The Vicar-Turned-Anchorite of North Petherwin, Cornwall

Rebecca Springer is a lecturer in history at Oriel College, Oxford. She recently completed a DPhil thesis on local religious life in late twelfth-century England. Her essay on the moral duty of prelates to educate their subordinates, which was presented at the Summer 2017 Conference, will appear in Vol. 55 of Studies in Church History.

A single document held by the Devon Heritage Centre presents a tantalising glimpse of local religious life in late twelfth-century England. William, vicar of a Cornwall parish church, unexpectedly took up the monastic habit and became an anchorite.

Anchoritism is one of those stereotypically medieval phenomena: arcane, extreme, and endlessly beguiling to the modern observer. Spurred by religious zeal or a desire to escape from the world’s entanglements and demands, women and men enclosed themselves in rooms attached to houses and churches. They often sealed the doors to these rooms, receiving food and drink only through a small opening. In their enclosures they prayed, read meditatively, experienced visions, and even worked at crafts such as bookbinding and mending. A few wrote or dictated mystical meditations which survive to this day, including Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. The practice of anchoritism was common enough in medieval England that some monks and clerics wrote rules for anchorites, instructing them in how to live in much the same way that the Benedictine Rule instructed monks. Ancrene Wisse, written for female anchorites in the early thirteenth century, is a famous example of this genre. Recently, historians have argued that anchorites served a significant social purpose, serving as confessors and offering intercessory prayers on behalf of lay people.

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Detail of Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Twelve Scenes from Her Life, c. 1330, tempera and gold leaf on panel, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

The precedents of anchoritism were as old as Christianity itself. In Matthew 4.1-11, Jesus goes alone into the desert to fast and pray for forty days, and there does spiritual battle with, and overcomes, temptations presented by Satan himself. From around the third century, the so-called ‘desert fathers’ journeyed into the harsh wildernesses of Egypt and Syria, surrounded, increasingly, by devoted followers and religious tourists. The famous ‘stylites’ of fifth- and sixth-century Byzantium, who lived atop pillars for years, sometimes decades, attracted large crowds. Asceticism was never about escaping human contact entirely, or about living in peaceful solitude. It was an act of severity and daring, a means by which to confront supernatural forces and prevail, a moral intervention in one’s own spiritual destiny and in the spirituality of one’s society.

 Which brings us to southwestern England in the late twelfth century. At some point between 1189 and 1204, three papal judges delegate—the bishop and archdeacon of Winchester, and the prior of Southwick Priory—issued a decision regarding a dispute between the abbot and convent of Tavistock, a Benedictine abbey in Devon, and William the cleric. We have no other record of what the document describes as ‘the dispute which arose … regarding the vicarage of the church of [North] Petherwin’, in Cornwall. The document states that the judges were acting on papal authority, that the case was pleaded in their presence, and that the judges’ decision brought the dispute to a close firmly, amicably, and with the assent of all parties. That decision was:

 That the aforesaid abbot and convent of Tavistock have conceded to the said William the cleric monkhood in his home according to his wish. And for as long as he wishes to remain and to be enclosed in the monastic habit, they have conceded half a mark of silver to be paid to him by the abbot each year at the feast of St Giles. And because by God’s inspiration he wished to be a monk, the abbot, whoever he is at the time, will make him a monk at his own expense, and they have conceded to him one acre of land to hold of them in the manor of Werrington which is called ‘Wigchote’, rendering 4s annually to the abbot of Tavistock at the feast of St Rumon for all service … . Also they have conceded to him that they will give that acre of land to whomever he wishes for that service … . But the aforesaid William the cleric has quitclaimed in perpetuity all the right which he had claimed in that vicarage and in those four acres of Pidrewine to the abbot and monks of Tavistock.

– Charter, Devon Heritage Centre W/1258/M/D/80/3

William the cleric’ must have been the vicar of the parish church of St Patern in North Petherwin, of which the prior and convent of Tavistock Abbey were patrons. Since he is called ‘the cleric’, not ‘the priest’, we can assume that he was in minor orders, but not ordained. He would have employed a chaplain to perform sacraments on his behalf, a relatively common practice at the time, but may have exercised some spiritual leadership over his parishioners, perhaps even preaching to them. Evidently he wanted to give up his position to become an monk and an anchorite.

But William could not do this and simultaneously occupy the vicarage. Vicarages were a form of property, guaranteeing a regular income, and this was inimical to the monastic life. Within a monastery, monks held property ‘in common’—that is, everything was owned by the community. This policy had to be bent in the case of monk-anchorites, who required special provision for their day-to-day material needs. In the agreement settled before the papal judges, William probably bequeathed his own possessions to the abbey in a separate gift. In exchange, the monks bestowed the monastic habit on William and gave him the profits of one acre of land, minus four shillings rent, to pay for his living expenses. Food and drink would have to be brought to William in his cell, and he would also need to designate someone to work the land on his behalf. The monks would then be free to appoint a new vicar to the church of North Petherwin.

This is what the document tells us plainly. But there is a more interesting story to be found by reading between the lines. Why did these negotiations require the intervention of papal judges delegate to bring both parties to agreement? The final settlement seems sensible, with benefits for both sides: William became an anchorite as he wanted, at no expense to the monks, while the monks were free to select a new vicar. How then did the trouble arise?

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Church of St Patern, North Petherwin, Cornwall. Martin Bodeman, via Wikimedia Commons.

I suspect that William had already enclosed himself as an anchorite, either in his home or in the church, when the dispute came to a head. In doing so, he may have abdicated some of his former duties, including tithe collection, and ceased to transfer revenues from the church to Tavistock Abbey, sparking conflict with the monks. What is more, he may have had local support.

In the late twelfth century, pastoral care did not entail a checklist of religious ministries to be provided so much as a more general, and more serious, spiritual responsibility for directing parishioners’ souls. Moreover, we cannot assume that what lay people wanted from vicars was the same as what theologians required. As vicar, William had paid a chaplain to baptise infants, visit the sick, and perform masses on his behalf; this would not have changed much once he became an anchorite. He could not have preached to a gathered congregation, but he could have offered spiritual counsel to individual parishioners through the opening in his cell. He certainly could have devoted a great deal of time to praying for his parishioners’ souls, an act of spiritual service which was highly valued in late twelfth century England. Most importantly, as an anchorite William would have been less encumbered by worldly distractions, more closely connected to God and to the saints, a more effective intercessor. His parishioners may have been willing to tolerate a bit of inconvenience with regards to Sunday masses in exchange for access to a newly-minted holy man.

It is impossible to know exactly what motivated William the cleric-turned-anchorite, or what happened to him after the agreement was struck. But his case challenges us to think creatively about the expectations and motivations of lay people and their priests in late twelfth-century England. The church in this period—in any period—was not an orderly, mechanical system for distributing religious services. It was comprised, fundamentally, of individuals and communities, shaped by their relationships with each other and with the divine.


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