The Hermits and Anchorites of England

Probably the definitive study of the eremetical life in medieval England was Rotha Mary Clay’s “The Hermits and Anchorites of England” (1914). The full text is now available on-line at
hermits and anchorites
“The Hermits and Anchorites of England” was the second book by the remarkable Rotha Mary Clay.

Born in 1878 to the vicar of Hendon (Middlesex), who named her after the River Rothay in the Lake District, she was largely self-educated.
“Hermits and Anchorite”s was published in 1914 in the series Antiquary’s Books, in which Clay’s first book, “The Mediaeval Hospitals of England” (1909), had already appeared. Volumes in the series aimed “to be comprehensive and popular, as well as accurate and scholarly; so that they may be of service to the general reader, and at the same time helpful and trustworthy books of reference to the antiquary or student”. The long-lasting value of both books has been due in large measure to their appendices, in which Clay set out to list all the hospitals, or hermits and anchorites, of medieval England.

Clay dedicated the majority of her working life not to medieval studies, but to practical social work in and near Bristol, first at the University Settlement at Barton Hill, and subsequently in similar work at Shirehampton.

In the 1940s she turned to academic work again, producing two books on late eighteenth-century artists, “Samuel Hieronymus Grimm” and “Julius Caesar Ibbetson”. She also published two supplementary articles on hermits and anchorites, in 1953 and 1955, and began collecting material for a 2nd edition of “Hermits and Anchorites”, but she died in 1961 with the project incomplete.

At her death (1961), Clay’s hermits and anchorites papers were separated. Her collection of photographs of sites was left to Lambeth Palace Library (they are now part of MS 2551 in that collection). Her notes towards the second edition of the book were entrusted to Basil Cottle of the University of Bristol.

Cottle was a considerable scholar with wide-ranging interests. He is best-known for his work on the English language, though a long-standing study of French cathedrals was brought to completion after his death in 1994 by Nicholas Lee and published as All the Cathedrals of France (2002). He achieved the not inconsiderable task of sorting and ordering Clay’s papers (many of which are in reality brief references jotted down on the back of cloakroom tickets, old Christmas cards, and the like), and began work on the narrative part of the new Hermits and Anchorites. When he died, his papers were left to the University of Bristol, where they are kept in Special Collections. (For details, see

The three boxes of Clay-Cottle papers have the reference DM 1590/I-III. They are being held in Exeter for the duration of the project, and will be returned to Bristol on its completion.


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