Anchorites and Hermits


This page was written because of an email I received from Susannah Chewning in July 2008. At the time I did not even know what an anchorite was and could not really help her. In October 2017, I was going through some old emails, came across Susannah's and decided to look at the subject properly.

The "golden age" of anchorites and hermits, if it can be called that, lasted for a little over 400 years; from around 1100 to the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541. This is the period roughly covered by this page.

A hermit is a person who has chosen to live in seclusion as a recluse, sometimes for religious or personal enlightenment reasons, sometimes because they do not like the company of others. They are free to rejoin normal society at any time. An anchorite is a little different:


An anchorite or anchoret means "one who has retired from the world." They are someone who, for religious reasons, withdraws from secular society so as to be able to lead an intensely prayer-oriented life. Unlike hermits they were required to take a vow of stability of place, opting instead for permanent enclosure in cells often attached to churches or chaptels. Unlike hermits, anchorites were subject to a religious rite of consecration, much like the last rites, following which they would be considered dead to the world. Anchorites had a certain autonomy, as they did not answer to any ecclesiastical authority other than the bishop.

From the 12th to the 16th centuries, female anchorites consistently outnumbered their male equivalents, sometimes by as many as 4:1 in the 13th century, dropping eventually to 2:1 in the 15th century.

They lived in a simple cell, sometimes called an anchorhold, built against one of the walls of a church or chapel. The doors to these anchorholds would sometimes be locked or even bricked over. Sometimes the anchorite was free to move between the cell and the church or chapel.

Most anchoritic cells were small, perhaps no more than 3.7 to 4.6 m (12 to 15 ft) square, with three windows. Viewing the altar, hearing Mass, and receiving the Eucharist was possible through one small, shuttered window in the common wall facing the sanctuary, called a "hagioscope" or "squint." Anchorites would also provide spiritual advice and counsel to visitors through this window, as the anchorites gained a reputation for wisdom. Another small window would allow access to those who saw to the anchorite's physical needs, such as the delivery food, water, other necessities and the taking away of the chamber pot. A third window, often facing the street, but covered with translucent cloth, would allow light into the cell.

The Anchorites and Hermits

Not surprisingly, life could be hard for anchorites and hermits. Wulfric of Haselbury (c.1080 – February 20, 1154) was a wordly priest but in 1125 he went to Haselbury Plucknett, Somerset, a little under 50 miles south of Bristol, near Yeovil. He wished to spend the rest of his life as an anchorite, withdrawn from the world, living in a cell adjacent to the church. This cell stood on the cold northern side of the chancel where the vestry is now. Wulfric lived alone in these simple quarters for 29 years, devoting much of his time to reading the Bible and praying. In keeping with the ideals of medieval spirituality, he adopted stern ascetic practices: he deprived himself of sleep, ate a frugal meatless diet, spent hours reciting the psalms sitting in a bath of cold water, and wore a hair shirt and heavy chain-mail tunic.

Wulfric had reason to thank someone from Bristol as Rotha Clay in her The Hermits and Anchorites of England (page 107) explains:

The man of God was very frequently benumbed with extreme cold, to such a degree that a certain man from the neighbourhood of Bristol, being warned by a vision, sent to him a new covering of foxskin wherewith he should cover himself. For the Lord said to him in a vision: 'My servant Wulfric is tortured with cold, but thou, indeed, art pleasantly warm; get up as quickly as possible and send this covering with all speed.' And so it was done.

St Michael and All Angels' Church, Haselbury Plucknett

St Michael and All Angels' Church, Haselbury Plucknett, 2016. Photo by Bill Harrison. Downloaded from Geograph 5493978. (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Blackfriars was a Dominican priory in Broadmead, it was founded by Maurice de Gaunt in 1227 or 1228. Maud Baker was the wealthy widow of a grocer and features in Stephanie Adams' Religion, Society and Godly Women: The Nature of Female Piety in a Late Medieval Urban Community. In her will she bequeathed

to the lady ancres at the Blake Freers of Brystow aforesayd, xxs to be payd wekely, iid or more yf need be, vntill the sayd xxs be forme abovesayde payde.

On page 248, Adams says that the anchoret received another bequest of 3s 4d from Sir Richard Estyngton, who lived in Bath. The anchoret resided at Blackfriars from 1503-1512 and it is likely that Maud Baker knew her before then it cannot be said with any certainly how long an anchoret had been at Blackfriars.

Blackfriars, 1873

Blackfriars, 1873
Image from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The buildings have seen a variety of uses. Elizabeth I reigned from November 17, 1558 until her death on March 24, 1603, during this time the buildings were acquired by the Smiths and Cutlers Company. They leased out part of the buildings to the city in 1654 for use as a workhouse for poor girls. The buildings were later acquired by the Religious Society of Friends and the premises became popularly known as Quakers Friars. In the late 20th century the buildings housed Bristol Register Office and then for a short time Show of Strength Theatre Company. Since 2008, following the redevelopment of Broadmead, a restaurant is located there

Brandon Hill

It is sometimes difficult to remember just how different medieval Bristol was compared to the modern city it is now. The well-kept Brandon Hill atop which now sits Cabot Tower was once heavily wooded and described as the "waste land at St. Brendan's" in the Gloucester abbey cartulary at the end of the 12th century. It was once the site of an anchorite's cell, to which in the mid 13th century "the pasture of St. Brendan" was attached. The hill, with its abundant trees as the name Wodewilles indicates, was used as rough pasture by the canons of St. Augustine's and other religious houses.

The Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological & Natural History Society for the Year 1901. Vol. XLVII, page 26, says that the remains of the anchorhold was found during excavations for the foundations of Cabot's Tower, which would have been in 1897.

Brandon Hill in 2011

Brandon Hill in 2011. Photo by Steve Daniels. Downloaded from Geograph 2473476. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Brandon Hill in 2011

A little fanciful engraving of Brandon Hill Drawn by W. Westall, engraved by E. Francis
Image from The Hermits and Anchorites of England by Rotha Mary Clay. Methuen, 1914

In 1174, the hill, then owned by the Earl of Gloucester, was divided into lots. The upper four lots were given to St James' Priory and later to Tewkesbury Abbey. The 1902 Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Volumes 25-26, page 315 says that, "Lucy de Newchirche, enclosed on Brandon (Hill), Bristol, in 1251."

That mine of information, Rotha Mary Clay in her The Hermits and Anchorites of England says that:

Probably there was already a cell in 1192, when the place is referred to as "waste land at St. Brendan's", In 1313, Walter, a monk of Garendon, sought permission to lead a solitary life in St. Brendun's chapel. Walter de S. Cruce seems, nevertheless, to have remained at Garendon, where he eventually became abbot; and in 1350 he was translated to be the first abbot of St. Mary Graces, London, at the invitation of Edward III.

At this very time, Lucy de Newchurch, was beseeching the Bishop of Worcester to allow her to be enclosed at that hermitage. In 1403, the famous Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham, issued letters of indulgence to benefactors of St. Brandan's chapel, Bristol, or of Reginald Taillour, a poor hermit there.

A later inmate was visited by William Worcester in 1480. This hermit told the chronicler that sailors and discreet men declared that the hill-chapel was higher by 18 fathoms than the spire of Redcliffe or any other church. The length of the chapel was about 25 x 15 feet (8.5 X 5 virgas). The wall enclosing the cell measured 180 steps. The chapel is said to have been frequented by mariners arriving at Bristol port.

Clay later goes on to chronicle the lengths Lucy de Newchurch went to become an anchorite on Brandon Hill:

The following charge was given by the Bishop of Worcester concerning Lucy, who was eagerly desirous to inhabit the cell upon St. Brandan's Hill, near Bristol :—

"John by the mercy of God Bishop etc. greeting, to our beloved son Master John de Severley, Archdeacon of Worcester, peace and blessing."

"Lucy de Newchirche has approached us many times with earnest and humble devotion, as was clear to us from her appearance and demeanour, asking to be enclosed in the hermitage of St. Brandan at Bristol in our diocese. But as we have no knowledge of the life and conversation of the said Lucy, we commit to you in whose trustiness, diligence, and caution we have full confidence, an enquiry from men and women worthy of credit with regard to the conversation of this Lucy, and whether you would consider her to be of pure and praiseworthy life, and whether she excels in those notable virtues which ought to prevail in persons who give up the life of the world. And if at a day and time appointed, at your discretion and in accordance with law and reason, for her examination, you should find her to be resolutely and firmly set on the pure purpose with regard to which we have burdened your conscience in the presence of God, we commit to you our power, so far as by the divine law we can, of enclosing her, either personally or by deputy as an anchoress in the aforesaid hermitage."

Since the bishop himself had been impressed by Lucy's earnestness, it is probable that she was enclosed. Barrett cites a deed referring to land near St. Brendan's which the anchoress held. Who the petitioner was does not appear ; but two years previously a certain Lucy de Newchurch, from the diocese of Hereford, obtained a papal indult to choose a confessor who should give her plenary remission at the hour of death.

Besides Lucy de Newchurch, who became anchoret in 1251, Avon Past 5 says there appears to have been at least four others, of both sexes, between 1314 and 1480. In Bristol and its Environs (page 124) says that in 1397 the hermit there was Reginald Taylor, and that he bequeathed money to help with the building of Temple Church. Nicholls and Taylor say on page 144, that Reginald Taylor died in 1398.

By the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541, St. Brendon's chapel was said to be "now defacyd". The town clerk, a Mr. Read, aquired the site and built a windmill. October 1642 saw the first hostilities of the Civil War, with the Battle of Edgehill. Bristol still hoped for a settlement but in early December opened it's gates to Colonel Essex and the Parliamentarian forces. Essex extended the city walls and built a fort on Brandon Hill. The site is now covered by Cabot Tower.

Bristol Castle

William de Braose was a supporter of King John, but but about 1207 a fierce quarrel broke out between the two of them, and John was so enraged by William that he vented his wrath on the whole de Braose family. William de Braose was outlawed, Mathilda, his wife and their eldest son were put in Windsor Castle and left to starve to death. A daughter, Annora, had been born around 1179. She and four nephews were imprisoned in Bristol Castle and were only released in 1214. Annora moved to Iffley in Oxfordshire, where she became an anchoresses, or religious recluse, at St. Mary's church. She died there around 1241. (Annora the Anchoress) (Internet Archive)

Margaret Sharp in Accounts of the Constables of Bristol Castle: In the Thirteenth and Early Fourteenth Century, page xxix, says that an anchorite had been established in the castle since 1224/25, if not earlier. Of course, nohing survives of the anchorhold here as the castle was almost totally demolished on Oliver Cromwell's orders in 1655.

Bristol Castle ~ c1200

Bristol Castle ~ c1200
Water colour by Tim Rossiter, 1978,
based on model by M. W. Ponsford and P. Weare

Clay mantions this anchorite as well (page 78):

In the tower of Bristol Castle there was a chapel and anchorage dedicated to St. Edward. Directions were sent by Henry III for certain alterations in the fortress :—

"Block up the doors of the chapel beside our great hall there, and let a door be made in the chancel towards the reclusorium : in which reclusorium let there be made an altar in the chapel of the blessed Edward, and above that reclusorium in the turret let the chamber of the clerks be made."

A chaplain, probably a recluse, was to perform masses for the soul of Alienora of Brittany, the king's cousin.

Nicholls and Taylor in their Bristol Past and Present (page 77) go into a little more detail about these changes to the royal chapel in the castle:

the royal chapel, which was afterwards, by order of Henry III., converted into a hermitage. In a code of instructions signed at Berkeley, August 28th, 1249, the King enjoins the mayor and bailiff of Bristol " to lengthen three windows of his chapel, and to white wash it throughout ; also glass windows are ordered to be put in our hall at Bristol, a royal seat in the same hall, and dormant tables around the same, and block up the doors of the chapel beside our great hall there, and make a door in the chancel towards the hermitage; in that hermitage make an altar to St. Edward, and in the turret over that hermitage make a chamber for the clerk with appurtenances; also build a kitchen and a sewer beside the said hall, and find the wages of a certain chaplain whom wo have ordered to celebrate divine service in the chapel of our tower there all the days of our life, for Eleanor of Brittany, our cousin, to wit, 50s per annum."

This was obviously not going to be a draughty old cave!

College Green

Rotha Clay (page 88) mentions a "House of St. Mark, Bristol" but does not say anything much about it. It could be this is a refernce to St. Mark's Church. This is the ancient church on the north-east side of College Green which was built c. 1230 and heavily remodelled in 1830 and 1889. It is also known as Gaunt's Chapel, but since 1722 has been far better known as the Lord Mayor's Chapel.

Bristol Cathedral, 2010

Lord Mayor's Chapel, 2009
Image from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It could also refer to what is now Bristol Cathedral. Bristol Cathedral was formally known as the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity and founded in 1140 and consecrated in 1148. It was originally St. Augustine's Abbey but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries it became in 1542 the seat of the newly created Bishop of Bristol and the cathedral of the new Diocese of Bristol.

William Worcester in his The Topography of Medieval Bristol has an entry for 1320 that says "On the day before the Ides of July, the site of the Hermit Friars of the Order of St Augustine was consecrated." That would have been on July 14, 1320.

Bristol Cathedral, 2010

Bristol Cathedral, 2010
Image from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Peter Fleming in his 2013 working paper Time, Space and Power in Later Medieval Bristol says that:

Bristol north of the Avon, in the diocese of Worcester, had its own religious foundation story, albeit one that was of far more limited significance. This concerned Saint Jordan.103 Jordan is supposed to have been one of the companions of St Augustine of Canterbury, despatched from Rome by Pope Gregory I to convert the pagan English and the Celtic Christian British to Catholic Christianity. Their encounter with the leaders of the British church, dated by Bede to 603, is traditionally held to have taken place near Bristol, possibly on what is now College Green, part of the pre-Dissolution precinct of St Augustine's Abbey; this possibility is supported by Bede's description of the location as being called by the English, "Augustine's Oak", on the borders of the Hwicce and the West Saxons, that is, in that border area where Bristol would later develop. Indeed, the parish church of St Augustine the Less and the adjoining abbey may have been located and dedicated partly, at least, in recognition of the area's existing association with the missionary saint. St Augustine's the Less was built on a site occupied by a church since at least the eleventh century. While canons of the twelfth-century abbey followed the Victorine version of the rule established by St Augustine of Hippo, their church was dedicated to St Jordan's master, St Augustine of Canterbury.104 Jordan was believed to have been buried on the Green, and by the 1390s he was being referred to locally as a saint. The earliest documentary record of St Jordan occurs in the 1393 will of Agnes Spelly of Bristol, who left a bequest to "John, hermit of the chapel of St Jordan". The earliest association of St Jordan with St Augustine comes from a Book of Hours of 1450, which belonged to an unidentified Bristol man and contains a hymn to the saint, beginning:

Ad honorem dei et sancti Jordani
O felix christi confessor concivis caeli Jordane
Sis pro fide intercessor nostre gentis anglicane
Quam in fide perfecisti Augustino baptizante
Cui consors extitisti ipso anglis predicante.
Huius loci sis patronus in quo iaces tumulatus

To the Honour of God and of St Jordan:
O Jordan, blessed confessor of Christ and citizen of Heaven,
intercede for us by virtue of the faith we of the English church profess,
whom Augustine [first] baptised and you perfected in that holy trust,
whose colleague (alt. companion) you were in his preaching to the English.
Be our Patron [saint] in this place where you lie entombed.

From the 1480s we have the first evidence for the location of St Jordan's Chapel and an adjoining open-air pulpit on the Green. Alms and oblations were being given to St Jordan until the eve of the Henrician Reformation. A free stone cross stood next to the pulpit until the mid-1530s: in 1560 a witness in a Star Chamber case remembered how, twenty-six years previously, this cross was removed to a nearby house.106 After the Reformation the building was used as a school, and was probably demolished in the early eighteenth century. While none of this direct evidence pre-dates the 1390s, there is an indication of a local cult of St Jordan that was contemporary with the foundation of church and abbey.

"Jordan" as a personal name was uncommon in medieval England, except in eleventh and twelfth-century Bristol, where it is found relatively frequently as a Christian name. One of Robert fitz Harding's brothers and a grandson were so-named, as were two members of the related de la Warre family.107 That four members of Robert's wider family circle should have been called Jordan is almost certainly no coincidence. Robert fitz Harding, first Lord Berkeley of the second creation, was founder of St Augustine's Abbey, in his lordship of Bilswick, which also encompassed the Green where St Jordan is supposed to have been buried and where stood his chapel. The name of Robert's brother, Jordan fitz Harding, suggests that the saint's cult existed in Bristol, and enjoyed the patronage of the locally powerful family of Harding, from at least the early twelfth century. Bristolians continued to name their sons after St Jordan into the fifteenth century.

Clearly, St Jordan's tomb was the object of veneration in pre-Reformation Bristol, and a significant number of Bristolians were in some sense devotees. He might have been thought, by the English, to have been an appropriate local saint for a town so close to the Welsh border and with such a large Welsh minority population, given his supposed role in bringing together English and Welsh – on English/papal terms, of course. However, the extent to which he was regarded as a truly Bristolian, rather than a specifically Berkeley, or north Bristol, saint, is uncertain. His tomb and chapel stood in the Berkeley lordship of Bilswick between the Berkley foundations of St Augustine's Abbey and St Mark's Hospital. His name is not known to have been attached to any other location in Bristol, and there is no reference to him in Ricart's Kalendar; he does not seem to have featured in civic ceremony.

A further clue is given in Religion, Society and Godly Women: The Nature of Female Piety in a Late Medieval Urban Community by Stephanie J. Adams:

Agnes Spelly, in 1393, left to the 'Abbati Beati Augustini Bristoll, lauacrum negrum quod pendet in aula mea' [the Abbot of the Blessed Augustine, Bristol, a black ewer which hangs in my hail]. Agnes also left detailed instructions in her will to the hermit of the chapel of St. Jordan on College Green (which stood in front of the abbey and was maintained by the canons) for the safe-keeping of a cup intended for a female friend, which further suggests that she may have had close links with the canonical community.

It may be possible that all three, St. Jacob's, St. Mark's, and St. Augustine's Abbey, had their own anchorites or hermits. Gwen Beachcroft and Arthur Sabin in their Two Compotus Rolls of Saint Augustine's Abbey, Bristol for 1491 - 2 and 1511 - 2 (page 291) discuss "Letters of Fraternity." These Letters grant to the people who receive them "all such privileges as appertained to an ordinary brother of the monastery, including that of the circulation of the name of the brother after death to monasteries of the same group or fraternity, so that they were remembered in prayer and alms were given for them by several communities for a month." Theu go on say that one was given "by the Prior Provincial of the Hermit Brothers of Saint Augustine to a layman and his wife; it was dated 24th December, 1480, and must have made a very welcome Christmas present."

Redcliffe Hill

The Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological & Natural History Society for the Year 1901. Vol. XLVII, page 26, also says that there was a hermitage on Redcliffe Hill. It goes on to say that St. John's Hermitage was hidden behind Redcliffe Street, in a corner of the secluded burial ground of the Society of Friends and that it was built by Thomas, Lord Berkeley, in 1346 and cut out of the solid rock. The chamber cut in the sandstone is only 9 feet by 8 feet, with an arched doorway and a rough recess which forms a seat.John Sparkes was the first hermit to take up residence the same year. His job was to pray for Thomas and his family. Hermits continued to live here until the seventeenth century.

Redcliffe Hermitage, 1914

Redcliffe Hermitage
Image from The Hermits and Anchorites of England by Rotha Mary Clay. Methuen, 1914
Original photo by Fred Little
The hermitage can still be seen today

In 1665, the land in front of the hermitage was given to the Quakers to use as a burial ground and that was in use until 1923. In 1950, it was donated by the Quakers to Bristol City Council, who cleared the headstones and stacked them in the cave, and created a small park.

Rownham Ferry, Hotwells

Rotha Mary Clay in her The Hermits and Anchorites of England says there were hermit cells above Rownham Ferry .They are also mentioned in Samual Lewis' A Topographical Dictionary of England published in 1848 which mentions a "chapel and a hermitage," on the Ashton side of the crossing, but they had long gone even when the book was published.

Redcliffe Hermitage, 1914

Rownham Ferry from the Somerset side in 1797 by John Hassell
Image from Wikimedia (Public Domain)

St. Michael's Hill

The 1902 Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Volumes 25-26, page 315 describes an occurance at the anchorhold on St. Michael's Hill, "There was certainly one on S. Michael's Hill, Bristol, for in 1237 the burgesses of Bristol and the recluse who had been enclosed there were compelled to obtain the pardon of the Convent of Tewkesbury for enclosing her without proper authority." Remember that the anchorites were under the strict rules of the church.

The incident is also noted by Clay (page 91)

The approval of the patrons was not sought by the parishioners of St. Michael's, Bristol, and the chronicler of Tewkesbury therefore records that: "Both the townsmen of Bristol and the anchoress intruded into the cell {reclusagium) of St. Michael on the hill without Bristol confessed that they had acted presumptuously and contrary to justice, and sought forgiveness from Robert, the Lord Abbot."

St. Vincent's Rock

Charles Fredrick Cliff in his 1854 The Book of South Wales, the Bristol Channel, Monmouthshire, and the Wye, page 20, describes the anchorhold in Ghyston Cliff, part of St. Vincent's Rock in the Avon Gorge:

In St. Vincent's Rocks, in an apparently inaccessible situation, excites a strong feeling of curiosity in the mind of the stranger. It was, according to a fabulous legend, the abode of a giant, named "Saint Vincent," who clave a passage through the rocks for the passage of the Avon, during a struggle with another giant named Goram. William of Wyrcestre, a native of Bristol, who wrote in the fifteenth century, states that it was the abode of an anchorite:— "The hermitage, an oratory or chapel, in the most dangerous part of the rock, called Ghyston Cliff, situated in a cave of the rock twenty yards in depth in the said rock above the river Avon, in honour of St. Vincent."

This Saint suffered martyrdom at Valencia, in the year 305. William subjoins a minute description of the interior, in which he speaks of "the halle of the chapell of Seynt Vincent." Previously to 1830, the only apparent means of gaining access to this cave was by a narrow ledge of rock a few feet below the entrance, of fearfully dangerous character, which was removed to prevent accidents. A few hardy spirits, however, still succeeded in the hazardous enterprise; when in 1835 Mr. [William] West, the proprietor of the Observatory above, conceived the idea of blasting a passage from that structure to it.

The following images nicely show the cave and surrounding area:

St. Vincent's Rock in 2012

St. Vincent's Rock in 2012. Photo by David Hallam-Jones. Downloaded from Geograph 3096166. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

St. Vincent's Rock in 2012

Avon gorge and Cave in 2006. Photo by Adrian Pingstone. Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. (Public Domain)

The web article The Clifton Spa Pump Room, says, "There is evidence to suggest that it [Ghyston's or Giant's Cave] was used as a chapel in the year AD 305" but does not say what that evidence is - unless they mean the date of the death of St. Vincent in Valencia.

The following comes from The Hermits and Anchorites of England by Rotha Mary Clay. Methuen, 1914:

The history of St. Vincent's hermitage, is obscure. William Worcester describes it as situated in the dangerous rock called Ghyston Cliff. He speaks of " the hermitage with the church," and again of " the hermitage and chapel ." The "hall" and "kitchen" must refer to the caverns, but it is possible that the chapel stood on a projecting ledge of limestone, now fallen.

An episcopal brief relating to it is preserved as a memorandum in the episcopal register of Ely (1492). An indulgence is offered to such as should assist and relieve Thomas Dene, warden of the chapel of St. Mary and St. Vincent, and should visit the chapel by way of pilgrimage or contribute to its preservation or the maintenance of lights and ornaments. The word "preservation" seems to suggest that the oratory had been constructed, not merely hewn out of the rock. Some support is given to this theory by the fact that an encaustic [a wax based paint heated in order to fuse it] tile and the fragment of a small Gothic window have been found. It is evident that the chapel was the chief feature of the place.

It was a landmark, for Worcester records the height from the chapel to the summit of the lofty cliff, and down to the water below. Measurements would hardly have been given to him in this form had the chapel been out of sight. Worcester was struck with its perilous position; but even this steep wall was by no means inaccessible, and the indulgence, dated within twelve years of the famous traveller's visit in 1480, shows that Thomas Dene expected his chapel to be the resort of the faithful.

The measurements alluded to by Clay from William Worcester were (from The Topography of Medieval Bristol, page 45):

The width of the hall of the hermitage is 7 yards.
The length of the way from the hall to the church dug into the aforesaid rock, 16 yards.
The length of St Vincent's chapel, 8 yards.
The width of St Vincent's chapel, 3 yards.
The length of the kitchen, 6 yards.

The way upwards from the chapel in the rock: 20 fathoms [from] about the middle of Ghyston Cliff rock, climbing up to the high ground: as walked and climbed by W. Botoner called Worcestre, walking and counting, on Sunday 26th September in the year of Christ 1480. The said height from the chapel of the hermitage measures 124 steps. And so it appears that any ascent, in going up any hillside, after the rate of 20 fathoms (in English 'a vathym') in height, [is] always reckoned in height as an ascent of 124 steps or thereabouts.

Redcliffe Hermitage, 1914

Ghyston of Giant's Cave Hermitage
Image from The Hermits and Anchorites of England by Rotha Mary Clay. Methuen, 1914
Original photo by Miss M. P. Perry,
You can still visit the cave via the Observatory today

Redcliffe Hermitage, 1914

Engraving of the cave entrance
Image from The Hermits and Anchorites of England by Rotha Mary Clay. Methuen, 1914

Nicholls and Taylor describe what William West found when he excaved the passageway down to the cave from the observatory between 1828 and 1837 in their Bristol Past and Present (page 249):

In Mr. West's examination of the cavern some articles were discovered, which, though intrinsically valueless, may still tend to elucidate its history. They consist of numerous fragments of pottery, the mouldings of which, though simple, are in some instances extremely good, insomuch as to induce a belief that they are of Roman origin. A large glazed tile, such as was used in paving the choirs of ancient churches, and an antique key, &c, were also among the fragments. Lying over them was a portion of a mullion of a small gothic window, or, probably of a tabernacle or shrine. The whole of these relics were carefully embedded under a large flat stone, and were discovered on removing an accumulation of earth and weeds from the surface of the cave.

The chapel and cave hermitage left a surprising heritage. In his 1910, Flora of the Bristol Coal-Field, James Walter White records that a Mr. T. B. Flower, in February 1883, wrote that he found samples of Acrid Lettuce and other herbs in the area, but had not seen them since the summer of 1853. These herbs may well have been from the chapel's garden.

The Proceedings of Bristol Naturalists' Society, of which White was president, also mentions these hermit's gardens. The Proceedings say that most hermits belonged to the Order of Austin Friars and that at the time the cave was being used as a hermitage the Avon Gorge had not been so extensively quarried and that there was at least a wide ledge in front of the cave with a path down to the River Avon. Other religious groups had their anchorites, Clay mentions the Dominican Sisters.

Canon Rawnsley (September 29, 1851 – May 28, 1920) who later lived in Cumberland, once lived in Clifton and wrote about the hermit of the cave:

The full tide taught him calm; at ebb he heard
The hurrying streams his indolence rebuke
The cave's cool drip of water was his clock
The birds to Matins called, to Vespers led;
And as he knelt sweet fragrances were shed
From those gold censers blowing on the rock
So with imagination for his guide
The hermit lived, and loved his God and died.

"The gold censers blowing on the rock"' is a poetic reference to the yellow wallflowers which are so abundant on the rocks in Spring-time.

From the Proceedngs we also find that one of the first books about gardening in Britain was "The Feate of Gardening" by John Gardener in 1440. "Out of the 100 plants named [in the book] as worthy of growth there are to be found no less than thirty-five still flourishing on St. Vincent's Rocks, many of them, and perhaps all, descendants of the hermits' garden."

Rawnsley was not the only one to wax lyrical about the hermit at St. Vincent's Rock. John Dix (September 21, 1811 – after 1863) was a writer, bad poet, worse surgeon and alcoholic. His work appeared in the Bristol Mirror. In 1839, he wrote a collection of poems published as Local legends and Rambling Rhymes, with illustrations by "A. Pen". In that, is this:

St. VickSt. Vick

Of all the hermits that ever were known
To live in holes, or He upon stone,
Scorning the comforts of feather and tick,
(Including Saints Bernard and Benedict,)
None were so great as the great St. Vick!
By night and by day,
He'd devoutly pray;
The morn's dim dawn and the eve's last ray,
Beheld him kneeling, true as the clock,
In his snug little hole, in St. Vincent's rock.
One pleasant morning in spring, St. Vick
Having nothing to do,
And inclined to shew
His respect for St. Vincent, grasp'd his stick;
Round a slippery ledge,
Which skirted the edge
Of the rock, with footsteps tottering and faint,
He went to visit his brother saint.
He knocked at his gate with a feeble rap,
'Twas open'd, but strait with a terrible clap
It clos'd, and St. Vick was turning round,
When he heard from above a chuckling sound;
And a rosy old chap,
Just awoke from his nap
By the noise, halloo'd out—"Here's a capital trick,
To turn from the gate my old friend, St. Vick!
My jolly old porter below, I suppose,
Mistook for a beggar's your water-cress nose."
'Tis six by the sun!
The breakfast's begun,
And old St. Vincent is full of his fun;
He slaps his lean friend on the small of his back,
And drinks to the church in a bumper of sack!
I ween 'twas a goodly sight to see,
That pair in Saint Vincent's priorie!
Flagons of ale, and capons fat,
Crowded the board where the churchmen sat!
They ate and they quaff'd,
They sung and they laugh'd,
Until Vick, who'd got more than his head was able
To bear, roll'd under the great oak table.
Repentant and sick,
Sat poor St. Vick,
On a sharp bit of rock, his conscience to prick!
How he got back to his lonely cell,
It puzzled the anchorite's wits to tell!
He pray'd to the Virgin, and counted o'er
His beads a thousand times or more;
And he vow'd that never again his lip,
Other than water pure should sip!
For the future, he
Liv'd holily
In his hole; and often at deep midnight
Was seen the anchorite's lamp alight,
Gleaming within the cave's recess,
When he was preparing a work for the press;
Sat he there in the cave alone,
Hearing nought but the night-owl's moan.
From the dim woods ; or the seagull's scream,
As it's wing glanc'd in the white moonbeam.
Long years pass'd by—
The hermit's eye
Had clos'd for ever in death, and his frame
Had return'd to the dust from whence it came;
When with powder and spade,
A passage was made
Through the rock, by which the curious survey'd
The hermit's cell,
Where, strange to tell,
As if preserved by a miracle,
Were found some parchments, mouldy and damp,
Beside the remains of an inkstand and lamp;
On one was written, in letters thick,
"This is the Will of me, St. Vick
The other papers we shall transfer
To a noted London publisher;
Only noting this one, among the rest,
Pick'd up in the cavern by Mr. West.
"I give and bequeath,
After my death,
To earth my bones, and to heaven my soul;
And happy may be the old man's dole!
I give, of this hole, which I've long possest,
The sole right of entrance to William West!
And for being protected, when drunk on the ridge
Of the rock, I desire that a mighty bridge
May be built, to perpetuate my fame,
By one who hereafter shall bear my name;
That after ages may wond'ringly tell—
This was strange enough—but 'tis stranger still,
That one Mr. Vick should leave by his will,
In after years, a sum for a bridge
To span the rocks, from ridge to ridge;
And that Mr. West, (vide will), should be willing,
To show the anchorite's cave for a shilling!

Admittedly not very useful to the serious researcher but it is amusing. The Mr. Vick mentioned in the poem was Bristol mechant William Vick. In 1753, he left a bequest in his will of £1,000 (equivalent to £140,000 in 2015), invested with instructions that when the interest had accumulated to £10,000 (£1,370,000), it should be used for the purpose of building a stone bridge between Clifton Down (which was in Gloucestershire, outside the City of Bristol, until the 1830s) and Leigh Woods in Somerset. The money was used for the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Incidentally, in 1832, Dix married Sussanah Moore whose father boiled soap in Bedminster.

Although it does not mention Bristol, Towards an Archaeology of Anchoritism is worth looking at to get an idea of what anchorites were and what anchorholds looked like.


15 Things you Didn't Know About Brandon Hill
A Topographical Dictionary of England by Samuel Lewis, London, 1848
Accounts of the Constables of Bristol Castle: In the Thirteenth and Early Fourteenth Century by Margaret Sharp. Bristol Record Society, 1982
Bristol and its Environs, British Association for the Advancement of Science. Houlston, London, 1875
Bristol Past and Present by James Fawckner Nicholls and John Taylor. Arrowsmith, Bristol, 1881
Flora of the Bristol Coal-Field by James Walter White. Bristol Naturalists' Society, 1910
Jacob's Well, Bristol: Mikveh or Bet Tohorah? by Joe Hillaby and Richard Sermon
Local legends and Rambling Rhymes by John Dix. Davey, Bristol, 1839
Proceedings of the Bristol Naturalists Society 1908 - 1916.
Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological & Natural History Society for the Year 1901. Vol. XLVII
Religion, Society and Godly Women: The Nature of Female Piety in a Late Medieval Urban Community by Stephanie J. Adams. PhD dissertation, University of Bristol, January 2001.
Rownham Ferry in Bower Ashton
The Book of South Wales, the Bristol Channel, Monmouthshire, and the Wye by Charles Fredrick Cliff. Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1854
The Churches of Britain and Ireland - Redcliffe (including Temple), Bristol
The Hermits and Anchorites of England by Rotha Mary Clay. Methuen, 1914
The Topography of Medieval Bristol by William Worcestre. Orginally published in 1778. Translated and reprinted by Bristol Record Society, 2000
Time, Space and Power in Later Medieval Bristol by Peter Fleming. University of the West of England, Bristol, December 2013
Towards an Archaeology of Anchoritism by Student 0904341, Department of Archaeology, Cardiff University, 2012
Transactions - Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Volumes 25-26 (1902)
Two Compotus Rolls of Saint Augustine's Abbey, Bristol for 1491 - 2 and 1511 - 2 edited by Gwen Beachcroft and Arthur Sabin. Bristol Record Society, 1938
Wikipedia: Anchorite
Wikipedia: Blackfriars
Wikipedia: Bristol Cathedral
Wikipedia: Clifton Suspension Bridge
Wikipedia: Hardwicke Rawnsley
Wikipedia: St. Mark's Church, Bristol
Wikipedia: Wulfric of Haselbury

This page created October 18, 2017; last modified November 6, 2022