Reclusive individuals are not a modern phenomenon. Chris Upton looks back over centuries of hermits
We have always been in awe of the individual who elects to cut himself off from the madding crowd. The bearded chap who lived for years in a tent on the Wolverhampton ring road had his status upgraded from vagrant to holy man simply because of the length of time he spent there. It was certainly not because of his spirituality.
Hardly a week goes by without news of someone (usually an ex-magician) declaring this intention to live high up on a wall, or in a glass box, or hanging from a bridge, long enough to break the world record for loneliness.
I’ve always thought it curious that such dedication to solitude generally starts and ends in a huge fanfare of publicity.
Such stunts are the secular arm of a very long tradition. From the early days of Christianity (perhaps the 3rd century) lone males – the lone females came later – embraced a life of solitary contemplation. Not everyone went as far as Simon Stilites, who spent no less than 45 years up a pillar in the Syrian desert, but years passed in a desert (like Jerome) or in a cave helped to concentrate the mind. And the solitary mystic has a high status in many of the world’s religions.
The hermit, anchorite or anchoress was a familiar sight across medieval England too, even from Anglo-Saxon times, and a few of the cells they lived in still survive. In some cases they have left a permanent mark on the landscape. The once terrifying hill coming out of Bridgnorth is still called the Hermitage, after generations of hermits who once lived in the caves there. The occupant had four chambers, including a little chapel, hollowed out of the rock.
The presence of a hermit in what was then called Athelardston is reputed to date from the 10th century, though records only survive to confirm the presence of one from the 14th. Even then a hermitage had to be empty, and a proper application made, before a new occupant could be appointed. One Roger de Burghton, hearing that there was a vacancy at Bridgnorth, dutifully applied to Edward III, “influenced by a fervour of devotion”, and was allowed to move in.
There was another hermit living in a hollowed-out cave at Redstone, near Stourport (sandstone is the perfect environment). Although the Redstone hermit lived alone, he could not exactly be called a recluse, since passing boatmen on the Rover Severn often stopped to give him provisions.
And here lies the catch. Even the most ascetic individual requires food and drink.
Ideally, one needed a sponsor. The 14th century hermit who lived on the slopes of the Wrekin was not only granted a plot of land by the king, he was also sent six quarters of corn a year.
What the medieval chronicler William of Malmesbury called “the vast wilderness called Malvern” inevitably attracted a number of hermits too, tucked away in woods granted them by the local landowner. One such was Aldwin, whose cell was probably where the priory now stands. His life and messy martyrdom (he could hide, but he couldn’t run) is commemorated in 15th century glass in the priory church.
But it was not necessary to be a man or to be in the middle of nowhere to live a solitary life. Although hermits tended to be male, anchorites were often female. An anchoress might well live alone in a cell attached to a church, and her presence seems to have lent an added sanctity to a place. The most famous of them is probably Julian of Norwich, largely because she left writings behind her, but the friary at Droitwich had one living in a cell off the chancel of the church and the city of Worcester had its own anchoress in the shape of Juliana.
Juliana lived in a corner of St Nicholas’s churchyard, in the heart of the town. We know of her in 1265 because in that year she petitioned the authorities to allow her to extend her property – probably a courtyard – into the street. The fact that – eight years later – she was given two oaks from the royal forest of Feckenham, suggests a further extension. Perhaps she had got hold of an Ikea catalogue.
Juliana’s growing apartment implies we should not necessarily associate solitude with penury. Juliana was also granted land outside Worcester which brought her 31 shillings (£1.50) a year in rent, money to be spent on food and drink and perhaps a servant to fetch and prepare them for her.
Katherine de Audley in Herefordshire did not need to rely on the gifts of others to ensure that she was comfortably looked after.
She was, after all, the wife of an earl, and after his death (in 1299) had land to set aside to provide her with sustenance. She settled down at Ledbury, close to the parish church.
If the life of an anchoress is beginning to sound rather cushy, bear in mind the lady in question was effectively incarcerated for the rest of her life.
Indeed, the formal commencement of an anchoress’s life of devotion included a reading of the funeral service, for the woman was, in many ways, being buried alive.
Passers-by in Worcester often stopped to speak to Juliana or to ask her advice, but what they could not do was take her out for dinner.