Haunts of Hermit and Anchorite
One of the things that puzzles the historical observer is the paucity of traces of a great event like the Roman occupation of London for several centuries; and the definite, ample and almost universal landmarks left on this country by the early Christian civilization that succeeded it.
There is scarcely a district in England or in Ireland or Wales that cannot show its hermit's cave or its hermit's cell, and which does not still preserve some tradition of these holy men that has come down to us across the centuries. And sturdy English of the English they were, for the most part, these men of religion, well deserving the regard in which their memory is so persistently held. A very typical hermitage is that about half a mile upstream from Warkworth, consisting of a chapel and two chambers scooped out of the sandstone cliff.
You will find traces in the holy islands off the coast of Northumberland dating back centuries before the Norman Conquest; you will find them in islands in the Lake District; in the Western Isles of Scotland; in Ireland, where S. Kevin's Bed is still a place of pilgrimage in Wicklow. You will find traces of them persisting right down through the Middle Ages, and only in 1927 an underground chamber, believed to have been an anchorite's cell, was unearthed in the quadrangle of Merton College, Oxford.
The tendency of the anchorites was rather to shut themselves up, but the hermits came forth into the world, and took their share in its work.
In an early English poem, hermits of a half-secluded type are described, men quite different from the relentless Peter the Hermit, who carried the fiery cross through Europe, and roused the Christian nations, calling them to the great Crusades.
Also in contemplacioun there ben many other
None of the English hermits is more famous than that sturdy Saxon, S. Cuthbert. When he felt the call of the religious life, he made his way to Fame Island, off the Northumberland coast. There he took up his habitation, built himself a cell and an oratory, and devoted himself with pious singleness of purpose to the life of religion.
He grew barley for his simple fare, and the tradition goes that when he wanted water, like Moses, he struck a rock and the water gushed forth. He built his cell in such a way that it could not be seen into, and that when he looked out from it he could see only the vault of Heaven. It was his simple and pious way of saying that he was in the world, but not of it. His reputation for piety and sincerity spread, and people came from far and near to see him and to consult him-so that ultimately the king sent for this simple but sturdy old man and made him a bishop. Good S. Cuthbert obeyed. He wept, but he went.
He is buried at Lindisfarne, now Holy Island, and he died on the same day as his lifelong friend, S. Herbert, who lived on an island in Derwentwater. It was their most earnest prayer that neither should outlive the other, and, as Wordsworth, the poet of the Lake District wrote:
These holy men died in the same hour.
What better epitaph could they have, these simple and unselfish servants of God, than that they were lovely and pleasant in their lives; in death they were not divided.
S. Cuthbert founded a tradition in those islets of the misty North Sea, the cold haunt of the sea-birds and the wild geese, and sometimes the scene of savage devastation by the Vikings and sea-rovers. S. Bartholomew came after him, and showed no less the typical English virtues of stedfast courage and genuine kindliness.
He was so hospitable, though living poorly and scantily himself, that he killed his only cow to find food for visitors marooned upon his island home. As a gesture of defiance to the world he hewed with his own hands a coffin of stone for his final earthly resting-place. Neither his simplicity nor his piety were any protection against the sea-rovers who came swooping down upon him from "Norroway o'er the faem." While he remained on his knees in passive and holy "contemplacioun," the jeering and unbridled Norsemen roasted his sheep for their coarse banquet of flesh and ale and song, and tore the very beams from his empty cell to repair their ships.
It is the story of the world that one can never tell when moral force will triumph over brute force. The Vikings jeered, but some who came to scoff remained to pray. One of this school was S. Henry, a young and noble Dane. His life has a note of modernity, a theme almost like that of a Victorian novel. His parents wished to force him into marriage with the daughter of a rich and noble family. He refused, and fled to Coquet Island, off the mouth of the Tyne.
There, the world forgetting, by the world forgot, he devoted himself to the religious life. Apparently, perhaps the result of his early upbringing when he lived the glad life of feast and camp, the old Adam sorely troubled him.
He prayed to Heaven, this man of iron resolution, that he might be afflicted by a serious disease that would pin him to his hermit's cell. The climate alone might be enough to account for it, but he developed a painful affection of the knee. Halt and lame and in agony, he struggled on, dragging out an ecstatic existence, until at last a merciful death put an end to his sufferings.
Sometimes the hermits were men of adventurous mould, who, like Ulysses, had seen much of the world before they came to anchor in the peace of the hermit's cell. Such a one was Elgar, whose shrine was in Bardsey, off the coast of Carnarvon. Elgar was born in Devon, a county to which adventure has always seemed native. As a child he was kidnapped and carried off to Ireland, there to be sold as a slave. He entered the service of an Irish king, and showed no hint of the gentleness of nature that was afterwards to distinguish him. Ultimately he obtained the remarkable position of executioner, no sinecure in the dawn of Irish history, when kings scarcely ever died in their beds, and men took life, as a cynic said, easily and often.
He appears to have done his ghastly job well and truly, and when he was given his freedom as a consequence, he decided to go to sea. Perhaps the more efficiently a man carries out his job as an executioner, the more desirable it may seem to him to live elsewhere when he retires. In any case, Elgar went to sea, scorning the jeers of his enemies, that he was the kind of man who, if he escaped hanging, was born to be drowned. For a time his luck held. But one day he was cast away on the Island of Bardsey. He waited for no second lesson. He ended his days in peace, praising Heaven for its demonstrable mercies.
Just as the ruins of the holy S. Cuthbert's oratory can still be seen in his island shrine, so one may still trace the footsteps, at Finchale, in Durham, of the good S. Cedric, who, like Elgar, was a man of adventure. Before he found his true mission of piety, if not exactly a tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, he had at least followed so many occupations as to be almost a jack-of-all-trades. He had been a serving-man, a household steward, a trader, and a sailor.
As a brother in religion he was a wayfaring man. He made a pilgrimage through Spain and France to Rome. Thence he went on to the Holy Land, bathed in the Jordan, and prayed at the Holy Sepulchre. And so back to Finchale, to contemplation and piety, and to live, like John the Baptist in the wilderness, on nuts and roots.
Orpheus, with his lute, in Greek mythology, had great influence over animals. So had S. Cedric. When one sees a man feeding pigeons perched on his shoulder outside S. Paul's Cathedral, or sparrows perilously perched on his finger-tips in Hyde Park, one thinks of Cedric moved by the same spirit:
He prayeth best who loveth best
But there are few of the modern humanitarians who would show Cedric's courage. Once, in the woods, a hunger-maddened she- wolf rushed out at him. S. Cedric ordered her, in Heaven's name, to begone. The wolf fawned at his feet, and the devils departed out of her.
Not all the hermits were men. There was, for example, in the twelfth century, Christina, the daughter of one Autie, or Atie, in Huntingdonshire, where the name Adie is still common. Her parents wished to force her into a marriage of convenience. She had vowed herself to perpetual maidenhood, and after her marriage she fell on her knees to seek divine help and guidance. In a dream she was told what to do. She fled for protection to one Roger "an holie ermitt, whoe lived in a desert not farr from Dunstable." Her husband, Burford, came after her, but when he saw the misery of the cell which Roger had given her in a neighbouring hut, he felt convinced that she was in earnest. He left her to her prayers.
She became a sort of prioress, and after living for years in a rude cell with a clay floor, she went to St. Albans and was well received by the community there, impressed by her austerity and asceticism. Her fame even reached the king-Henry the Second- who gave a pension of fifty shillings a year to her- to " Lady Christina of the Woods," as the grant put it. But in her own view she had a higher honour than that. She was allowed to make a pair of embroidered sandals for the Pope himself-for Adrian IV, the only Englishman who ever held the papacy. So, by a curious freak of fortune, the runaway bride from Huntingdon passes into history and survives there.
Gay of Warwick was a muscular Christian among hermits. When he came back from the wars, he was not recognized by his wife, any more than Ulysses was recognized by Penelope when he returned from the siege of Troy. Guy did not disclose himself, but lived like a beggar at the gate, seeking eternal peace and ensuing it. To-day, after Guy has for centuries been gathered to his forefathers, motorists regularly make the Bridgnorth hermitage a modern Mecca.
No hermit was a sturdier or more typical Englishman than Robert of Knaresborough. He was the son of a Mayor of York, and had the tough spirit of his race. His friends wanted him to be a merchant, and perhaps a mayor. He went his own way on the path of peace-if others would let him follow it.
He was not unsociable, this jovial but pious Yorkshireman. He joined forces with a rich and famous knight, who had fled from the wrath of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, a singularly unsafe person to quarrel with. But when the king died, the knight doffed his sandals and sackcloth, and went back to the fleshpots. His lady bore it ill that her lord and master should live like a prodigal son, on husks and acorns, when he might feast on cakes and ale. Pusillanimously, or uxoriously, he agreed, and asked for nothing more than that someone should show him the way to go home:
Langir lyked hym noght that lyffe;
Robert carried on. He lived on barley-bread and vegetable broth, and gathered round him poor vagrom men, begging from the passers-by food for "my caytiffes in my cave." But in those days and in those parts was one William the Sheriff, who had no high opinion either of hermits or vagrom men. He looked on Robert's cell as a den of thieves, ordered Robert to clear out, and told his officers to destroy his abode, to "dyng doune hys byggynges."
Robert, like Toussaint I'Ouverture, in Wordsworth's poem, had great allies. As the stiff-necked and hard-hearted sheriff lay asleep, there appeared unto him "three men blakker than Ynd." Two of them harrowed his sides with burning pikes, while the third tendered him a sword and bade him defend himself for his sins against a holy man. He fled, and, seeking out Robert, gave him the glad hand of friendship. They might well have a statue at Knares-borough with the motto: "Behold how pleasant it is to see brethren dwelling together in amity."
Not all North-country hermits were as fortunate as Robert. Peter the Wise, of Pontefract, was perhaps too sanguine about his wisdom. A simple and a rustic man, he did not like King John, who was certainly not a very amiable person. Peter prophesied that the king would not live another year. "Wait and see," said the cynical monarch, locking Peter up, not in a hermit's cell, but in a prison cell in Corfe Castle. And when the fatal day came, just to prove that he was still alive - and kicking- he had Peter the Wise hanged, together with his son, lest he, perchance, might inherit his father's noted gift of prophecy.
In some of our cathedrals to-day you can see the anchorite's cell, which the holy man never left, having his food passed to him through a tiny opening in the wall. People came to him in their troubles and sought his advice: he was not only a spiritual adviser, but, in a sense, the first poor man's lawyer.
The hermits mixed more with the world, and helped it to carry on. They copied holy books in their cells, and cultivated literature. All round our coast were stone watch-towers, and hermits often chose these bleak and exposed places for their abode, combining duty to God with service to man.
Stone walls do not a prison make,
And they were wardens of the bridges. When the floods threatened it was the good hermit who stood by and watched that he might warn. He never wearied in well-doing. He kept the toll-gate and he helped to repair the roads. He sought to recover the lost sheep, the quadruped as well as the biped. He was the guide, philosopher and friend of the neighborhood.
"Let us now praise famous men," the glad schoolboys sing. It is altogether right and fitting that in our orisons we should not forget the hermits and the anchorites who in the twilight of British history helped to make life, and this country, better than they found it.