Augustinian Friary (The Monastery)
In 1364, Benedict and Henry Zely, together with William Taillour, the owners of two acres of land on the East Cliff, where the sea had already destroyed some houses, gave permission to the Prior Provincial and the Friars of St. Augustine, to build an Oratory and Manse for their order.
These two acres can be identified as being the part of East Cliff that was later destroyed by the sea and to which the present Ockman’s Lane used to lead. The Oratory and Manse were built. This was the founding of the first house of the Friars Heremites of St. Austin in Rye.
The King did not oblige them to pay a rent of 2/10 (14p) because the Lord Warden reported the property as having no current value and in return the Friars were to celebrate the Divine service for the good of the King as well as those of the donators of the land and for their souls, progenitors and heirs.
The Chapel and Manse of the Austin Friars on East Cliff were among the buildings that suffered from the French raid of 1377 which destroyed most of the town by fire. As the site was already being undermined by the sea, it was deemed unwise to rebuild on the same site.
The Fraternity applied to the Corporation for a new site, which was duly granted in 1379 at a place called ‘La Haltone’. Here the Friars built a new Chapel and other buildings which no longer survive. (The Chapel, which did survive, is known today as the Monastery.)
Throughout this time and until the Reformation, the Friary also acted as sanctuary, as did the church of St. Mary’s. In 1538, as part of the Reformation and the suppression of the monasteries, the Bishop of Dover came to Rye and formally suppressed the Austin Friary. The Mayor was ordered to detain a friar and a priest for defaming the King and Queen. The Friars were a small body, with a Prior, under the jurisdiction of Oxford, and since the establishment of the Friary in 1364 Rye people had often made it a beneficiary of their wills. Understandably, they resented the suppression.
However, their lands and buildings were taken by the Crown and the Friary remained in the Crown’s hands until 1545, when it was sold to Thomas Goodwyn, with all its buildings and property, with the exception of the legacies definitely left for the masses for the dead. Thomas Goodwyn paid the large sum of £1,112.2.6 for the Friary buildings and contents.
In 1646 we know that the Friary was owned by an Anthony Norton, who was a strong Royalist and was often in trouble with the Corporation for his strong words against that body, as indeed, was also his wife. He owned not only the Friary but all the land to the north, up to the town wall, as well as other lands and houses in the town. In about 1711, Ralph Norton, a relation of Anthony. owned the Friary as well as Whitefriars, the house opposite. The Friary Chapel, which was all that was left, the other buildings having been demolished and their stone used elsewhere in the town, acted as a store house for many years in the C19th and was in poor repair. There is a picture of it in about the 1880′s in the Museum.
In 1903, the then Vicar of Rye, the Rev. Howes, interested himself in the chapel building, and proposed its conversion into a Church House. It had been the Salvation Army Barracks for some time, but they had moved to their new Citadel in Rope Walk, later an Antique Shop. It was extensively altered by a syndicate of Churchmen, and was formally opened in 1905. After this it was used for many community events, especially during the last war, when dances were held here, and also films after the bombing of the cinema. In the 1950′s it became the home of Cinque Ports Pottery, sadly no longer operating.
Over the years the Monastery has been used as a theatre, malthouse, barracks, butter and cheese warehouse, wool store, hospital and pottery. Today the Monastery awaits decisions as to its next use. In 10 years’ time, will this building again be a source of pride for Rye? a venue for Rye Festival events? a vibrant attraction for visitors to the town?
Adapted from Leopold Amon Vidler, A New History of Rye (Rye, Goulden, 1971)