A Brief History of the Augustinians at Clare
Founded in 1248, Clare Priory is one of the oldest religious houses in England, occupied by the order that founded it. The Augustinians, or Austin Friars, came to Clare from northern France at the invitation of the Earl of Clare, Gloucester and Hertford, Sir Richard de Clare, to build their first foundation in the British Isles. From here the Order established 34 houses, and was to spread all over England and Ireland during the Middle Ages, and in more recent times to the United States, Australia, Africa, and Korea.
Of its foundation the famous Augustinian chronicler John Capgrave said: 'Alexander the Pope gave us leave for us to build convents in these places. Surek, Clayanger, Clare and Sidingborn and others, but there took no place but Clare and Wodus (Woodhouse). Then had this order leave for to enter and build. But they built not greatly until the year of the Lord 1248'.
The size of the community was never more than about thirty friars, and was suppressed by Henry VIII's agents in 1538. No one knows what happened to the friars, though another Austin friar, John Stone, was executed in Canterbury in 1539 for refusing to sign the Oath of Supremacy. He is now numbered among the forty Catholic Martyrs of England and Wales.
After the suppression of the Priory ownership of the buildings, goods, lands and revenues became the property of the Crown, and so passed into private ownership.
In 1865 the Irish Provincial appointed one of his young priests as parish priest of the newly formed parish of St. Monica's, Hoxton Square. This marked the first permanent Augustinian foundation in England since the reformation. The status of the English houses was that of a vice-province of the Irish province (the old English province was restored in 1977).
The family longest in possession of the estate was the Barnardistones, who were succeeded in it by a collateral branch, the Barkers.
The last member to occupy it as a private residence was the daughter of Sir George Digby Barker and the widow of Sir Henry May, Helena Augusta Victoria, who died in 1945. Before her death she and her children had decided that the conditions to be expected after the Second World War would make it impossible for the Priory and its grounds to be maintained as a family home; and Lady May Barker, though not a Catholic, was urgent in recommending that it should, if at all possible, be acquired again by its original owners, the Augustinian Friars.
History turned full circle when the Augustinians returned to Clare in 1953, thanks to the generosity of the May family who allowed the Order to purchase the house for only a fraction of its true value.
The present day priory community is made up of lay people and friars living a common life of prayer, work and friendship, which is open to those who wish to join them for a few days, or longer.