Reluctant Recluses

Many of you will already know that Henry de Lacy gave land at Whalley for the Cistercian monks to build a new abbey because the site at Stanlaw had proved unsuitable and liable to flooding.

After Henry de Lacy’s death his lands passed to his son-in-law Thomas of Lancaster and after Thomas’s execution, for his rebellion against Edward II, to his younger brother Henry. In December 1360 Henry Duke of Lancaster gave land at Ramsgreave and Standen for the maintenance of a recluse or anchoress to live in a hermitage in the churchyard at Whalley.

The recluse was to have two servants to wait on her, and a monk attended by a server was to sing mass daily in the chapel of her inclosure, the abbey providing all necessaries. These ‘necessaries’ were a weekly provision of 17 conventual loaves and 7 others, 8 gallons of the best ale, also 3d. for the attendants; and yearly: 10 stockfish, a bushel of oatmeal, a bushel of rye, 2 gallons of oil for the lamps, a stone of tallow for candles, 6 loads of turf and 1 of faggots.

The duke and his successors were to nominate the recluses and in 1437 a widow by the name of Isold Heaton was nominated. But she seems to have been reluctant and, like others before her, she ran away, prompting this letter from the monks to the king:


Be hit remembryd that the plase arid habitacion of the seid recluse is within place halowed, and nere to the gate of the seyd monastre, and that the weemen that have been attendyng and acquayntyd to the seyd recluse have recorse dailly into the seyd monastre, for the livere of brede, ale, kychin, and other thyngs for the sustentacyon of the seyd recluse accordyng to the composityon endentyd above rehersyd : the whyche is not accordyng (fitting) to be had withyn such religyous plases. And how that dyvers that been anchores and recluses in the seyd plase aforetyme, contrary to theyre own oth and professyon, have brokyn owte of the seyd plase, wherin they were reclusyd, and departyd therfrom wythout eny reconsilyatyon. And in especyal how that now Isold of Heton that was last recluysd in the seyd plase, at denomynatyon and preferment of owre Sovereign Lord and Kyng that nowe is, is broken owte of the seyd plase, and hath departyd therfrom contrary to her own oth and professyon, not willyng nor entendyng to be restoryd agayn, and so livyng at her own liberte by this two yere and more, like as she had never bin professyd. And that divers of the wymen that have been servants ther and attendyng to the recluses afortym have byn misgovernyd, and gotten with chyld withyn the seyd plase halowyd, to the grete displeasaunce of hurt and disclander of the abbeye aforeseyd, &c.

Please hyt your Highness of our espesyal grase to grant to your orators the abbat, &c.

The result was that the hermitage was abandoned and it was ordered that the endowment should be used to maintain two chantry priests to say mass daily for the soul of Duke Henry and for the king. It seems that some cottages were later built on the site, but demolished in the 1800s and apart from the hermitage being located in the east of the churchyard there’s no clear evidence of exactly where it was – perhaps somewhere near to the present primary school?

Hermits and anchorites living in or around churches were quite common in the middle ages. You can still see the remains of an anchorite’s cell in the church at Skipton:

The plaque here records that the cell would have been blocked up after the anchorite entered and that she would have remained there for the rest of her life. ‘A small window admitted food and light and gave a view of the church’s altar’. Not much chance of running away from there then!

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