Pages 130-131

A History of the County of Durham: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.

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The county of Durham was unusually rich in hermitages. From very early days, owing perhaps to the example set by St. Cuthbert, (fn. 1) religious persons of both sexes frequently chose the solitary life, and established themselves in some more or less retired spot where they lived either quite alone or with one or more attendants.

At the beginning of the twelfth century there dwelt at Wolsingham a well-known hermit named Elric (or Ethelric) with whom St. Godric lived for about two years, practising the ascetic life. (fn. 2) After Elric's death Godric settled at Finchale under the auspices of Bishop Flambard. (fn. 3) There he lived for many years, and built an oratory and a little house. He cultivated the ground and fished in the river, supporting himself by his own labour. (fn. 4) For a time his sister Burcwen joined him, and lived in a little cell which he built for her near his own; but she fell sick and died in a hospital in Durham. (fn. 5) After a time St. Godric placed himself under the control of the prior of Durham, (fn. 6) who at every festival used to send one of his monks to Finchale, there to celebrate Mass for the hermit. (fn. 7) Many legends are told of St. Godric, and he was regarded with great awe by the country people. He built a chapel, which he dedicated to the honour of St. John the Baptist, in which he often slept, (fn. 8) and where he ultimately died and was buried. (fn. 9) In his old age he was attended by servants, (fn. 10) and for the last eight years of his life was confined entirely to his bed. (fn. 11)

There existed in St. Godric's time, and possibly long before, a hermitage called Yareshale (or Yarehaulgh) on the River Derwent near Ebchester, which was granted by the bishop to a religious who came to ask St. Godric's advice on the matter. It was probably built on the site of St. Ebba's monastery, which was well adapted for such a retreat. (fn. 12) Its history is rather difficult to follow. Bishop Pudsey, between 1163 and 1188, granted to Sherburn Hospital, as part of its endowment, 'the place of anchorets' on the Derwent near Ebchester, (fn. 13) and in 1183 Robert of Yolton held 'the land on the Derwent, which was the hermit's,' and paid a rent of 2s. for it, (fn. 14) but soon afterwards (fn. 15) Geoffrey son of Richard (the second lord of Horden) granted to St. Mary and the House of Yareshale (Yarehaluh) two oxgangs of land in his vill of Horden, with common of pasture and 13 'weihts' (fn. 16) of corn of Durham measure. (fn. 17) This grant was confirmed by his son Geoffrey (between 1212 and 1214) to ' Brother John and his successors ' in ' the House of the Blessed Mary of Yareshale (Jharhale).' (fn. 18) In 'le convenit' (1231) Bishop le Poor stipulates that, in return for certain concessions he has made to the Durham monks, 'the place which is called Yareshale (Yreshale), with all its appurtenances,' shall remain for ever in the ordination of the bishops of Durham, 'ita quod providebimus qualiter elemosina futuris temporibus durabit.' (fn. 19) St. Mary's of Yareshale is mentioned as being, in the time of Bishop Langley (1406-37), the private chapel of one of that bishop's suffragans, in which ordinations were occasionally held. (fn. 20)

At the end of the north alley of the choir in Durham Cathedral was a porch called the 'Anchorage,' containing a rood and an altar for a monk to say daily mass. In ancient times it was inhabited by an anchoret. The entrance was up a stair adjoining the north door of St. Cuthbert's feretory. (fn. 21)

Mr. John Cade, the well-known antiquary, writing in 1789; says that there was at that time 'a plat called the Anchorage,' near the churchyard of St. Oswald's, Durham, which appears to have been the cell of some anchoret or recluse even prior to the foundation of St. Oswald's church. (fn. 22)

On 28 September, 1312, the bishop of Durham collated 'John, called Godesman,' to the hermitage of St. Cuthbert on the Tyne, near the bishop's park. (fn. 23)

Writing of Heighley Hall, Winston, Surtees says—

A chapel or hermitage, which is mentioned in some early inquest, stood low down in the holme, shaded by a thick overhanging wood.

. . . The last remains of the hermitage were lately removed in forming a new hedge; the masonry was excellent and the windows ornamented. The piscina is preserved in Mr. Deighton's garden wall at Winston. (fn. 24)

This is a remarkable statement, because in 1315 Bishop Kellaw, when granting a quitclaim for the rent of this ground, speaks of it as 'certain waste lands and wood in Heighley (Hegheley) in Winston called Hermitage' as if the cell or chapel was even then nothing more than a memory. (fn. 25)

In 1340 Bishop Bury granted a licence to select a site in Gateshead churchyard for an anchoress' cell; (fn. 26) and in 1373 Bishop Hatfield granted to William Shepherd, a hermit, a piece of waste land, 80 ft. by 40 ft., for a messuage. William in return was to pay 1d. a year for life. (fn. 27)

A few years later (20 May, 1387) a similar grant was made to a hermit of the name of Robert Lambe. Bishop Fordham gave him an acre of waste land in Eighton for the building of a hermitage and a chapel in honour of the Holy Trinity, on condition of his offering prayers for the bishop, his predecessors, and successors. (fn. 28)

There was an anchorage near Pounteys Bridge, as well as the chapel there. In December, 1426, John, prior of Durham, collated William Byndelawes of Burdon in Lonsdale, hermit, to this hermitage, then vacant and in his collation. (fn. 29)

In the fifteenth century the notices of hermits are not so frequent, but they still continued to exist. In February, 1434-5, Robert Perules, ' hermit of the chapel of St. Mary Magdalen of Barmore,' in the parish of Gainford, lost his chapel, his house which stood by it, and all their contents, by fire, everything being totally destroyed. Bishop Langley granted an indulgence of forty days to all contributing to the repair of the chapel and the support of the hermit. (fn. 30)

In 1493 John Auckland, prior of Durham, by means of a very curious document 'created' a hermit; i.e. conferred the rank or degree of hermit upon one John Man, a Yorkshireman, who desired to escape from the world and to assume the profession of an anchoret. (fn. 31)

It seems probable that there was at one time an anchoret, male or female, at Chester-leStreet. In the Chantry Certificate of 1548 (fn. 32) there is a mention of 'the Anker's House.' There was then no 'incumbent,' and from the quantity of lead on the roof the building would appear to have been but small. In 1627 an almshouse at Chester-le-Street in which dwelt certain poor widows, was known as 'the Anchorage.' (fn. 33)


  • 1. In 676 St. Cuthbert retired to Farne Island and built himself a hermitage there, in which he lived for eight years; Bede, Vita Sti. Cuthberti, cap. xvii.
  • 2. Vita Sti. Godrici (Surt. Soc.), 45, &c.
  • 3. Ibid. 66.
  • 4. Priory of Finchale (Surt. Soc.), pref. xiii, &c.
  • 5. Vita Sti. Godrici (Surt. Soc.), 139-43.
  • 6. Ibid. 135.
  • 7. Ibid. 202.
  • 8. Ibid. 187.
  • 9. Ibid. 326, 330.
  • 10. Ibid. 195.
  • 11. Ibid. 311.
  • 12. Ibid. 192 n.
  • 13. Surt. Hist. Dur. i (2), 283; 'Ordinatio' of Sherburn Hospital.
  • 14. Boldon Bk. (Surt. Soc.), 68.
  • 15. Temp. Prior Bertram, 1189-99.
  • 16. Measures.
  • 17. Dur. Cart. ii, fol. 99.
  • 18. Ibid.
  • 19. Script. Tres. (Surt. Soc.), App. p. lxxi.
  • 20. Dur. Epis. Reg. Langley, passim.
  • 21. Rites of Dur. (Surt. Soc.), 15.
  • 22. Arch. Lond. x, 61.
  • 23. Reg. Palat. Dun. (Rolls Ser.), i, 197.
  • 24. Hist. Dur. iv (1), 38.
  • 25. Reg. Palat. Dun. (Rolls Ser.), ii, 1280.
  • 26. Ibid. iii, 300. In 1366 Bishop Hatfield collated Richard de Cavill to the hermitage of Rynstanhirst (Dur. Epis. Reg. Hatfield, fol. 141). I have not been able to locate this hermitage.
  • 27. Rot. Hatfield, 2, m. 4 d.
  • 28. Rot. Fordham, m. 9.
  • 29. Surt. Hist. Dur. iii, 228.
  • 30. Dur. Epis. Reg. Langley, fol. 217.
  • 31. Reg. Parv. iv, fol. 26b.
  • 32. Surt. Soc. Publ. vol. 22, App. vi, p. lxiv.
  • 33. Parish Books of Chester-le-Street, A.D. 1627.