work. Because Gilbert felt unworthy to lead the growing numbers of nuns, he incorporated regular canons into the set up – their role was pastoral care.
My previous post was about monks and my next post, part three, will be about friars.
Yorkshire is knee deep in monastic houses from the great foundations such as Fountains and Rievaulx to the smaller but no less fascinating Kirklees Priory with its links to Robin Hood. Part of the reason for the great number of monastic foundations in Yorkshire is the fact that the early monks wanted to live like the Desert Fathers – on their own in the wild. It was also excellent land for sheep once it had been cleared, although the monks of Jervaulx made their reputation as breeders of fine horses. The Yorkshire Moors must have seemed very wild a thousand years ago. Then there were the monastic patrons and benefactors. So far so good – but what about Derbyshire surely it was no less wild and surely to goodness there were plenty of patrons eager to save their souls? It’s not as if its a million miles from Yorkshire either (though clearly the traffic restrictions currently in operation on the M1 are doing a very good job of creating that impression). In actual fact the large monasteries did have extensive links with Derbyshire but rather than establishing monastic houses they established granges – or farms. Roche Abbey had a number of granges in the White Peak.
The abbey that most immediately springs to mind is Calke Abbey which now bears no resemblance to an abbey and which is in the hands of the National Trust. A bit of research revealed that it wasn’t an abbey, it was a priory in the hands of Augustinian Canons – so that’s me told. The priory at Repton is its daughter house. Now I’ve always known Repton for its links to Vikings so clearly I’m not doing very well thus far.
Gresley Priory became a parish church and Darley Priory – another Augustinian stronghold turned into an eighteenth century stately stack whilst its guest house became an inn rejoining in the name “Old Abbey Inn” just in case a passing historian should miss the obvious. Then there’s Dale Abbey in Deepdale. Then there’s Bradbourne Priory and Breadsall Priory. Each and every one of these was run by the Augustinians. As might be expected, Derby boasted more than one monastic foundation including the Augustinians.
The Benedictines were the first monks to settle in Post-Conquest England. Their robes were black. The Cluniacs were aliens – all under the control of the mother house in France and the Augustinians were priests who went outside the precincts of their monastic houses to minister to their flocks. The later additions to the monastic fold were the twelfth century Cistercians who looked to a life of poverty and hard work – which brings us back to the Cistercians of Rievaulx and Fountains.
Now, all I need to do is reach for my copy of Derbyshire King’s England by Arthur Mee and a road atlas and plan my route.