Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland – Hermit Friars of Saint Augustine

photograph of an unidentified Austin Friar from the book Monasteries and Religious Houses of Great Britain and Ireland, 1903, photographer unknownArticle

Commonly known in England before the Reformation as the Austin Friars.

Solemn Vows. One Of The Mendicant Orders. Founded 388.

Saint Augustine, the best known and most widely revered of the Latin Fathers, was baptized at the age of thirty-three, after many years of sin and error, by Saint Ambrose, the famous Bishop of Milan, on 25 April 387. Previous to his conversion he had been much perturbed at hearing from Pontitianus an account of the life led by Saint Antony and his disciples in the desert. Unburthening himself to his friend Alypius, he cried out: “What is wrong with us? The unlearned start up and take heaven by storm; while we, with our learning, but without heart, lo! where we wallow in flesh and blood! Are we ashamed to follow because others have gone before, and not ashamed not even to follow?” (vide “Confessions,” Book 8, chapter 8)

A few months subsequent to his conversion we find Augustine, now changed into a new man by the grace of God, leaving Milan with his holy mother, Saint Monica, one of the sweetest types of Christian womanhood to be found in the whole range of ecclesiastical history, and a few intimate friends and disciples. They had got as far as Ostia Tiberina, on their way home to Africa, when Monica, worn away probably by the strain of long suffering and anxiety, was called by God to her eternal reward.

The members of the Augustinian Order have ever regarded the year 388 as marking the commencement of their history. It was during that year that Saint Augustine and a few devoted friends, weary of the world and its attractions, formed themselves into a Society of Hermits at Tagaste, a town situated on the northern seaboard of Africa. In this monastery Augustine tasted to the full the sweets of heavenly peace and consolation. He has described for us the daily life led by himself and the brethren of his monastery. They spent their days and nights in prayer, meditation, and the singing of the Divine praises, alternated by manual labour, the writing of books, the instruction of the ignorant, and the distribution of alms among the necessitous poor.

So pronounced was the success of their first house of Hermits at Tagaste, that Augustine, at the urgent request of a friend, was induced to establish a second house at the more important town of Hippo in 391. It was during this year, too, that he was ordained a priest. This circumstance, however, did not cause him to sever his connection with his Hermits, although it brought him more into touch with the outside world. It was only in 395, when with profound reluctance the honour of the Episcopate was accepted by him, in the hope of being able to defend the Catholic Church against the assaults of heresy, that he left the Hermitage at Hippo. But even as a Bishop Augustine took the deepest interest in the welfare of the Hermits he had established, and who followed the rule he had drawn up for their guidance. Some of his dearest friends, including Alypius, Severus, and Evodius, were members of the Hermitage at Hippo. So high was the reputation gained by the inmates of this house for sanctity, that it became the custom, whenever an Episcopal see fell vacant, for one of their number to be called upon to fill it. Possidius has put on record the names of as many as nine of those Bishops who were honoured in his day as saints by the Church.

From the “Histoire des Ordres Monastiques” (Paris edition, 1715), under the heading “Des Moines de Saint Augustine en Absque,” we can gather some idea of the extent to which the Hermits of Saint Augustine spread themselves throughout the North of Africa during the forty years subsequent to their foundation.

The terrible Vandal persecution, which began in 428, and in the course of which many of the Hermits won the crown of martyrdom, was the occasion, under God, of sending the Hermit sons of Saint Augustine from Africa into Europe. The earliest foundations in Europe were those of Saint Fulgentius in Sardinia, Saint Gaudiosus at Naples, and Saint Eug&ne, who established a hermitage near Albi, in Languedoc. From these houses the Austin Hermits gradually spread themselves through the different countries of Europe. Owing, however, to the secluded character of their lives, as well as to the great distances which separated house from house, and the perils of travelling in those remote days, the bond of union between the Austin Hermits in the different countries was slight in the extreme. They were all, however, at one in this particular – that they professed the rule of Saint Augustine, and claimed the great doctor of holy Church as their founder.

In the early days of the thirteenth century we find as many as fifteen congregations of Austin Hermits existing in different parts of Europe. The great Pope Innocent III, who succeeded Celestine III in the chair of Peter in the year 1198, conceived the idea of uniting these different bodies of Hermits into a Mendicant Order of Friars. This project was carried out in the year 1215, which marked the assembling of the Fourth Council of Lateran. Later on, in the thirteenth century, Pope Alexander IV brought to perfection the work begun by Innocent III. Henceforward the members of the Order were known as the “Hermit Friars of Saint Augustine.” The term “Hermit,” in this instance, is strongly distinctive, in so far as it acknowledges the existence of that body of men who for long centuries previous to the union under Pope Innocent III had flourished in every part of Europe, and were everywhere recognised as the spiritual sons of Saint Augustine.

After the formation of the Hermits into an Order of Friars, they came to be governed, like the Franciscans and Dominicans, by a General Superior resident in Rome. From this date the Order multiplied rapidly on all sides. Its members quickly came to the front as teachers and preachers, and convents of the Order sprang up as if by magic all over Europe.

The year 1250 is generally accepted as the date of the landing of the Augustinian Hermit Friars in England. Their success was most pronounced from the day they first entered the country. Shortly after their arrival the house of the Order in London, which even today gives its name to one of the most important parts of the City, was established by Humphrey Bohun, founder of the Earldom of Hereford and Essex. He inaugurated this good work, we read, “to the honour of God and His Blessed Mother, ever virgin, and for the health of the souls of himself, his ancestors, and descendants.” The nave of the ancient church of the Austin Friars in London was given by King Edward VI to the Dutch Protestants resident in the capital of England, in whose possession it remains today.

In addition to the house in London, convents of the Order were quickly established all over England. The Friars possessed important foundations at Oxford, Northampton, York, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Lynn, Bristol, Leicester, Lincoln, Huntingdon, Warrington, Hull, Stafford, and Canterbury. At the date of the suppression there were in all about forty convents of the Austin Friars in England. A Protestant writer, the late Rev. T. Hugo, Rector of West Hackney, London, penned, some years ago, the following description of the Austin Friars as they lived and laboured in London previous to the Reformation:

“The Austin Friar was just such an ecclesiastic as an artist would have loved to sketch. He wore a long black gown with broad sleeves, with a fine cloth hood or cowl, when he went abroad or in choir, and under this, when he was in the house, a white habit and scapulary, and was girded about with a black leathern strap fastened with a buckle of ivory. He was a hard student wherever he lived, whether among the shades of academic bowers or in localities less favourably situated for mental development. In remarkable times he was a remarkable man.

“The house in London was the head house of the Order. The residents, though probably not so actively employed in educational works as those at Oxford, were much and widely celebrated. From the time of their foundation downward a regular succession of learned men lived and died within its precincts. There was, for example, the acute and controversial Bakin, a famous preacher and disputant. He lived in the year 1382, and was a zealous antagonist of Wickcliffe and his followers. For some time he was Divinity Professor at Oxford, and was considered one of the greatest of living theologians. Then there was the famous John Lowe, also a Professor of Divinity at Oxford, and Provincial of his Order – no greater man than he in the pulpit. The collecting of books, also, was his delight, and the library of the house in London was particularly beholden to him. He was a special favourite of Henry VI, who made him one of his Privy Council, and subsequently Bishop of Rochester. He died in 1436. Another well-known resident was Thomas Penkett, whom Leland describes as unequalled in sharpness of disputation, and as being formed so closely after the model of Scotus ‘that one egg could not be more like to another or milk to milk.’ In the metaphysical philosophy of Aristotle and the practice of scholastic logic he had no superior. He died in 1487. Lastly, there was the no less celebrated Prior John Tonney, the Trench of his age, great in the niceties of language and the properties of words. He left treatises behind him on the quantities of syllables, on the mode of making verses, on wit and rhymes, and in the rudiments of grammar.”

Perhaps the most famous member of the Order ever produced in England was John Capgrave, the author of the “Chronicle,” and of several other important works, some of which, fortunately, are still extant. This great man was born at Lynn, in Norfolk, 23 April 1393.

The house of the Austin Friars at Oxford was the centre of all that was learned and refined. So great was the reputation enjoyed by the members of this Order as teachers that, according to Wood, the historian of Oxford, “they drew almost all the University.” For some considerable time all the Divinity Acts were preserved in the House of the Austin Friars at Oxford. According to an ancient statute every Bachelor of Arts had to dispute once a year before the Augustinians. This probably gave rise to the term “doing Austins,” which survived at Oxford almost to the present day. The site of the Oxford Augustinian house is now occupied by Wadham College.

At the date of the Reformation several of the English Austin Friars suffered martyrdom rather than acknowledge the claim of Henry VIII to the headship of the Catholic Church in this country. One of their number, John Stone, was publicly executed on the Dane John at Canterbury, and is numbered among the English martyrs who were beatified by Leo XIII, 9 December 1886.

From the date of the suppression to the middle of the nineteenth century the Austin Friars were only a memory in England. In 1863, however, the Order was re-established in London with the consent of Cardinal Wiseman, who assigned the Fathers the district of Hoxton, where they now possess a church, convent, and schools (Saint Monica’s Priory, Hoxton Square, N.). In 1891 a second house of the Order was opened at the request of the then Bishop of Southwark (Dr. Butt), at Hythe, Kent, where the church and schools are dedicated to the Virgin Mother of Good Counsel. A third house of the Order is now about to be established in the district of Fulham, London.

In Ireland, whence the Order spread from England, the Augustinians lived on during centuries of persecution. There are at present twelve houses of the Order in Ireland, the more important being in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Drogheda, New Ross, and Dungarvan. The novitiate of the Irish Province is situated at Orlagh, Rathfarnham, county Dublin.

Some seventy years ago the Order spread from Ireland to the United States, where a flourishing Province now exists. The Irish Augustinians have also contributed very materially to the building up of the Church in Australia. The first Archbishop of Melbourne, the late most Rev. Dr. Gould; the first Bishop of Sandhurst, the Right Rev. Martin Crane; and the first Vicar-Apostolic of North Queensland, the Right Rev. John Hutchinson, were Irish Augustinians.

At the present moment the Order of the Hermit Friars of Saint Augustine embraces twenty-five Provinces. The General of the Order resides in Rome, and is appointed for a period of twelve years. With him he has a Procurator-General and four assistants. The Provinces are governed each by a Father Provincial and six counsellors. The Fathers, especially in Ireland, where they have no parish work, give particular attention to the work of education, and to the giving of missions and retreats, for which purpose they are in constant request.

The Austin Friars have two habits: the black, which is worn always in public and at solemn functions; and the white, which the Fathers wear in the seclusion of their convents. Both are exactly alike in make. They differ in this – that a scapular goes with the white habit. This was given to the Order by the late Pius IX as a reward for the services rendered by the Augustinian theologians for centuries in defence of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Our Blessed Lady.

The Papal sacristan who has charge of the Vatican household and the relics and treasures belonging to the Vatican sacristry is invariably an Austin Friar and a Bishop. One of the duties of the sacristan is to administer Extreme Unction to the Pope when dying. The present sacristan, Monsignor Pifferi, is the spiritual guide and adviser of the reigning Pontiff, Leo XIII.

MLA Citation

  • Father R A O’Gorman, O.S.A. “The Hermit Friars of Saint Augustine”. Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland, 1903. CatholicSaints.Info. 29 November 2018. Web. 18 April 2021. <>