Simon shines some light on the life of medieval hermits

11 Apr 2023
Man with statue of saint

If you thought hermits led austere, frugal lives of solitude you would only be partly right.

A new book by Simon Roffey, Reader in Medieval Archaeology at the University of Winchester unearths some surprising facts about hermits.

Some were medieval celebrities sought out by royalty and bishops while others lived in relative luxury supported by noble patronage.

Simon has made the first comprehensive archaeological study of the UK’s hermitages, anchorite cells and eremitic communities.

Although many hermits were men of faith, or mystics, seeking a life of contemplation they often had jobs as ferrymen, guides or lighthouse keepers.

““The majority were religious, and some were made saints, like St Cuthbert. To live as a hermit was considered by many churchmen to be the religious life par excellence,” says Simon. “And many lived a life of intense prayer and devotional practice.”

Many hermits became famous. St Robert of Knaresborough developed such a reputation as a wise and holy man that King John visited him in his Yorkshire cave hoping to glean some sage advice.

The occupant of Warkworth Hermitage lived in a complex cave hewn out of a cliff-face which had an inner chamber, chapel and kitchen. The hermit in residence was kept in relative comfort thanks to a stipend from the Duke of Northumberland.

Both Warkworth and the hermitage at Pontefract show evidence of seating – in effect waiting rooms – suggesting the hermits were far from solitary and there was a queue of people to see them.

Most hermits were male, but most anchorites were women.

Anchorites lived in closed-off cells attached to religious communities. Many of these have survived to this day as vestries and store houses.

Simon explains that despite their voluntary incarceration, these female mystics, many from high-born families, often had servants and pets.

So being a recluse did not mean you had to be on your own. In fact, there were whole eremitic communities, such as Skellig, off the coast of Ireland, where the monks lived alone together in single-person stone huts.

The reformation in the mid-sixteenth century destroyed the eremitic way of life but Simon says hermitages started to re-appear in the eighteenth century in the form of ornamental hermitages designed to give a religious aesthetic to the gardens and palaces of the aristocracy. One example being the 'hermitage' built in the designed gardens at Stowe in Buckinghamshire.

 An Archaeological History of Hermitages and Eremitic Communities in Medieval Britain and Beyond by Simon Roffey is published by Routledge.

Simon is pictured above with statue of St Robert of Knaresborough

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