The Hermits of Pontefract, West Yorkshire
“Hermits were a very common feature of the Middle Ages. This life style was copied, in some instances, from examples found in the Old Testament in which we read that it was the habit of certain ascetics to go into the desert to meditate and fight out their spiritual battles in solitude….
Robert of Knaresborough, who died in 1218 A.D. lived in a cave…
Anchorites differed from hermits in that they ‘stayed put’ in the same place. Anchored in a small cell for many years if not for life. The majority of them were women. In the C12 rules were laid down for anchorites. They were allowed a servant to fetch and carry. Funding had to be agreed. Often the townspeople arranged to provide necessities for the anchorite. Clothing was regulated so as not to confuse the wearer with regular orders. One rule was, no hair shirts or clothing made from hedgehog skins. Anchorites were the medieval equivalent of ‘counselors’ and often listened to confessions. They offered up prayers on request from the populace. One noted C14 Anchorite, Mother Julian, lived in a cell adjoining the church of St. Julian in Norwich – hence her name, her true name is unknown. She was the first woman to write a book in English. The book was entitled “Revelations of Divine Love”. She was visited in her cell by Dame Marjorie Kemp in her quest to learn more about spiritual matters. Marjorie Kemp made many pilgrimages in her search for enlightenment. She journeyed to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela as well as to many shrines in England.
Some of the services offered by hermits were prayer, counsel and prophesy. Henry V, on his accession in 1413 A.D., visited a hermit in Westmister Abbey to ask for guidance.
There were many hermits living in Yorkshire, at least ten in the city of York and many much closer to Pontefract.
St. Helen’s Church, which stood near to the almshouses next to the present Hope and Anchor Inn on Mill Dam Lane, had a female anchorite attached. This practice continued for around three hundred years. In 1401 A.D. Emma Sherman is named as being the anchorite. In 1464 A.D. the name Alice is recorded and in 1486 A.D. Margaret was in residence.
In 1372 A.D. John of Gaunt allowed William of Bingham to repair houses where St. Thomas had been beheaded. He lived there as a hermit. There are early C15 records of a hermitage on St. Thomas’s Hill.
In 1213 A.D. a hermit named Peter of Pontefract and his son were executed at Wareham by order of King John. According to Shakespeare’s play ‘King John’ Peter had prophesied, “That ere the next Ascension Day at noon, your Highness should deliver up your crown”. For which impertinence the outspoken Peter was duly hanged on the aforesaid Ascension Day at noon. Notwithstanding, his prophesy proved truthful in as much as King John lost power and was forced to sign Magna Carta in 1215 A.D. and died in the following year.
The hermitage under Pontefract General Infirmary on Southgate was first recorded in 1386 A.D. We read that Roger de Laythorpe gave it to Brother Adam and eventually it became the property of the monastery of St. Oswald at Nostell. Used until the Reformation the Hermitage consists of an oratory and a living room with a well-chamber to the rear. The garden in which the Hermitage was originally situated was at one time the property of Mr John Marsden. The Hermitage is sited to the south of Southgate and the north of Friarwood. It is only accessible from within the building of P.G.I. the two chambers, cut from solid rock, are approached by descending sixty-two steps. It was discovered after centuries of oblivion in 1874 A.D. when workmen laying drains broke through its roof.”
“Pontefract Hermitage is a medieval hermitage situated below the old Southgate entrance to the General Infirmary in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, England. It is a grade I listed structure.
The retreat consists of two chambers carved out of sandstone, side by side but on different levels. From the lower chamber a 63 step spiral staircase descends to a well. The later upper chamber, known as the Oratory, measures 14 feet (4.25 metres) by 8 feet (2.45 metres) with a domed ceiling up to 8 feet high. The Oratory contains an altar, a fireplace, a bench and low stool and a bed shelf. The entrance to the hermitage was protected by bolted doors.
Pontefract had hermits from the early 13th century, the earliest of whom, Peter of Pomfret, was executed by King John in 1213 for predicting his downfall. This was dramatised in the Shakespeare’s play King John. The hermit tradition continued for about three centuries.
The hermitage described here dates from 1386 after Robert de Laythorpe granted the then hermit, Brother Adam, the hermitage and accompanying land for life. It was discovered in October 1854 by workmen laying a new sewer.”
“Peter of Wakefield or Peter of Pontefract (died 1213), was an English hermit executed by King John for prophesying that John’s crown would be passed to another.
Peter was a simple illiterate man, living a lonely ascetic life at Wakefield. In the latter part of 1212 — perhaps on his northern journey that year — King John was told that a Wakefield hermit had prophesied that evil would befall him. Summoning him to his presence, John inquired concerning the prophecy, and was told that by next Ascension Day, 23 May 1213, his crown would have been transferred to another. John committed the prophet to William of Harcourt to be kept in custody at Corfe until the truth of his words should be proved. The prophecy, which is said to have spread even to France, was widely believed, or at least feared, and John himself, as the day approached, was evidently nervous. Matthew Paris goes so far as to assert that this fear hastened John’s submission to Pandulf, which was completed by the act of homage on the eve of Ascension Day 1213. When the dreaded day was safely over, John, in spite of Peter’s protest that his prophecy had been fulfilled, and that John’s crown had indeed passed to another, took cruel vengeance. He ordered Peter to be dragged by horses to Wareham and there hanged with his son.
The story illustrates the feeling of the English people in regard to the meaning of John’s act of submission to the pope. The chroniclers are fairly unanimous in declaring that Peter’s famous prophecy had indeed been fulfilled, though in a sense other than had been expected.”