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The Wayside Hermitage

A hermit was a person who lived in isolation as a religious discipline, to escape the distractions and temptations of the outside world. Their dwellings were called hermitages which were often small, remote and very basic. Hermitages could be found in caves or small buildings in deserts, mountains or forests, usually beside roads, fords and bridges. Because of this, the duties of a hermit, beside devoting their life to God, included being a guide, toll collector or bridge warden. Today, religious hermits are rare but some still exist.


Paul of Thebes (c. 227 - c. 341 AD) is credited as being the first hermit. It’s said he lived alone in the desert of Thebes for over a 100 years, to emulate Jesus. Paul led a solitary life, eating frugally and seeking purification and perfection. Soon, others, such as Saint Anthony, Saint Augustine and Saint Benedict, followed suit.


Early Christians were keen to prove that they were pure and devout, to improve their chances of eternal life, so the number of people choosing to become hermits increased. In some cases, these hermits joined together with other likeminded men and women to create communities, with each person having their own room, known as a cell, to provide solitude. These were the earliest forms of monasteries.


In the centuries that followed, hermits were recognised by the ecclesiastical system and became subject to their rules. They were not often allowed to eat meat, were required to fast 3 days a week, and, on Fridays, could only consume bread and water. Hermits were not condemned to a life of utter separation or silence. Hermits could travel around, teach, preach, gather alms for the poor and carry out general philanthropic works. They were allowed to own simple property and could bequeath their belongings when they died. In the Middle Ages, hermitages and monasteries alike were endowed by royalty and nobility in return for prayers for their families.


Roadside, or wayside, hermitages began to appear in the early 14th century. During this period, roads were not owned by anyone so their upkeep and repair was left to charitable acts. Wayside hermits would repair roads, collect tolls and donations, and guide travellers. Religious houses did their share to maintain the roads too.


Royston Cave sits beneath the crossing of two ancient highways, Icknield Way and Ermine Street. These were two major arteries through England, which have been well travelled for centuries. Because of its location, some believe that Royston Cave was a wayside hermitage, used to guide travellers passing through the crossroad. A prominent carving of St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, stands directly below the cave’s northern entrance shaft. St Christopher’s link with travellers and roads may support the hermitage theory.


Although no hermits are specifically recorded as living in Royston itself, Royston did not become an independent town until 1540. Before that, the area of Royston straddled the parishes of Therfield, Barkway, Melbourn, Bassingbourn and Kneesworth, and there are written accounts referencing hermits living in these parishes, although records are limited and often incomplete. A hermit called William Brown lived between Royston and Arrington in 1401; an unnamed hermit died between Royston and Bassingbourn in 1506; a hermit lived between Barkway and Ware in 1520; and another is known to have lived in the parish of Barkway, although the date is unknown.


Royston's crossroad, now the junction of Melbourn Street and Kneesworth Street. © Royston Museum

William Stukeley, an historian who visited Royston Cave shortly after its discovery, firmly believed that the cave was built and used as a medieval private chapel and dismissed any notion that a hermitage would be situated in the middle of a town.


Rev. Charles Parkin published a book in response, which rubbished Stukeley’s theories and suggested that the cave was much older, probably Saxon, and was used as a wayside hermitage. He believed that it was associated with Royston’s medieval priory which stood nearby, and that there could have been as many as four hermits living in the cave, each having their own alter to pray at. Parkin quotes a grant of land and money, given by Henry VIII to Sir Robert Chester, on of Henry’s Gentlemen Ushers, which includes ‘the dissolved priory of Royston, with the hermitage and oratory’. Parkin believed that the hermitage referenced was Royston Cave.

However, Joseph Beldam, a Royston-born lawyer and historian who studied the cave in the mid 1800s, believes that Parkin mistook a grant by Edward VI which relates to the manor of Hedley, in the parish of Barkway, and could therefore not have meant a hermitage at Royston, which was in the manor of Newsells. Beldam did agree with Parkin that the cave was, at some point, a hermitage though, evidenced by an old parish notebook from Bassingbourn of a hermit that died in 1506, which read: ‘Gyft of 20d’ recd ‘Off an Hermytt departing at Roiston I ys pysh’.


Beldam also provided evidence of an old manorial survey, from 1610, of the properties owned by the Chester family, who had been granted the lands and buildings of Royston priory after the dissolution. A side note in this survey mentioned ‘continued use and final abandonment of the oratory’ which Beldam concluded meant the cave, used as a form of chapel or anchorite by a priory monk, perhaps with a hermitage attached.


Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, hermitages began to disappear. The new owners of church properties did not feel obliged to carry out the same sort of charitable work that hermits and monks did, including the maintenance of roads. Roads soon fell into disrepair and it wasn’t until the 16th century that maintenance became a public charge organised by local governing bodies.


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References


Stukeley, W. (1743). Palaeographia Britannica: or, Discourse on Antiquities in Britain. Number I. Origines Roystonianæ, or, an account of the Oratory of Lady Roisia, Foundress of Royston, discovered at Royston, in August 1742. London: R. Manby.

Parkin, C. (1744). An Answer To, Or Remarks Upon, Dr. Stukeley’s, Origines Roystonianæ; Wherein, The Antiquity and Imagery of the Oratory, lately discovered at Royston in Hertfordshire, Are Truly Stated and Accounted For. London: J. Hoyles

Beldam, J. (1877). The Origin and Use of The Royston Cave. Third Edition. Royston: Warren Bros.

Clay, R. M. (1914). The Hermits and Anchorites of England. London: Methuen

Beamon, S.P. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.

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