Anchorites in Cumbria (Background: Aldingham)

Hagioscope at Aldingham

A number of old churches in Cumbria have slots in an outside wall, which were used by walled-up anchorites, to witness the mass.

The word Anchorite comes from the Latin anchorita, which derives ultimately from a Greek word meaning to retire or retreat.  An anchorite was a lay person, usually female, who withdrew from the world by having themselves walled up for the rest of their lives, usually in an ‘anchor-hold’ built against a church wall, with a slot cut in the wall through which they could witness the mass, especially the moment of the Elevation of the Host.  The anchorite usually kept a servant who lived outside the hold, who prepared their meals, did the laundry and the like, serving the anchorite through a window which was also used by visitors who came to see the anchorite to ask for her prayers or spiritual guidance.  When they died, they were sometimes buried in the floor of the anchor-hold. Anchorites were never common, but they could be found here and there throughout the country, from the 13th century until the Reformation.  One of the most famous of all anchorites was Julian of Norwich (1343 to c1416), whose book Revelations of Divine Love is the earliest surviving English language work by a woman.

The slots in the church walls are sometimes called ‘squints’ (and are sometimes, wrongly, associated with lepers), or more formally ‘hagioscopes’.  They often taper inwards, focusing upon the high altar.  One of the best ones can be seen at St Cuthbert's, Aldingham (see photo), although unusually it is placed behind the high altar rather than to the side.

There are others at St Michael’s, Brough, dating from around 1330: at St Peter’s, Kirkbampton, and at St James' in Great Ormside, again dating from the 14th-century; while the hagioscope at St Bees Priory, now infilled, possibly dates from 1270–1300, and was built low enough to allow the anchorite to kneel whilst looking through the aperture.

In Kendal the presence of an anchorite may be inferred from the road in the town still called Anchorite Road, and shown on Speed’s map of 1611 as The Ankeriche (or anchorage, another word for anchor-hold).  This would seem to imply that this particular recluse lived some distance from the church, but whether or not she was walled up there we cannot now say.

Fo background on anchorites, see E A Jones, Hermits and Anchorites in England 1200-1550, Manchester University Press 2019


Text and photo of the hagioscope at Aldingham, by Bill Shannon