Newport Past

Austin Friars
(Sites and Monuments Reference 00196g ST 33123 18806)
- 11 on the conjectural view of Medieval Newport -

© Bob Trett 2010

A house of the Friars Eremites of St Augustine (Austin Friars) was founded in Newport by Hugh, second earl of Stafford, in 1377.  Stafford died in 1386 at Rhodes, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The Austin Friars claimed to have been originally founded by St Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century and were organised as an order in 1245.  The friary at Newport appears to have been the only Augustinian friary in Wales, and to have been established on the site of a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas. The first prior was Thomas Leche, who probably came from a house of friars in Staffordshire. When appointed he promised ‘to promote the welfare of the Stafford souls, and to pay a pension of one mark yearly to the vicar of the parish church (St Woolos) as compensation for revenue lost through the establishment of a friary’. It was endowed with 31 burgages (land holdings) and one ‘free place’ (probably a chapel) in Newport.  It later received more burgages, bringing the total to sixty, but the friary was always a small establishment and was destroyed by Owain Glyndŵr in 1403 though it was rebuilt by the duke of Buckingham in the middle of the fifteenth century. [1]

Very few records of the friary survive. In 1495 Jasper Tudor bequeathed 20 shillings to the Austin Friars at Newport. In about 1535 John Leland refers to ‘a house of religion by the key beneath the bridge’.  The last prior, Richard Batte, surrendered the friary to the agent of Henry VIII on 8 September 1538, during the Dissolution of the monastic houses in England and Wales. A survey of 1567 refers to the ‘spittelhouse’ or hospital which stood in the neighbourhood of Corn Lane. Other references to the ‘spittelhouse’ occur in 1570.

Considerable confusion has arisen between the House of the Austin Friars (near the river) and “The Friars” (SMR reference 00159g  ST 3308 1872) of Stow Hill (at the top of Belle Vue Park). In 1859 Thomas Wakeman claimed that a Priory of Friar Preachers or Black Friars granted to Sir Edward Carne in AD 1543 was on the site of ‘The Friars’.  This is also shown on Ordnance Survey maps as the site of a Friary and is recorded on the Sites and Monuments records for Newport as the site of a friary of the White (sic) Friars.  This reference to the White Friars comes from a mistake by William Coxe who in 1801 wrote:

There was another religious house for white friars, near the church of St Woolos, on the left of the lower road leading to Tredegar. No vestige at present exists, and a private house occupies the original site, which in memorial of its ancient state, is still called the Friars. [2]

The original confusion seems to have been caused by another mistake, in the first financial accounts for the Newport Austin Friars after the suppression.  These accounts refer to ‘The House Late of the Black Friars of Newport’ instead of the Austin Friars.  In 1538-39 Morice Baker held one house, with two rooms, one hall, a kitchen and a garden, together with 6 acres of arable land for a total rent of 13 shillings and 6 pence. [3]    There appears to be no further evidence for a second friary in Newport apart from the name ‘The Friars’.  It is not known why the Tudor scribes made a mistake.  Clearly it was no longer a matter of concern after the Reformation what the Friary site had been previously called.  It may be that the Augustinian Friars were confused with the Austin Canons, also known as the Black Canons, who were another, separate order.

In 1801 William Coxe also refers to the site of the Austin Friars, near the banks of the Usk, below the bridge, and refers to:

 several detached buildings containing comfortable apartments, and a spacious hall, with gothic windows, neatly finished in freestonethe body of the church is dilapidated; but the northern transept is a small elegant specimen of gothic architecture. It is now occupied by a cider mill, and the press is placed in a small recess which once was a chapel, separated from the transept by a bold and lofty arch.  The gardens are enclosed within the original walls. [4]

The friary stood in a field called Friars Field, which is clearly marked on eighteenth century maps of Newport.  The friary itself stood in the area that is now Newport Bus Station. Friars Field stretched down to the river and the northern edge ended by an inlet where the Riverfront Theatre now is and where the Newport Ship was discovered in 2002.

Drawn by John Lee printed by Henry Mullock 1859

The friary building survived into the nineteenth century and there is a fine engraving of it published in 1859.   A watercolour by Joshua Gosselin dated 28 July 1784, is wrongly accredited to the ‘Blackfriars’, but is in fact the Austin Friars. The turret on the north corner of the tower of St Woolos church shows that the buildings depicted are to the north of the church, not on the site of ‘The Friars’ by Belle Vue Park. Also close examination of the watercolour with the 1859 engraving of the Austin Friars shows that they are the same buildings. [5]

The Austin Friars are described on the Ordnance Survey maps as a Friary and a Friars Refectory. In 1860 the Newport Corporation purchased the site and razed the building to the ground. The Monmouthshire Building Society had their offices on the site and, during the redevelopment of John Frost Square in the 1960s, removed a Victorian stone plaque depicting the friary to their new premises. A stone lintel from the friary building is in the collections of Newport Museum.

Wakeman, T.    The Monastery of Austin Friars at Newport  (Newport 1859) See full transcript and print.

Coxe, W.  (1801)   57

Randall, H.J., & Rees, W. (editors). ‘The Houses of the Friars at Cardiff and Newport.  First Financial Accounts after the Suppression’ in South Wales and Monmouth Record Society  Publication No.4.  (1957).   56.

Coxe, W. (1801).    56

Mitchell, J.    ‘Joshua Gosselin in Monmouthshire’ in The Monmouthshire Antiquary Volume XIX (2003).   105.

© Bob Trett 2010

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