The Hermits of Cheshire
“The earliest references to hermits and anchorites in the county are legendary rather than factual. Plegmund, archbishop of Canterbury (890-914), is said by Gervase of Canterbury to have lived for years as a hermit in the Isle of Chester and given his name to Plemstall, and, according to Gerald of Wales, King Harold II fled wounded from Hastings to Chester where he survived as an anchorite in the chapel of St. James, close to St. John’s church. Ranulph Higden treats the latter story with some scepticism but adopts from Gerald of Wales another story that the Emperor Henry V died as a hermit near Chester and adds that Henry lived ten years at Chester under the name of Godescall.
According to Henry Bradshaw, William FitzNeal, constable of Chester, encountered a monk ‘dwelling contemplative’ on Hilbre Island in the early 12th century and there is an indication in the early 14th century that the cell which was established on Hilbre by St. Werburgh’s abbey sometimes held monks who had vowed to live in solitude. There are references to anchorites attached to three of the churches of Chester. In 1284 Queen Eleanor gave alms of £6 3s. 0½d. to build a chapel and cell for the recluse of St. Martin’s church and in 1300 the maidservant of the anchoress of St. Chad’s church occurs in a lawsuit. It was only, however, the anchorite’s chapel and cell of St. James in the graveyard of St. John’s, opposite the south entrance to the church, which seems to have achieved any permanence.
In the mid 14th century it held monks of Vale Royal (1342) and Norton (1356) and a Dominican friar (1363), and in 1565 a lease of property formerly belonging to St. John’s College included the ‘anker’s chapel’. Outside Chester an anchorite at Frodsham was paid royal alms of 1d. a day between 1274 and 1278 and a recluse at Christleton was given a gift of 2 marks by Edward I in 1279-80. There were also recluses at Middlewich (1283), Stockport (1361) and Macclesfield (1301 and 1509). References to hermits and hermitages are more geographically and chronologically diverse. A local family took its name from a hermitage at Cranage in the 13th century and at Tarporley the chantry chapel dedicated to the Virgin and St. Leonard was also known as the hermitage of the Rood. In 1367 Simon de Goddesmere, hermit, was licensed to have an oratory in his hermitage at Wilderspool and in 1396 the hermit of St. Agatha the Virgin at Tarvin was granted an oak to repair Holme Street and Stamford Bridge. In 1424 William Heyworth, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, leased two gardens to Nicholas Baker, the hermit of Wybunbury, for 99 years on condition that they should be held by fit priests or honest hermits. There was at least one hermitage in Chester in the later Middle Ages. In 1358 John Spicer, hermit, was pardoned for acquiring a piece of land between the Dee and the quarry of Chester and building on it a hermitage enclosed within a wall; in 1363 Spicer was described as the hermit by the bridge of Chester when he was commissioned to collect
a grant of pavage.
His hermitage was probably that of St. James beyond the bridge of Chester in Handbridge in which John Benet, hermit of St. James, Chester, was accused of receiving robbers, sheltering common malefactors, and keeping a brothel; in 1456 the mayor and sheriffs of Chester were ordered to investigate the conduct of his successor, Jeven ap Bleth’ ap Carwet, recently appointed to the hermitage by the king.”
“A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3”. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1980: “Religious houses: Introduction”, Pages 124-127.
For the Anchorite’s Cell or “Hermitage”, a small sandstone building by the River Dee at The Groves in Chester, see: http://chester.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Hermitage