The Sprotbrough Anchoresses

Despite having lost its elegant seventeenth-century Hall, Sprotbrough, to the west of Doncaster, retains much of its rural charm, still commanding a wide prospect of the surrounding countryside, enriched with woods and watered by the windings of the river Don through a picturesque limestone gorge. Mediaeval hermits often chose to live near rivers or lakes and Sprotbrough’s situation would have appealed to the mystical nature of seekers after solitude as[1] mediaeval hermits often chose to live near rivers and lakes. A walk through the village today gives little clue that this was once an area popular with anchorites, although the Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin provides several links to the vanished past.                                

These individuals had taken vows of celibacy and were mostly women. The life of an anchorite was very different from the religious life we know today. Anchorites committed themselves to live in a room or set of rooms, often with a small garden and usually next to a church. They might have a servant to help them with chores, but were expected to stay within their compound, although some anchorites attached to a church would sometimes go out and walk round the churchyard. On solemn feast days they were allowed to join religious processions, but were generally expected to stay in seclusion. They were also allowed to support themselves by making crafts and teaching children, as well as by receiving alms. Often the anchorhold would belong to a religious community, which would provide financial support for the anchorite. The anchorite was not required to wear a religious habit, but was expected to wear warm and practical clothes. A cat was permitted for companionship and to keep down rodents.[2] The life of an anchoress was a popular choice for poor women as dowries were not only paid on entering matrimony, but also on joining a religious communities. Anchorites were expected to pray most of the time, although there was no set way of life for an anchorite, whilst many were illiterate, which caused problem with their devotional lives.[3] Almost invariably women needed male support to lead this life, as male clergy and lay patrons were needed to gain episcopal support and provide sufficient funds. Female religious were expected to be enclosed to protect them from danger.[4] Because of their lowliness in the church hierarchy, anchorites were often approached by lay people for spiritual guidance.[5] The pattern of prayer adopted by the anchorites was not standardised but was largely left to the anchoress and her spiritual director.[6] Sometimes anchorites were looked down upon if they had never joined a monastic community before they were enclosed. To this day some people think it is impossible to be a monastic without having lived in a monastery first.[7] 

However, this way of life did have its supporters and an extensive body of medieval literature was written to help people living this vocation, such as The Epistle on the Mixed Life[8] by the English Augustinian mystic, Walter Hilton (c. 1340-1396), which instructed the devout layman on how to combine the active and contemplative lives, rather than entering a monastery; and the Ancrene Wisse or Riwle, an early thirteenth century manual for anchoresses. The popularity of this life waxed and waned throughout the Middle Ages but ended in England with the Reformation, when even elderly anchorites – including one unfortunate anchoress who was 100 years old[9] – were expelled from their anchorholds on to the streets. Nevertheless, the solitary life almost certainly persisted in secret after the Reformation. The anchoritic life has almost died out in the church although attempts have been made to revive it in the US.[10] Currently Roman Catholic and most Orthodox church authorities are cautious of religious who do not belong to religious communities, although the Anglican church has been much more accommodating.[11]                               

Anchorites were often seen as sources of wisdom for the local community and were sometimes consulted by royalty. Saint Wulfric of Haselbury (c. 1080-1154) was close to the local people, not least because he allowed his anchorhold to be used as a storeroom during the “Nineteen Long Winters”, the civil war between the Empress Matilda and King Stephen. Perhaps the best known anchorite in history was Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1416), a mediaeval anchorite in Norwich, whose cell can still be visited today (although it is a replica because the original was destroyed by a bomb during a second world war air raid). However, anchorites were recognised by the church and needed episcopal permission in order to be enclosed either by the bishop or a cleric delegated to do this talk on his behalf. Julian was a mystic whose revelations of a compassionate God were written down in a book called The Revelations of Divine Love. Nothing of her life before her enclosure is known, although some scholars think she was a widowed mother.[12] For many years her very existence was doubted, although thanks to the discovery of The Book of Margery Kempe detailing a personal encounter between the two women in 1413, we now know she existed. Most anchorites were completely anonymous but evidence of some of the Sprotbrough hermits survives, even if they do not have the world-wide following that Julian of Norwich has.             

The parish church of Sprotbrough is rich in eremitical history. Today it is still possible to see the grave of mediaeval hermitess Margaret Tattershall, who died in 1438. The 14th century was the great highpoint of anchoritic life in England. This life did better in England than in other parts of Europe. Sadly, the reformers were deeply hostile to the eremitical life and Sprotbrough’s hermits would have been evicted from their homes by the state and no further professions were allowed, as the Church of England no longer supported religious communities.[13] However, much has changed as there were almost 2,000 religious in the Anglican communion in 2015.[14] No doubt they find the history of the Sprotbrough hermits inspiring, regardless of the hostility of their 16th century Anglican ancestors.                                                                       

There is a rood screen and choir stalls from St Edmund’s hospital, which was founded about 1270 by Thomas Fitzwilliam and his son, William as an anchorage for two female recluses. This was attached to the hospital of St Edmund, the master acting as keeper of the lands which endowed the anchorhold. The first two anchorites were the sisters, Anabel and Helen de Lisle, whilst another anchoress with the same name entered in 1294. In 1300 Beatrice Hodesack, a Scottish nun, who was fleeing from the destroyed Abbey of Coldstream, also arrived. She had a companion whose name is unrecorded. She was enclosed by Archbishop Greenfield of York in 1315 and died in Sprotbrough around 1328. Often anchorites were former monks and nuns.[15] With the exception of Beatrice we do not know what led our Sprotbrough hermits to the anchoritic life. We do know, however, that whether they were rich or poor they persuaded  a bishop to enclose them, a process that took quite some time[16] There seems to have been some dispute as to whether Beatrice had the right to leave her monastery and reside in Sprotbrough. A lengthy correspondence between clergy on this matter settled the matter once and for all when it was proved that Beatrice had no choice to flee from Coldstream Abbey as it had been destroyed.[17] Beatrice was not the only nun to struggle after her convent was despoiled through war. Bishops were not always sympathetic to such unfortunate refugees needing enclosure.[18] The Fitzwilliams continued to support the anchoresses at Sprotbrough: in 1348 Isabel Fitzwilliam left to the Lady Joan, anchoress, a robe of her order. Another anchoress was Margaret Tatersal whose tomb is in the parish church. In 1481 Elizabeth Eltoft, widow, sought to be enclosed in the chapel of St Edmund. She was to be enclosed as a postulant for one year and then to make her profession. She did this being of good conversation and honest life, and without a man, and not because of poverty or other illegitimate reasons. It is probable that anchoresses, or at least an anchoress, was still there at the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1536.[19] 

We have an account of a visit by Abraham de la Pryme (1671-1704), an English antiquary, who at the end of the seventeenth century visited the ruins of a hermitage at Sprotbrough, “I was in the hermitage and the people shew’d me where the altar stood, where he [the hermit] digged every day a little of his own grave, and they told me also how that every day he gave the blessed Sacraments to those who came to receive the same.”[20]                             

In the last hundred years there has been a marked increase in interest in the solitary monastic life, although many people have not been able to get formal ecclesiastical permission for their vocation.[21] However, the eremitical life that we have now is very different in some respects to the way of life the Sprotbrough hermits would have known. In the mediaeval times the Roman Catholic Church was the only permitted church. However, now there are Anglican, Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox hermits living in Britain. Nevertheless the central essence of the vocation remains the same. I hope that one day hermits will return to Sprotbrough, and many more people will choose this unusual but ancient vocation.

With especial thanks to Ted Rimington, a local historian, who kindly gave the author a guided tour of Sprotbrough  parish church.

Other sources consulted:

Baker, D (editor) Medieval Women, Basil Blackwell, 1978      

Leyser, H, Hermits and the New Monasticism. A study of Religious Communities in Western Europe,1000-1150, Macmillan Press, 1984

Father Alexis Raphael Kliszewicz

[1] Clay, R, Hermits and Anchorites of England, Cruachan Hill Press, 1914        

[2] Gunn, C, Ancrene Wisse- From Pastoral Literature to Vernacular Spirituality, University of Wales Press, 2008                                                                        

[3] Obbard, E, Through Julian’s Windows- Growing into wholeness with Julian of Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2008 

[4] Gunn, op.cit.

[5] Obbard, op.cit.

[6] Allchin, A.M. (Ed.), Solitude & Communion, Fairacres Publications, 1977.

[7] Allcin, op.cit.

[8] Hilton, W, Mixed Life- Translated into modern English by Rosemary Dorward, with Introduction and Notes by John Clark, SLG Press 

[9] Clay, op.cit.

[10] Obbard, op,cit.

[11] Fredette, K & F, Consider The Ravens, iUniverse, 2008 

[12] Obbard, op.cit.

[13] Gunn, op.cit.

[14] Society of the Faith, Anglican Religious Life 2014-15, Canterbury Press, 2014

[15] Nichols, J and Shank,L (editors) Distant Echoes-Medieval Religious women, Volume One, Cistercian Publications, 1984                                                             

[16] Nichols, op.cit.

[17] Nichols, op.cit.

[18] Nichols, op.cit.

[19] Cullum, Patricia Helena, Hospitals & Charitable Provision in Medieval Yorkshire 936-1547 (University of York Department of History, D. Phil  Thesis, September 1989)

[20] Surtees Society, Vol. LIV, The Diary of Abraham de la Pryme the Yorkshire Antiquary, 1870, pp. 296-297.

[21] Fredette, op.cit.

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