Historic Hermitages in England
“Introduction to Heritage Asset: Hermitages” [English Heritage, 2011], an excellent introductory guide to historic Hermitages in England.
“A hermitage housed a religious individual or group seeking solitude and isolation. In England they occur from the 7th to 16th centuries AD. The term hermitage comes from the Greek word for desert, and hermit-monks closely resembled the contemplative monastics who sought to emulate the 3rd- and 4th-century hermits of Egypt and Syria (for example John the Baptist and St Anthony). Although their ascetic inmates led more isolated and austere lives than the religious within regular monasteries, hermits were not always strictly enclosed within their houses or settlements. Sometimes they were active preachers, mediators in disputes and alms-collectors, or they performed valuable services being responsible for maintaining lighthouses, highways, ferries and bridges.
Initially, at least, hermitages were institutions that followed the life-style of an individual hermit or group of hermits rather than a regular monastic rule. By about the 12th century, the function of a hermitage varied according to whether it was occupied by hermit-monks, canons (priests who lived by a strict rule) or priests. Other hermitages were retreat houses
serving monastic communities, providing a place for contemplation and rest. Hermit-canons were bound to provide hospitality. Their hermitages sometimes served as hospices, or were linked to hospitals or leper houses. Priest-hermits served bridges, lighthouses and chantry chapels (where masses were said for the soul of the patron), which formed part of, or were adjacent to the hermitage. This diversity in the function of hermitages and, in some cases, their continued use and adaptation over a significant period of time, resulted in considerable variety in their form.
Hermitages can be subdivided firstly into those which provided accommodation for a single hermit, and secondly those which housed a community of hermits (also called eremitic monasteries). They occur all over the British Isles, but the majority of known sites in England are in the north and east. Further distinctions can be drawn according to a hermit’s chosen dwelling place. This would be carefully selected to provide the necessary environment, often for quiet contemplation on the physical and spiritual margins of medieval society.
Six types of hermitage have been identified based on their siting: island and fen; forest and hillside; cave; coast; highway and bridge; and town. Some hermitages were components of
other structures, for example town walls and gates, lighthouse towers and bridges.
Hermitages are recognised through standing and excavated remains, documents, place-names and antiquarian drawings.
Their main components can include an oratory or chapel, cell (or group of cells) or domestic ranges, sometimes arranged around a courtyard. They also required a well, latrine and, in
larger examples additional domestic buildings such as kitchens, ovens and dovecotes. The hermitage was generally enclosed by walls of stone or earth, ditches, or a moat. From the 12th century onwards a more extreme form of ascetic practice could be found in the office of the anchorite who took vows to be permanently enclosed within an anchorhold or cell attached to a parish or monastic church. The anchorite or anchoress was entirely dependent on the support of patrons in their life of contemplation and prayer over many years. This was distinct from the hermit who was self-sufficient either through manual labour or alms collection.”
Available for free download at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/iha-hermitages/
“Warkworth Hermitage is an unusual relic situated on the North bank of the River Coquet in Northumberland, England, close to the village of Warkworth.
The Hermitage consists of an outer portion built of stone, and an inner portion hewn from the steep rock above the river. This inner part comprises a chapel and a smaller chamber, both having altars. There is an altar-tomb with a female effigy in the chapel.
From the window between the inner chamber and the chapel, and from other details, the date of the work may be placed in the latter part of the fourteenth century, the characteristics being late Decorated. The traditional story of the origin of the hermitage, attributing it to one of the Bertrams of Bothal Castle in this county, is told in Bishop Percy’s ballad “The Hermit of Warkworth” (1771).
The carving in the window is a nativity scene, the female is Mary with the newborn child at her breast; the item at her feet is the head of a bull, and the figure at her shoulder is an angel. Of the dedication crosses placed at the time of its construction only one is visible, the altar was plain. The ballad is to all intents fiction as the chapel was built as a chantry, and occupied by a series of clergy from 1489 to 1536; since that time it has remained as it is today.”