Welcome to Saint Mary’s Church, Harborne, Birmingham, UK.

Order of St. Augustine.

Archdiocese of Birmingham

“Before all else, live together in harmony, being of one mind and one heart on the way to God.”  St. Augustine.

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St. Mary’s Church History Pages

A History of Clare Priory

Return to Clare Priory History Indexhttp://www.saintmarysharborne.org.uk/history2.html

Clare Priory was the first home of the Austin or Augustinian Friars in England, in 1248. By the time of the Reformation the Order had 34 houses scattered up and down the country, the principal ones being in London, Oxford, Cambridge,York and Lincoln.

Though the Austin Friars are recognised by The Holy See as the true heirs of the monastic family of St. Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430) they were originally Hermits whose roots lay in Italy. Before the Union of 1256, when many of the Hermits  were united into one large fraternity of Austin friars, one progressive group, the Friars Hermits of St. Augustine in Tuscany, had spread to France from where they were invited to England by Richard de Clare, Earl of Clare, Gloucester and Hertford.

The traditional date of the foundation of Clare Priory is 1248 but it is more probable, however, that the Friars actually arrived in 1249. Richard de Clare visited France in 1248 and doubtless, after meeting the Friars, he guaranteed them a Foundation in the shadow of his castle at Clare on the banks of the River Stour. He returned to England in June 1249 and obtained on behalf of the Friars a Writ of Protection from the King. This was issued on the 3rd September 1249 and it is assumed that the Friars first came to Clare shortly afterwards.

  The West range showing the entrance and window 

      of the Little Cloister.

The vaulted porch of the little cloister.

They first settled on a narrow strip of land within the precincts of the present Priory. After their Patron’s death in 1262, his Widow, Maud de Lacy, was insrumental in securing further tracts of land for them; and by the turn of the century their holding was almost co-terminous with the area bounded on the west, south and east by what was at that time the course of the River Stour. As there was no natural boundary on the northern side the Friars dug a long wide ditch running due west from the east end of the river, at which point they erected flood gates.

The ditch was later named St. Anne’s River and beyond it lay the Beauvale of St. Mary. Both landmarks have since disappeared. A footbridge over the ditch gave access to the town and castle. Eventually the Friars secured an entrance off the Yeldham Road, the old King’s Highway, and built a gatehouse by the Great Bridge at Clare.

The Priors House from

     the Great Cloister.

The east end of the old church. Beyond 

        on the right is the Prior’s House.

By 1329 the Community had a tidy group of buildings, comprising a somewhat small Church. a cemetery, living quarters, and a Chapter House. At the close of the century there were exactly twenty-nine Friars in residence. Their life was devoted to Divine Worship, prayer, study of the sacred scriptures, teaching, and preaching the Word of God, the administration of the Sacraments, and apostolic works.

The Cellarer’s Hall.

They derived their livelihood mainly from begging. The Priory, the patrons of which were Ss. Peter and Paul and St. Augustine, acquired a reputation for sanctity and learning. Friar John of england, who won fame throughout the Order as a man of outstanding holiness, was almost certainly a member of the Community. The first Augustinian to graduate as a Doctor of Divinity from Cambridge was another Friar John; indeed these two may well have been one and the same person.

In the fifteenth century two members of the house, John of Bury and Osbern Buckenham, achieved recognition as writers. During the Wars of the Roses the Friars sided with the House of York. Evidence of their allegiance can still be seen in the white rose painted on a fragment of contemporary glass now set in a window in the south range.

At the time of the reformation the Community was divided. Some friars were enthusiastic Lutherans, others more traditionalists. At first the Friars were exempted from the general suppression of the monasteries but in 1538 their extinction was also decreed and on November 29th the King’s Agent, Richard Ingworth arrived at Clare to receive the surrender of the property. Some of the friars who had meekly subscribed to the Oath of Supremacy were pensioned off.

Doorway from the

     Cellarer’s Hall.

The Priory, with all its buildings, goods, lands, and revenues, now became the property of The Crown, and so eventually passed into private ownership. The family longest in possession of the estate were 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.

Inside the old Church.

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 house and home; and Lady mary, 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, who, after more than three hundred years absence from England, had during the 19th and 20th centuries, founded several Priories in London and elsewhere.

Lady May’s family respected her wishes, and, after long negotiations, the Augustinians were able in 1953 return to their old house, being the first house they had founded in England some seven hundred years before. This was made possible by acts of great generosity from Lady May’s heirs, through which the Order acquired the property for only a fraction of its true value. The prime mover in all this had been Lady May’s daughter, Stella de Fonblanque, who now lies at rest in the Monastic Graveyard, the first Catholic to be buried there since the Reformation.

In 1953 the Augustinians moved back in and the process of rebuilding has been going on ever since. The Prior’s House now forms the core of the property where the Community of four Friars, a Nun, and a Lay Volunteer live, and where the Daily Prayers and Mass are held for the Community, visitors, and parishioners. The only other surviving building - once used as a barn - is now the Parish Church, though to date (2108) this has been replaced by a new Church. The Priory and the Parish work closely together and the result is a thriving congregation which has already outgrown the old church.

In recent years Clare Priory has been welcoming people on Retreat. It has built a block of hotel standard rooms used by people of all faiths from all over the UK and abroad. But Clare Priory is not just a cosy B & B in the country. “A lot of people who come her have very broken lives,” says Fr. Ben O’Rourke. He says that Clare Priory provides with the quiet and the space for people to rediscover themselves and to deepen their faith. “People who come here say they experience a peace the minute they enter the place and they find they can relax and be at ease. Clare is a place where people can share their pain and perhaps receive some help and go away refreshed. As well as its work in the Community, the Priory provides a place of Retreat for people who need to get away from the stresses of modern life.”

Clare priory has since played its part in the life of the world-wide Order to which it belongs. At times there have been students of Philosophy there; at other times novices, in their first year for religious Life. Today there are many young priests in England and Scotland, Ireland, Nigeria, Australia, and in the study houses of Rome, Italy, who remember with gratitude and affection, peaceful, happy days, along with the prayers and good wishes from their many friends at Clare Priory. At all times, the Priory Community hopes many will come here to seek and to find, for however brief a visit, the peace and happiness which this beautiful place has to offer.

“Peace I leave to you, my Peace I give unto you. Seek it and you will find it; knock and the door will be opened for you.”