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by Richenda Fairhurst, historyfish.net. September 2007.
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When saynt Jone was in the yle of Pathmos, than God schewed hym his pryvytees.
—Richard the Hermit
barrier was so
complete as that of the island-recluse. Surrounded
as he was by an expanse of sea and sky, “the
solitude” was his. Only a devoted friend
or an earnest penitent would venture forth to visit him who was
encircled by some wellnigh impassable morass. The
hermit-inhabited islands of
I. ISLES OF THE SEA
(a) Farne and Croquet.—About
two miles from the Northumbrian coast
lay a bare inhospitable rock which became famous as the abode of
saints. When St. Aidan, the island-monk
“The building is almost of a round form, from wall to wall about four or five poles in extent : the wall on the outside is higher
than a man, but within, by excavating the rock, he made it much deeper, to prevent the eyes and the thoughts from wandering, that the mind might be wholly bent on heavenly things, and the pious inhabitant might behold nothing from his residence by the heavens above him. The wall was constructed, not of hewn stones or of brick and mortar, but of rough stones and turf. . . There were two chambers in the house, one an oratory, the other for domestic purposes.”
simple beehive-hut was not
the only building on the island, for it proved necessary to make a
guest-house to accommodate those who came continually to visit the
saint. Many came, not only from
“At first, indeed, when the brethren came to visit him, he would leave his cell and minister to them . . . . At length, as his zeal after perfection grew, he shut himself up in his cell away from the sight of men, and spent his time alone in fasting, watching, and prayer, rarely having communication with anyone without, and that through the window, which at first was left open, that he might see and be seen ; but after a time he shut that also, and opened it only to give his blessing, or for any other purpose of absolute necessity.”
When Cuthbert was elected bishop he would not consent to leave Farne, but the king and others went across and “drew him, weeping, from his retreat”. At length he yielded to their entireties. Faithfully did the Bishop of Lindisfarne fulfil the duties which he had undertaken. “He protected the people committed to his care with frequent prayers, and invited them to heavenly things . . . by first doing himself what he thought to others.” Amid the turmoil by which the hermit-bishop was surrounded, he ceased not to observe the severity of a monastic life. His mission was manifold. He visited parishes and religious houses, healed the sick, comforted lonely survivors of the plague, and protected the needy from the oppressor. As the shepherd was visiting his folds, he came one day to a wild spot, where many people were gathered that he might lay his hands upon them. Among the mountains no fit church or other building could be found, but at night the bishop and his flock were sheltered in tents and in booths roughly formed of boughs from the neighbouring wood. “Two
days did the man of God preach to the assembled crowds, and minister the grace of the Holy Spirit by imposition of hands.”
After two years
labour, Cuthbert returned to Farne, knowing that the time of his
at hand. He used now to leave the cell
frequently and converse with those who came to visit him.
He died after a short illness on
Cuthbert’s successor, Aethelwald, a priest of Ripon, was in seclusion at Farne for twelve years. When he arrived, he found the cell in a dilapidated condition. Crevices made by the violence of the winds had been roughly filled up with timber, hay, or mud ; and the walls were crumbling. Aethelwald therefore begged the brethren who came thither to bring him a calf-skin, which he fastened in the spot where he, like Cuthbert, was wont to pray.
stilled a tempest when Guthfred and certain other brethren were in
peril, The story was told to Bede by
himself. When the monks were returning
“Looking out as far as we could see, we observed, on the island of Farne, Father Oidiluald [Aethelwald], beloved of God, who had come out of his cell to watch our course ; for, hearing the noise of the storm and the raging of the sea, he had come out to see what would happen to us. When he beheld us in distress and despair, he bowed his knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in prayer for our life and safety ; whereupon the swelling sea was calmed, so that the violence of the storm ceased on all sides, and a fair wind attended us even to the very shore.”1
During the time of Felgeld, the third inhabitant of the place, the hermitage was rebuilt from the foundations by Bishop Eadfrid. “By means of the ruins of the holy oratory,” Felgeld himself was said to have been cured of a dreadful disease and deformity. In early life he had been subject to the swelling ; “but now that he was living alone, and bestowed less care on his person, whilst he practiced still greater rigidities, and, like a prisoner, rarely enjoyed the sun or air, the malady increased”. When the cell was again restored, devout persons begged of Feldeld relics of his predecessors. Having cut into pieces the calf-skin which Aethelwald had nailed in the corner where the hermits used to pray, Felgild determined to apply the relics to his own need. Steeping a piece of the covering in water, he washed his face therein, and the blemish was removed. When Bede wrote his account of St. Cuthbert (before 721), Felgeld, then seventy years of age, was still dwelling on the island.
For a considerable period history is silent about Cuthbert’s cell, but Gaufridus, the twelfth-century chronicler, states that the island lapsed into a wild state, until at length the desecrated, time-warn oratory was cleansed and repaired by the monk Edulf.
Farne, the most
famous of Cuthbert’s followers, was born at
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Like St. Cuthbert he lived frugally by his own labour, and devoted himself to meditation. Farne became once more a spiritual centre, and the guest-house was in constant use. Fishermen from the mainland and seamen from all parts visited the solitary, and relied on his advice, whether it concerned their ships or their souls.
In this convenient harbour sailors and traders were frequently detained by stress of weather. Sometimes the hermit-host suffered from a scarcity of provision, but so hospitable was he that upon one occasion he killed his only cow to supply the needs of this guests. Pirates frequently carried off his slender stores. During the reign of Stephen, Aeistan, King of Norway, ravaged the English coast, and landing on Farne he killed and roasted the sheep of the hermits Bartholomew and Aelwin, and even repaired his ships with the timbers of their cell.
lived at Farne for
over forty-two years, and he persevered in ascetic habits to old age. He would have no couch, no pillow, no prop to
support his body. As long as he was
able, he would sit upright, or walk round the island, and all the while
ceased from prayer. During the last nine
days he was very ill ; but, despite the diseases of his body, he kept
faculties of his mind, nor did the brave old man shrink from dying in
solitude. When, therefore, the brethren
administered the last holy rights, they left him ; and on their return
The medieval chapel shown in Plate I is still standing.
It has been restored, and services are occasionally held there or the lighthouse men.
South of Farne,
near the mouth of
the river Coquet, was another sanctuary of the sea.
In the days of St. Cuthbert, who visited
In the thirteenth century the office of “keeper of the island” was held by an energetic recluse named Martin, who raised thereupon at great expense a windmill. But Robert Fitz Roger, considering Martin’s act as detrimental to the
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overlord, sent thirty men with axes and mattocks to destroy the mill. The terror-stricken hermit made no protest, and when his servant ventured to remonstrate, they treated him so ill that he barely escaped with his life. This curious story of enterprise and persecution breaks off abruptly with these words : “Moreover, the said Martin was blamed by no one in that he was wont to prefer to lead the solitary life. He desired to attract neither the approach nor the noise of people of either sex, because often in mills and play-houses irregular and unlawful things are done.”4
The island was
Priory, which in its turn was subject to
(b) Isles of the West.—The West, like the North, had her isles of saints ; nor can the recluses of the Welsh coast be excluded, although not strictly within the scope of this volume. The ascetic life was eagerly embraced by the fervent-natured Celt, and from shadowy traditions it would seem that many a rocky islet had its cell.
The “Book of
Llandaff” opens with
an account of Elgar, hermit of Yns Enlli (Bardsey), a native of
“Having spent the space of seven years with a religious community of brethren, and sometimes in solitude, led a holy, glorious, and chaste life, with scant food, slight clothing, and an emaciated
countenance, he, in the following seven years . . . dwelt in his hermitage, and had nothing for his maintenance except the support which he received, through the providence of God, from the fish of the sea, and what the eagles, or as we may say, angels, brought to him.”
By the ministry of the eagles, Elgar’s table was prepared in the wilderness with fishes, herbs, and water ; and once when he was hungry he found a large white stag which supplied him with food for some time. The hermit “led his life, present to the Lord, and unknown to man”. At length, having prepared a grave for himself in the oratory, he lay down beside it and expired ; and the sailor-saint was afterwards buried by sailors. The details of his life were told by him at the entreaty of the teacher Caradoc who came to visit him.5
Upon a rocky
promontory on the
after eighteen years
of solitude found a companion to share his ascetic life, spent the rest
days at Burry Holmes, an island-promontory on the north
reeds. The hermit was revered by all.
Once some starving robbers, coming to those
parts, said among themselves :—
“There is a certain saint not far from here, who loves and instructs all, and he refreshes the strong as well as the weak ; he invites the destitute and wayfarers, and even to evil-doers he is gentle. Let us go, therefore, to him that he may succour our need. And when they arrived there they were quickly received into the hospice.”
hermit’s death, his
remains were removed to a neighbouring
church. William Worchester records his
“translation” to St. Keneth’s in Gowerland. Many
centuries later a custom prevailed of taking solemn
oaths upon his
relics. In a quarrel which arose in
1472, the arbitrator adjudged that the claimant should swear to the
rightfulness of his title “in the chirche of Langenytt upon Seint
The cell at Burry Holmes was inhabited from time to time. Possibly the oratory there was the “deserted church of St. Kined,” to which Caradoc retired early in the twelfth century.8 The hermitage of St. Kenyth “atte Holmes in Gowers-
land” was still occupied during the fifteenth century, when Philip Lichepoll, William Bernard, etc., were hermints.9
Flat Holme, and
Barry, were often inhabited by solitaries—not always as permanent
for periods of seclusion between missionary journeys or during Lent. These islands of
Prince Fremund was the son of the Saxon King Offa. Whilst his father was yet alive the pious youth was crowned as his successor ; but, fired with love of God, he determined to leave home and country and seek the desert. Fremund and his two companions set out for Caerleon. When they reached the sea they took a little barge, and without oar and without food committed their passage to God’s ordinance (Plate III). Driven to and fro by the wind for five days, they came to land “up an yle froward to kome to”—deserted of inhabitants, but with fair mountains, running rivers, crystal
meadows, and trees
laden with wholesome frutes—a place divinely ordained for them.
…And Ilefaye men that
…A lytil chapel he did
privation, trial, and
temptation, Fremund kept to his purpose : “Stable
as a wal he stood in his degree”. At
length Offa, hearing of the arrival of the
Danish chieftains Hinguar and Hubba, and of the death of St. Edmund
queen’s brother), sent to seek his son through that region and all
isles. The messengers told the prince of
the desolation brought by the paynims and besought his aid. Then stood Fremund in a sore plight. By his profession he was pledged to live
apart and to eschew bloodshed ; yet in that world which he had
helpless were oppressed, the Church despoiled, and Christ’s faith
brought to destruction. Perplexed, the
hermit fell to prayer, and he
was bidden in a vision to hasten home to his country, and be strong in
like Christ’s champion. Fremund
straightway left Ilefaye, and was victorious when he led his people
“the miscreants of
Near the old
Beachely.12 In the year 1405 “a multitude, both of English and Welsh,” were wont to resort thither on pilgrimage. In the time of Henry VIII, the capella S. Triaci, standing in the sea, is described as being worth nothing. The ruined oratory, which measured 31½ feet by 14½ feet, was drawn by Miss Eleanor Ormerod many years ago (Plate IV).
There is no clue as to the identity of the dedication-saint. St. Triaculus occurs on one Patent Roll. William Worcester refers to Sanctus Tiriacus anachorita, and to Rok Seynt Tryacle. Leland speaks of S. Tereudacus Chapel. Modern maps complete the confusion by printing St. Tecla.
II. INLAND ISLES
Lakes.—Many a saint sought solitude upon some inland-islet, shut
the world by the waters of the mere, the marsh, or the river. The holy Herebert dwelt upon an island in
“There was a certain priest, venerable for the probity of his life and manners, called Herebert, who had long been united with the man of God, Cuthbert, in the bond of spiritual friendship. This man, leading a solitary life in an island of that great marsh from which the Derwent flows, was wont to visit him every year, and to receive from him advice concerning his eternal salvation.”
In the year 696
Herebert met in
More than eight
Leland writes of “St. Herebert’s
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chapel have adorned that little isle, giving a human and religious character to the solitude!” “Its ruins are still there,” adds Southey, “in such a state of total dilapidation that they only make the island, mere wilderness as it has now become, more melancholy.”13 One of Wordsworth’s Inscriptions was written for the spot where the hermitage stood :—
…Stranger ! not unmoved
There was an
island cell “within
the water of Windermere,” on Lady Holm near Bowness.
The earliest known reference is to “the
hermit brethren of St. Mary’s” (1272). The
Chapel, also described as hospital or chantry, was
served by two
priests, some of whom came from Segden hermitage, near
Berwick-upon-Tweed. After the Dissolution
of Religious Houses,
the Survey mentions “a Fre Chapel within the parishinge of Wynondermere
our ladie Chapelle of Tholme”. According
to local legend it was a monk of Lady Holm who silenced for ever the
“Crier of Claife”. Travellers from
Kendal to Hawkshead crossed the narrow lake by ferry.
The fell between Windermere and Esthwaite is
rowed across expecting some passenger, but he was some dreadful apparition, and returned speechless to die. The story of the boatman’s last voyage struck terror into all hearers, and after nightfall none would venture upon the lake. At length a priest of St. Mary’s went forth to lay the ghost [at rest], and henceforth the awful “Crier” was heard no more.
(b) In the Fens.—Encircled by fenny swamp or flooded river, Saxon solitaries took up their bode at Crowland, Peakirk, Thorney, Huneia, Bethney, and other islands.
Felix himself a monk of Crowland, describes the terrible marsh which Guthlac made his home—with its stagnant pools, its spongy moss, its wreaths of dark vapour, its watercourses winding between woods and islands. Now when the young monk of Repton heard of this huge desert he went straight thither. Inquiring of the inhabitants their knowledge of this vast solitude, Guthlac heard of a more uncultivated part of that wide wilderness. One of those who stood by, Tatwine by name, declared that he knew another island in the hidden parts of yet more remote desert, which many who had tried to live there disliked on account of unknown monsters and terrors of different kinds. Guthlac, who in his youth had ever been ready for a wild raid, was still eager fro holy adventure. He was guided by Tatwine to the place of dreadful desolation. The voyage to Crowland is shown upon the fine Harley Roll (Plate V), which also depicts the construction of the chapel under the hermit’s direction.
Traces of Guthlac’s church and cell remained until last century on a mound not far from the abbey.14 The cistern or well mentioned by the eighth-century chronicler has also been uncovered. A cottage here was known in the eighteenth century as “Anchor Church House.”
Pega, Guthlac’s famous sister, settled as a recluse at Peakirk, “being the first dry land she reached after coming by water from Croyland.” On the traditional site of her dwelling stands a chapel, which was formerly known as the hermitage of St. Bartholomew—the saint who appears constantly in the life of Guthlac as his patron. According to the continuator
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of Ingulph’s Chronicle, the chapel of St. Pega was rebuilt by Abbot John Wysbech about 1469, “after the same had been for many years levelled with the ground”. If this be true, the nave (now used as a reading-room) may represent the abbot’s work. The chancel is older, dating probably from the latter part of the thirteenth century.
At Thorney (once Ancarig, island of anchorites) dwelt, according to uncertain tradition, Thorncred, Thortred, and Bosa. To this spot in the tenth century Athelwold, Abbot of Abingdon, and Bishop of Winchester, was wont to retire at certain seasons, and a monastery was afterwards founded there. In Thorney Abbey were preserved the relics of Huna, the chaplain of St Etheldreda. The priest had long practiced great austerity of life, and after he had performed the last offices of the holy abbess, he spent the rest of his days in seclusion upon a small island near Ely, called Huneia after the saint. Near Hunney farm, on the borders of Chatteris, traces have been found of an ancient building, supposed by some to have been the chapel where Huna was buried, before the translation of his body to Thorney.
(c) In Rivers.—Bertellin or Berthelm (by some identified with Beccel or Beccellin, Guthlac’s disciple) a wild young prince who had become a penitent recluse, went in disguise to his father, the King of Mercia, and begged from him a little island in the river Sow, where now is Stafford. After his father’s death, the hermit was dispossessed, and, leaving Bethney, he returned to the desert places of the mountains. This last retreat is supposed to have been Dovedale, possibly near Ilam, where the shrine and well of St. Berthram are still to be seen, and also certain ancient cross-shafts which may once have marked the saint’s grave.15
Modwen is said
to have dwelt upon
a plot of ground between two branches of the river, near
win’s chappell”. The story of St. Modwen’s hermit-friend, Hardulch, is told in chapter III.
learned friend of
King Alfred, once lived the solitary life upon “an island of Chester,
the inhabitants Plegmundensham”—probably Plemondstall, about four miles
Chester. The good priest was summoned
from his place of retirement by Alfred, whose instructor and counsellor
became (chapter XIII.) The Saxon
Chronicle for the year 890 records that : “This year was Plegmund
God, and of all the people, to the Archbishopric of Canterbury”. “At this time,” says another historian,
“Archbishop Plegmund, so faithful and so famous, ruled the
called Andersey, by the
river Parrett in
1. Bede, Ecc. Hist., ed. Stevenson, 492-3.
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