The Anchorites of Westminster Abbey
“There is a secret that lurks from within the walls of Westminster Abbey. Its importance cannot be ignored nor undervalued…”
Bernadine De Beaux
Bernadine De Beaux is a PhD candidate at Flinders University and is currently in her final year. Her thesis provides a multi-layered investigation, comparison and analysis of the medieval anchorite cell, and its social construction of gender and space. Her research interests include, medieval archaeology, the archaeology of death and burial, and the history of Scottish witchcraft.
Anchorites; Anchorholds; Ascetics; Solitaries; Westminster Abbey
There is a secret that lurks from within the walls of Westminster Abbey. Its importance cannot be ignored nor undervalued. Nestled behind St Benedict’s chapel within the Abbey are the remains of an anchorite cell, which from the early thirteenth century, was the eternal home of anchorites until the Reformation. Men and women were enclosed in this space in different periods, to live the rest of their lives in solitude, to be closer to and to better commune, with God. Royalty are said to have confessed, sought spiritual guidance and requested intercessory prayers from the male anchorites enclosed in Westminster Abbey. However, very little is known of the female anchorites who resided in the cell. There are records of royal and noble patrons who gave gifts and donations to them in return for their intercessory prayers, but no record of royal visitors or specific incidences of spiritual counselling is documented. This paper examines how the different genders of the anchorites enclosed at Westminster Abbey reinforced specific ideologies about the roles the anchorites played in the lives of the aristocracy and royals. How the anchorite’s gender could strengthen religious and contemplative behaviour, and why the Westminster male anchorites held a perceived higher status than their female counterparts. It is important to note that this paper deals with gender, which was an important theme in the work of Dr Michael Noble.
This paper concerns one of the most famous Abbey’s in the world, and its most captivating secret, the Abbey’s anchorites. Its focus is on the perceived prejudice and status of males in the medieval Church, and, in particular, Westminster Abbey. The paper demonstrates how the female anchorites, or anchoresses, were subject to much more severe rules and regulations than their male counterparts. Indeed, the anchoress’s life seems to have been one of the most extreme religious lives in the Middle Ages (Jones 2010). The following research demonstrates how the power of the Church within medieval society and related factors constructed and reinforced ideologies of gender, hierarchy, and religious behaviours. It is vital to understand both the influence of the medieval Church on society, and the attitudes towards men and women within that society, to assist in understanding how the different genders where manipulated in their roles as anchorites within the Church.
Firstly, a short overview of Westminster Abbey and the much smaller St Margaret’s Church located next to the Abbey will be provided. Following on from this an introduction to St Benedict’s Chapel and the location of the anchorite’s cell within the Abbey. I will be arguing how gender could strengthen religious and contemplative behaviour and how different anchorite genders reinforced ideologies of the roles they played in the lives of the aristocracy and royals at Westminster Abbey. Finally, in discussing the Legacy of Eve, we will understand why there was a perceived higher status of males in the medieval Church.
So, who and what were the anchorites?
From early Christianity (c. 3rd – 5th centuries AD), the term hermit was used for all eremites or recluses. This terminology continued until the early medieval period (c. 1000AD) – at least in England and Wales, when a new phenomenon arrived in the United Kingdom from Europe, the anchorite. Scotland continued to use the term hermit for all recluses, and so, it is rare to find documented evidence of anchorites in Scotland. The term anchorite originates from the Greek word ἁναχωρείν which means ‘to withdraw’. This word is seen to be interchangeable in many early sources with the Greek word έρήμος, a masculine noun meaning solitary or alone, and which can also be used to describe a desert or desert lands. The word hermit, έρημίτης is a derivative of this base word (McAvoy 2010, 10).
Figure 1: A calligram in the form of a cross made from words related to the anchorite and hermit. Figure attributed to Bernadine De Beaux (2019).
By the eleventh to twelfth centuries, more of a distinction between hermits and the anchorites became apparent (Jones 2010). The main difference between anchorites and other ascetic groups was their absolute physical seclusion within an enclosed cell. In short, the anchorite was an extreme eremitic who was symbolically and, in some cases, physically sealed in a room, or set of rooms, referred to as a cell, anker house, or reclusorium, which was usually attached to a Church (Jones 2013, xii). There were also a number of cells, or anchorite ‘houses’, that have been recorded in churchyards, cemeteries, and in the countryside away from town centers (Clay 1914, 110; Dale and McNabb 1903). It is here, within their cell, alone, that they would spend the rest of their lives in seclusion, for eternity in a living tomb. Hermits, on the other hand, could leave their enclosure at any time without the need for permission. Although, it has been recorded that those who did not return to their place of permanent abode were labelled as ‘false’ hermits (Watson 2006, 44).
There were some major differences between genders of the anchorites in what they could and could not do. For example, male anchorites could be called upon to undertake work for the Church, outside of their cell. They could leave their cell to say mass, and could even visit other anchorites, although this last would need to be formally requested if not Church business (Jones 2013, xxvii). Female anchorites on the other hand, would have to officially request to move cells or to go on a pilgrimage. However, these were very rare occurrences. They would never be allowed out of their cell to undertake pastoral duties like their male colleagues. Essentially, a female anchorite, once enclosed, would live and die in their cell (Jones 2010).
Westminster Abbey (see in Figure 2 map) is located on the West side of the River Thames, adjacent to the Palace of Westminster. The abbey was founded by monks in the year 960 AD and built by Edward the Confessor. It has been a coronation Church since 1066 and is the burial place of seventeen kings and queens. The formal title of the abbey is The Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster.
Figure 2: Map of London showing the location of Westminster Abbey. Map attributed to Map Collection (2012).
St Margaret’s Church
Directly next to the Abbey on its Northern side, is a smaller eleventh to fifteenth century Church (Figure 3). This time period is mentioned because although the original Church was built in the later part of the eleventh century, due to disrepair the whole Church was more or less rebuilt in the fifteenth century. It is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, one of the most revered saints in the medieval period.
These are obviously both very different buildings, but still very much the same in at least one respect—they both had an anchorite cell attached to them. But little is known of the anchoresses that inhabited the cell attached to St Margaret’s. It is mentioned solely to demonstrate that there was more than one cell on the grounds of Westminster Abbey, although attached to a separate Chapel. It may be considered that this anchorite was there for the lower echelons of society, whereas the Abbey’s anchorite was placed purposely for royalty and the aristocracy who attended the Abbey for their spiritual needs.
Figure 3: St Margaret’s Church to the left of Westminster Abbey, showing the anchorite house in the middle of both Churches. Plate attributed to Westlake, H.F. (1914).
Known location of cells
St Margaret’s anchorite ‘house’ was built on the South Eastern side of the Church (Figure 3).
The Abbey’s anchorite cell was also built on the South Eastern side of the Abbey Church. The cell is located behind the monument to Gabriel Goodman, Dean of Westminster (1561-1601), in St Benedict’s Chapel. An arched doorway is located next to this monument from which, to the left, is the entry to the anchorite’s cell. This is directly behind the prayer desk in the monument. The physical cell was near the East door of the Abbey, which had been used as a private pathway for the Royal Family from the Palace to the Abbey. It is from here that the anchorite could wander through the corridor within the wall behind St Benedict’s Chapel (Peers and Tanner 1949, 158). It can only be imagined what secrets they overheard. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many requested the male anchorites’ political as well as their spiritual counsel?
Most, if not all of the recorded male anchorites of the Abbey seem to have given not only spiritual counselling but were involved in political matters and had some influence on the aristocracy and royals. These include, ‘Nicholas the Hermit’ of 1242—King Henry III was entreated by Nicholas to release a certain prisoner and to pay for another’s upkeep, which he did; John Murymouth of the fourteenth century—Richard II confessed to the anchorite during the Wat Tyler’s insurrection of 1381, and it seems the same anchorite was consulted on important political matters and was advisor to Thomas, the Earl of Warwick in 1397 (Clay 1914, 213). It is recorded too that King Henry V, after the death of his father in 1413, confessed to ‘John London’, the anchorite of Westminster, who was regarded somewhat as an oracle and mystic.
The twentieth century historian, Rotha Mary Clay, quotes the related events as told by Thomas of Elmham, the English Chronicler, to his chaplain as follows:
After he had spent the day in wailing and groaning, so soon as the shades of night covered the earth, the weeping prince, taking advantage of the darkness, secretly visited a certain recluse of holy life at Westminster, and lying bare to him the secret sins of his whole life, was washed in the laver of true repentance.
Sir John London was recorded as being enclosed in the Abbey from 1389 to 1429 (Clay 1914, 214).
Female Anchorites: The Anchoresses
As far as the Abbey’s female anchorites being mentioned, the only records that have been located thus far are in the Acts of the Privy Council of Henry VI in 1443 (Royal Trust Collection 1837). These note that the anchoress of Westminster be delivered her annual sum of six marks, and that this should continue for the rest of her life. A second record some forty years after this, in the reign of Richard III, states that an annual sum is given to a female recluse at Westminster. However, these women are to remain forever nameless, as no names were recorded in these documents.
Religious and Contemplative Behaviour
Eve’s misdemeanor in the Garden of Eden ultimately fated women to be seen as sinful, and consequently women were required to be seen and not heard, they were not to be trusted, because they were deemed immoral, and deceitful. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was considered to be the opposite of this; she was spiritually strong and pure. Yet, she still had the dutiful, obedient, submissive role.
Going forward in time, early Christian men and women, labelled as the Desert Mothers and Fathers took this further. They withdrew into the deserts in the years after the death of Christ, to live in isolation, as hermits, in order to be spiritually closer to, and better commune, with God. They lived in seclusion, in the shelter of caves, and survived by limiting their bodily requirements to the basics, as well as relying on the charity of those who came to seek their spiritual guidance (Valters Painter 2012, ix). The Desert Mothers and Fathers were the embodiment of ascetic existence, who medieval anchorites tried to emulate by living a devout secluded life within their simple cells. By choosing ascetic lives, they not only were atoning for the sins of Adam and Eve, and of their own lives, but were also showing how to be spiritually closer to God. The anchorites lived in their own man-made desert, their cell. The anchorite cell was a representation of the desert environment in which the early Christian solitaries lived. Anne Warren has argued that “the primary symbol of the cell … was that of the desert”, that “it was a new version of the desert cave” (Warren 1985, 9), an escape from the world into the “desert ideal of early Christianity” (Warren 1985, 14).
Both male and female anchorites had guides written by men of the Church that advised how they should live (Table 1). One of the more well-known guides, the leading, preferred guide for scholars, is the thirteenth century Ancrene Wisse (Hasenfratz, 2000). It was written for a group of anchorite sisters, and gave them daily rules to live by. This included how to dress, not ‘gossiping’ with servants, not looking outside to the world they left behind, not owning property or animals, and the use of a curtain to hide their face to protect their virtue. It was more a case of keeping the anchoresses, the women, in their place.
The guides for male anchorites were less strict. The guides had guidelines for daily living, duties they should perform, prayers that should be said.
These displays of religious and contemplative roles of both genders would strengthen the spiritual behaviour of both sexes in the aristocracy and royals, and of the general community, which visited them. However, it would also reinforce the poor treatment of women, to be seen and not heard, seen as sinful but repentant, obedient, submissive, yet spiritually strong. On the other hand, men were considered by society as in control, responsible, knowledgeable, experienced as well as spiritually strong. They were naturally looked upon as leaders and were to be obeyed by women.
Examples of guides for recluse
Guides for Female Recluses
Guides for Male Recluses
|Eleventh century c. 1058||Liber Confortatorius: by Goscelin of St Bertine, a Benedictine monk, for Eve, a former nun of Wilton. The original language of composition was Latin.||Ninth century c. early 900’s||The Continental Rule for Monastic Recluses: by Arimlaic of Metz. The composition was originally written in Latin.|
|Twelfth century, c. 1102 and c. 1105, (the other, c. 1086, was for the hermit, Caen)||Three Letters of St Anselm: by St Anselm a Benedictine monk, Prior and Abbot. Only two of these letters were for the instruction of female anchorites. The original language of composition was Latin.||Twelfth to thirteenth century c. 1140-1215||Admonitiones: by Robert a priest for Hugo the anchorite. Published as an appendix to the Dublin Rule. The original language of composition was Latin.|
|Twelfth century c. 1160-2
|De institutione inclusarum: by Aelred of Rievaulx for his sister. The original language of composition was Latin.||Thirteenth century c.1220||Regula Reclusorum Dubliniensis (The Dublin Rule): by an anonymous author. The original language of composition was Latin.|
|Thirteenth century c. 1215-30
The updated versions are: the Corpus text c. 1230-80 in which the audience was broadened, although the identity of these anchorites are not known, the Cleopatra text c. early 1230’s, which was directed specifically to a female audience, the Titus text c. 1240’s, which broadened the audience to include male anchorites, and the Gonville and Caius text c. late thirteenth century.
|Ancrene Wisse: scholars are in disagreement as to the author of this manuscript, with possibilities including, Richard Poor, Simon of Ghent and the hermit, Godwine. It was written for a group of anchorite sisters living together. The original language of composition was English.||Thirteenth century c.1280||Regula reclusorum Walteri reclusi (Walter’s Rule): by Walter an Augustinian Canon. The original language of composition is Latin.|
|Fourteenth century c. 1348||The Form of Living: by Richard Rolle Hermit of Hampole. Composed for an anchoress who was a disciple of his, Margaret de Kirkby. The original language of composition was English.||Thirteenth century||The Lambeth Rule: by an unknown author. Written for lay male recluses. The original language of composition was English.
|Fourteenth century c. 1384-6||The Scale of Perfection: by Walter Hilton, Augustinian Canon. The first book was written as a guide for anchoresses. The original language of composition is unknown.||Fourteenth century||The Reply of a Fourteenth Century Abbot of Bury St Edmund to a Monk’s Petition to be a recluse. The original language of composition was Latin.|
|Fifteenth century c. 1414-22||The Myrour of Recluses: containing only eight chapters of the translated version from the original Latin, of the fifteen-chapter Speculum inclusorum (a guide for male anchorites).
|The precise date of authorship is unknown, however, was in the fourteenth century between c.1349-1392.||Speculum Inclusorum: by an unknown author. The original language of composition was Latin.
Table 1: Examples of guides for recluses (Warren 1985, 294-298)
Genders and Ideologies
The ideals that formed the basis of religious beliefs in the medieval period were steeped in biblical values. The anchorites adopted the tools of seclusion and self-denial as shown by the original Desert Mothers and Fathers who took to the deserts of Egypt, Syria and Arabia, in the years after the death of Jesus, in order to become more spiritual and therefore closer to God (Valters Paintner 2012, ix). These ideals differed to a degree between genders.
The separate gendered roles the anchorites took on reinforced the separate ideologies of spiritual living. The female anchorite was the loving arms of the mother, reminiscent of Mary the Mother of Jesus. Obedient, dutiful and submissive, but spiritually resilient and resolute. The one who was seen as the mediator between heaven and earth, who negotiated on your behalf. Enclosed, unseen behind her curtain in her cell, she was almost mystical.
The male anchorite was not only this, but so much more. He was the teacher, the forgiver, the wise spiritual guru, even though many anchorites were not a part of the Church clergy, they were non-ordained members of the Church. Because he was deemed as morally superior to the anchoress, he was considered to have the answers to personal as well as spiritual problems.
Aristocracy and Royals
The nobility and royals visited and supported the Westminster anchorites of both genders (Page 1909, 585-588). They did so to gain not only help in their spiritual needs, as previously discussed, but also in their personal political careers and lives in general. However, each gender had their own special areas of “expertise”. We know, by records such as the Privy Council notations, wills and personal historical accounts of the aristocracy, that the female anchorites of Westminster were called upon for intercessory prayers. However, it seems that the male anchorites were given far more reverence. The records which we have, point to them as the spiritual advisor who would also advise those who came for counsel on their next diplomatic moves.
The Legacy of Eve
“Of the woman came the beginning of sin, and through her we all die” – Ecclesiasticus / Sirach Chapters 25:24 (King James Bible 2016)
This verse introduces the original, biblical bad girl: Eve. Her bad behaviour destined all women, in the eyes of the Church, to become submissive, obedient, forcibly calm, to forever be dutiful to the whims of men, to be seen as the more virtuous of the genders, even though it was thought that the woman was corrupt, underneath this façade of virtuosity. This belief may well have originated from the Legacy of Eve, the belief that the woman was, or the very least, could be, an instrument of Evil. Afterall, it was Eve, who was believed to be the one ultimately responsible for the casting out of man from Paradise, and it was she who tempted Adam to commit the original sin.
Therefore, throughout history, in particular religious history, the woman has been treated as the temptress, morally inferior to men, untrustworthy and a sinner.
In a period that was dominated by the Church, as ABSOLUTE law (Bovey 2015), these depictions were not just hearsay in medieval England; they were a fact. An example which seems all too familiar, comes from 1 Timothy 2:11-14 (King James Bible 2016):
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived, and she became the sinner.
In returning to anchorites, it is therefore as this stereotype that the anchoress must live, demurely, quiet, in contemplative and solemn prayer. This is in contrast to the male anchorite who teaches, preaches and gives advice in spiritual, political and personal matters.
The Perceived Higher Status of Males in the Medieval Church
Unsurprisingly, men were held in high esteem by all in the medieval Church. To them it was natural that the men should take the control and women should follow and be subservient, obedient and dutiful.
In summary, therefore, we have seen how the different genders of the anchorites enclosed at Westminster Abbey reinforced specific ideologies in the roles they played in the lives of the aristocracy and royals. We have also seen how the anchorite’s gender could strengthen religious and contemplative behavior. It is my hope that you have indeed been left in awe of these fascinating people—the anchorites of Westminster Abbey. It is to be noted that this paper has dealt with gender, which was an important theme in the work of Dr Michael Noble.
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