Anchoresses and Isolation at St Peter’s Church

A view of St Peter's church in 1787
Source: C.H. Ashdown, St Albans Historical & Picturesque (London. 1893), p.221.

What was an anchoress?

An anchoress was a religious woman who chose to live a solitary life rather than to become a nun. They are known from the 12th to the 16th centuries. She would be walled into a small cell usually attached to a church and therefore was within a community rather than in complete isolation as hermits were. In order to become an anchoress a woman usually had to obtain the permission of the local bishop who needed to satisfy himself that she was suitably devout, of good character and was wealthy enough to support herself as she required a servant to bring her food and other necessities.

The situation was slightly different for a would-be St Peter’s anchoress as it was the abbot of St Albans monastery who had jurisdiction over the church and not the bishop since the monastery had been granted this privilege by the pope. When permission had been granted and the anchoress was about to be walled into her cell, a priest would say the Office for the Dead over her to show that she had died to the world.[1]

What did an anchoress do?

Several different Rules were written for anchoresses but these tended to be for specific women and were not meant for them all to follow as the Benedictine Rule was for all Benedictine monks. Mainly they lived a life of prayer and meditation but they could also offer advice to or pray with visitors. They could also read or do work such as embroidery if they wished. The cells in which they lived usually had three windows. One gave a view into the church so that the anchoress could see the consecrated wafer or Host being raised during the Eucharist. In her paper[2]Mary Wellesley said that this was so that the anchoress could receive communion but this was not always possible. For example, in the Anker’s House at Chester-Le-Street, Co. Durham, there is only a narrow squint with the view of an altar and nothing could have been passed through. The anchoress’ second window was one through which she could talk to visitors and the third was so that her servant could pass in food and other necessities.

The St Peter’s anchoresses

Although the picture (see above) was drawn long after the period when there was an anchoress at St Peter’s, it is possible that the small building with a chimney alongside the chancel was where they once lived.

Not much is known about the medieval history of St Peter’s but occasionally it is mentioned in the Abbey chronicles and an anchoress at the church was mentioned twice.

Holy Recluse

The first time an anchoress was mentioned at St Peter’s Church was in 1258 during the abbacy of John de Hertford and this is how it was described in the chronicle:

In the time of Abbot John at St Peter’s church in the town of St Albans there was a most holy recluse who was accustomed to see not only visions in her sleep but also to hear oracles from heaven about the future. And one night she saw standing by her side in the parlour a venerable aged bearded figure, who then in his torment went away from her, climbed the tower of the church and, turning his face towards the town, thundered from his mouth in grim and threatening tones the words, ‘Woe! Woe! Woe! Upon all the people of England.’  When he had repeated these words several times, he disappeared. But soon in that same year the crops failed and animals perished and there arose so great a famine that in the town of London fifteen thousand people died of hunger.[3]

This shows the St Peter’s anchoress as having visions which foretold the future.

Elizabeth Katherine Holsted

The second time that an anchoress at St Peter’s was mentioned was in 1479/80. On this occasion King Edward IV and his queen, Elizabeth, petitioned Abbot William of Wallingford to admit Elizabeth Katherine Holsted as the anchoress which he did.[4] This is the only mention of her in the chronicle but a book of St Albans wills[5] includes several documents in which money was left to the anchoress of St Peter’s. In particular the will of Robert Exmew, gentleman, written on 20 May 1487 which included the sentence ‘I bequeath to the ancres of Seint Michel 3s 4d and to the ancres of Seint Petres 3s 4d’[6] could have been a legacy for Elizabeth Holsted.

Conclusion

It was clearly an honourable and acceptable calling to be an anchoress in the medieval period. This is shown by references to the St Peter’s anchoress in the abbey chronicles and also by their receipt of legacies. In 2020 however being requested to stay at home temporarily because of the coronavirus seems hard and makes it even more difficult to imagine being walled up in a small cell for life.


Thanks to Jon Mein, Jane Kelsall and Peter Bourton whose comments on an earlier draft have improved this one.

[1] Most of the material in this section is based on M. Wellesley, ‘The life of the anchoress’, <https://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/the-life-of-the-anchoress> accessed 19 April 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] J.G. Clark (ed.) & D. Preest (tr.), The Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans (The Boydell Press, 2019).

[4] H.T. Riley Registrum abbatiae Johannis Whethamstede abbatis monasterii sancti Albani, vol II (Rolls Series, 1873), p 202.

[5] S. Flood (ed.), St Albans Wills, 1471-1500 (Hertfordshire Record Society no. 9, 1993).

[6] Ibid. p. 87.

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