The House of Austin Friars
The Clare lords were good patrons of the Church and one of their most notable acts was the introduction of the Austin friars to Clare, probably in 1248. Their friary became the mother house of its order in England, and we know a good deal of its history through the existence of a cartulary or collection of deeds, written in a fifteenth century hand, and containing nearly two hundred documents relating to the friary.
The coming of friars to the town must have affected the neighbourhood very closely, especially during the first years when the friars kept strictly to their rule of poverty. Friars were ready to preach at a time when the parish priests were often too busy and not always capable of producing sermons. The friars looked on it as their mission to tend the sick, and Matthew Paris gives an eloquent description of the healing of a crippled woman at Clare in 1235 by a Franciscan friar who was preaching on behalf of the crusade. She had lost the use of her limbs for three years, according to the chronicler, and "returned to her house rejoicing and glorifying God for having bestowed such power on his servant".
The friars were dependent on the people for their daily needs, and they must have become familiar figures in their black habits, white tunics and sandals, as they went around the countryside, begging, preaching and healing. Other houses of the order were soon established, as at Orford and Thetford, and disputes over their respective begging grounds had to be settled in the provincial chapter. That the friars were popular locally can be seen in the wills of Clare men and women, who frequently left bequests to the friars when they said masses for the souls of the dead, sometimes in their own church, sometimes in the parish church; and this may have been one cause of the friction that existed between friars and parish priests.
In spite of their rule of poverty the friars began to receive grants of land and goods soon after their foundation' these came not only from kings and nobles but also from local mend and women some of whom gave small pieces of meadow land' one meadow which came to the friars in this way was later called the beautiful Vale of St Mary of Clare. Soon we hear of buildings being erected. Joan of Acre, daughter of Edward I and wife of Gilbert of Clare, was said to have built the Chapel of St Vincent. Her daughter, Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare, was most generous to the friars as to other religious houses, and built for them a dormitory, chapter house and refectory. The friars' church was dedicated in 1328, and in 1380 the rebuilt chapter house, cloister and cemetery (which was north of the church and extended to the footbridge to the castle) were dedicated. Burials of notable people took place at the friary. Joan of Acre was buried there in 1307 before a concourse of royal and noble personages. Later in the century the body of Lionel of Clarence, (son of Edward III and husband of Elizabeth de Burgh's grand-daughter and heiress), who had died in Italy in 1368, was brought to Clare for burial in 1377; and his tomb is thought to be before the high altar of the friars' church.
When a lord was in residence at the castle there was close contact between castle and friary. By an agreement, for example, between Elizabeth de Burgh and the friars, it was settle that two friars should go daily to sing mass in Clare castle; in return the friars were granted ten quarters of what from the seigniorial grange and ten quarters of malt from the mill next to the friary, to be paid yearly by the reeve.
Little is known of the friary in the latter Middle Ages. It produced some notable scholars such as Thomas Edwardston, chaplain to Lionel of Clarence. At the same time there is evidence that some of the Clare friars were suspect of heresy. Two of their number, Nicholas Bacon and John Oxeford, took part in the Peasant Revolt in 1381. And in the early sixteenth century there are signs of the new Protestantism in the neighbourhood. Thomas Topley, one of the friars, confessed to the Bishop of London that he had walked in the fields of Bumpstead with Miles Coverdale and discussed contrinal matters with him. Another friar, Robert Topley, had turned renegade and married.
In Henry VIII's reign Clare friary, with other lesser religious houses, was dissolved in 1539. It was apparently in a poor condition; jewels had been pledged, and its debts could not be met if the plate and lead were reserved for the king. The friary and its lands, about 38 acres, were granted to Richard Frende, "Trumpatur unto the kinges maiestie". The property was alienated to John Killingworth in 1589, and in 1596 it was granted to Sir Thomas Barnardiston, in whose family it remained for the greater part of the seventeenth century. From the Barnardistons the estate passed by way of a lawyer, Thomas Poulter, to the Barker family and continued to be in the possession of this family until 1953. In that year the Augustinian Order of Friars returned to the Priory and their first Mass was celebrated in a temporary chapel on May 10th. It was appropriate that the Mass was offered for all the benefactors of the friary, both in the past and the present. Later the infirmary building became a permanent church to serve the whole district.
The dwelling house was a development from the main rooms in the friary, the parlour, the pantry and buttery and the celllarer's hall, probably with the guest rooms and prior's lodging above. The present hall is entered through a massive fourteenth century door, and its magnificent ceiling is probably late fifteenth century. (A very similar ceiling used to be at Church Farm, west of the church, but was removed to the Victoria and Albert Museum; and there are other ceilings with massive beams ornately carve, notable at the Bell Hotel). Between the Priory dining-room and its kitchen is a small lobby with a vaulted floor; its windows have some of the original glass and there is a part of the fourteenth century stairway leading to the upper rooms. Upstairs is a finely panelled room and on the carving is the date, 1604, and the initials of Thomas Barnardiston, who died in 1618.
Of the conventual buildings enough remains to indicate the extent of the friary. The site was excavated by Sir William St John Hope in 1904, and more has been discovered in recent years. The church was exceptionally large, c160 feet long, with quire, nave, a small central tower, and south chapel (possibly that dedicated to St Vincent); there was a narrow north aisle, at the cast end of which the Chapel of Annunciation, mentioned in 1361, may have been built. The south wall of the church still stands, and at its east end are the remains of a sedilia and an altar recess which may be the tomb of Joan of Acre. The cloisters are south of the nave with the east wall almost complete. In it is the entrance to the chapter house, above the east end of which was the dormitory, a two-storeyed building reached by stairs approached through a door in the north east of the cloisters' only the foundations remain. The dormitory at the south-east was connected with the infirmary, behind which was the rere-dorter. South of the cloister was the refectory with a cellar below, but this part has been considerably altered.