ANCHORITES IN SOMERSET - Jerry Sampson 24/9/15 


This meeting took the form of an illustrated lecture by Jerry Sampson FSA. He is Cathedral Archaeologist of both St David’s in Wales and Wells Cathedral. He is also a past President of SANHS. 


An anchorite – or anchoress – was a medieval religious devotee moved to be immured for life in a cell adjoining a church where s/he would devote her/his time to prayer, religious study and to dispensing spiritual wisdom to those who came to seek it. 


The fact that this advice was oral not written means the influence and importance of Anchorhold is significantly underrated.  They were characterised by later Protestants as 'religious masochists’ and by Hollywood as ‘mad nuns’. However they were more likely ‘spiritual athletes’ whose conviction of heaven as both more certain and important than earthly life made them distinguished. And far from being marginalised and lonely, they were in many cases centres of their local communities in those deeply religious times. 


60% of them were anchoresses most of whom came directly from the outside world; in contrast anchorites were in many cases former monks.  To be accepted for an anchorhold one had to convince the bishop you were strong, clear and steadfast in your vocation, and you were made painfully aware that if you left your anchorhold you were damned to Hell for breaching your vows.  Anchorites were also required to fund the cost of building their cells, and had to convince the bishop that they had the means to meet their living costs for life. However, in fact the committal service, with elements of a funeral rite, reflected the church’s view that anchorites were ‘no longer of this life’, in fact ‘living saints’.  The host parish, diocese or monastery from which one may have come usually bore none of the cost of the anchorhold.  So anchoresses and anchorites were not only deeply devout but invariably wealthy! 


For Jerry Sampson, and other Buildings Archaeologists examining local claims of former anchorholds, there are a number of architectural features of anchorhold which assist one’s appraisal.  Firstly, the cell was usually on the north side of the church so that being to the right of the altar, the anchorhold would be ‘at the right hand of God’. A cell would always have an altar for the anchorite’s devotions, with any windows on that wall therefore being well above eye-level.  A small window or squint (‘hagioscope’ for the wordy) connected the cell to the church so that the anchorite, while kneeling, could see the host raised during Mass in the act of transubstantiation.  There would be some connection with the outside world, typically a cloth covered window, through which the anchorite would communicate with those who came seeking spiritual advice.  However earthly devotion did not prevent an anchoress with sufficient means having several adjoining rooms including accommodation for a servant (who in some cases was the anchorite’s disciple and became the his/her successor) and a parlour in which to entertain visitors. 


For the forensic archaeologist, there were several tell-tale signs of misattribution, often starting with the squint being ‘the wrong way round’ - in medieval times it would have been designed to look into not out of the room claimed to be a cell and therefore be wider on the inner side.  There was also the suspicion that most anchorites were not confined in tiny cells but had reasonably spacious accommodation, sometimes including a walled garden.  Given that anchorhold disappeared with the Dissolution in the 1530s (though some continued for several decades after that), it was inevitable that rooms later used as sacristies, vestries, etc. may well have been anchorholds previously. However Jerry Sampson contended that many spaces or archaeological traces of adjoining buildings claimed as anchorholds never were.  It seems that on-site rooms given to chantry and other clergy are often misinterpreted as anchorhold cells.   


Jerry spent some time talking about  Wulfric, a 12th century anchorite, born in Compton Martin, who was for 29 years an anchorite at St Michael and All Angels at Haslebury Plunknett, supported by the Cluniac monks of Montacute. He gained a widespread reputation for prophesy, healing and plain speaking. He warned King Henry I of his impending death and admonished King Stephen for his governance of the realm. When he died in 1154 a scuffle broke out between the monks of Montacute, who argued that having fed him for many years they should have his body as an object of pilgrimage, and Osbern the local priest.  In the end the bishop ruled in Haslebury’s favour and after a couple of ‘false starts’ Wulfric’s remains were secretly buried somewhere near the church but in a spot ‘known only to Wulfric and to God’.


This brings us to the question of how many anchorites and anchoresses there were at any time.  Some earlier authors claimed  that they existed in many or even most parishes at the height of medieval religiosity. However, despite calls over a century ago for a rigorous study of claimed anchorholds, Jerry lamented that little had been done over the years, and what had been undertaken often found against their existence where claimed.  In answer to the question about the conversion-rate from these ‘living saints’ to ones formally canonised after death, Jerry commented that few were recognised by Rome.  What we may well be seeing here is that, although wealthy, anchoresses were not necessarily part of the ecclesiastical nobility who were lined up during life for eventual sainthood,  but a locally loved and valued spiritual resource. There is some heart-warming evidence that some anchorites relied on the covert material support of the local people.  At the risk of sounding too ‘tabloid’, they may have been ‘the people’s saints ‘ rather than those of the religious top brass!

John Merriman  26/09/15


Further reading:            Rocha Mart Clay  ‘Hermits and Anchorites of England’ 1914 
                                   Roberta Gilchrist ‘Gender and Material Culture – The  Archaeology of Religious Women’ 1994

Other sites:                 Hardham, Sussex
                                  Stanton St Quinton, Wilts
                                  Axbridge, Somerset