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Anchorite's cell in Skipton.
Christina Carpenter was walled in to a cell in Shere, Surrey.[1]
Anthony the Great, father of Christian Monasticism and early anchorite.
"The Anchorite" by Teodor Axentowicz.

An anchorite or anchoret (female: anchoress; adj. anchoritic; from Ancient Greek: ἀναχωρητής, anachōrētḗs, "one who has retired from the world",[2][3] from the verb ἀναχωρέω, anachōréō, signifying "to withdraw", "to retire"[4]) is someone who, for religious reasons, withdraws from secular society so as to be able to lead an intensely prayer-oriented, ascetic, or Eucharist-focused life. Whilst anchorites are frequently considered to be a type of religious hermit,[5] unlike hermits they were required to take a vow of stability of place, opting instead for permanent enclosure in cells often attached to churches. Also unlike hermits, anchorites were subject to a religious rite of consecration that closely resembled the funeral rite, following which they would be considered dead to the world, a type of living saint. Anchorites had a certain autonomy, as they did not answer to any ecclesiastical authority other than the bishop.[6]

The anchoritic life is one of the earliest forms of Christian monasticism. In the Catholic Church today, it is one of the "Other Forms of Consecrated Life" and governed by the same norms as the consecrated eremitic life. In England, the earliest recorded anchorites existed in the 11th century. Their highest number—around 200 anchorites—were recorded in the 13th century.

[7] From the 12th to the 16th centuries, female anchorites consistently outnumbered their male equivalents, sometimes by as many as four to one (in the 13th century), dropping eventually to two to one (in the 15th century). The sex of a high number of anchorites, however, is not recorded for these periods.[8]


Anchoritic lifeEdit

The anchoritic life became widespread during the early and high Middle Ages.[9] Examples of the dwellings of anchorites and anchoresses survive. A large number of these are in England. They tended to be a simple cell (also called anchorhold), built against one of the walls of the local village church.[10] In Germanic-speaking areas, from at least the 10th century, it was customary for the bishop to say The Office of the Dead as the anchorite entered his cell, to signify the anchorite's death to the world and rebirth to a spiritual life of solitary communion with God and the angels. Sometimes, if the anchorite were walled up inside the cell, the bishop would put his seal upon the wall to stamp it with his authority. Some anchorites, however, freely moved between their cell and the adjoining church.[11]

Most anchoritic strongholds were small, perhaps no more than 3.7 to 4.6 m (12 to 15 ft) square, with three windows. Viewing the altar, hearing Mass, and receiving the Eucharist was possible through one small, shuttered window in the common wall facing the sanctuary, called a "hagioscope" or "squint". Anchorites would also provide spiritual advice and counsel to visitors through this window, as the anchorites gained a reputation for wisdom.[12] Another small window would allow access to those who saw to the anchorite's physical needs, such as food and other necessities. A third window, often facing the street, but covered with translucent cloth, would allow light into the cell.[6]

Anchorites committed to a life of uncompromising enclosure which could not be reversed at any time. If an anchorite attempted to escape their hut, they would be returned by force and their souls would be considered damned to Hell. Some were even burned in their cells, which they refused to leave even when pirates or other attackers were looting and burning their towns.[13] They ate frugal meals, spending their days both in contemplative prayer and interceding on behalf of others. Anchorites' bodily waste was managed by means of a chamber pot.[14] Some anchorholds had a few small rooms; some even had gardens attached. A servant was required to serve basic needs such as providing food, water, and removing waste. Julian of Norwich had several maidservants at various times, named Sara and Alice. Aelred of Rievaulx, who wrote De Institutione-- the “Rule” for anchoresses-- suggested having two maids, an older, sober woman and a younger one.

In addition to being the physical location wherein the anchorite could embark on the journey towards union with God, the anchorhold also provided a spiritual and geographic focus for people from the wider society who came to ask for advice and spiritual guidance. Although set apart from the community at large by stone walls and specific spiritual precepts, the anchorite also lay at the very centre of that same community. The anchorhold has been called a communal 'womb' from which would emerge an idealized sense of a community's own reborn potential, both as Christians and as human subjects.[8]

Influential textsEdit

An idea of their daily routine can be gleaned from an anchoritic rule. The most widely known today is the early 13th century text known as Ancrene Wisse.[15] Another, less widely known, example is the rule known as De Institutione Inclusarum written in the 12th century, around 1160–62, by Aelred of Rievaulx for his sister.[16] It is estimated that the daily set devotions detailed in Ancrene Wisse would take some four hours, on top of which anchoresses would listen to services in the church and engage in their own private prayers and devotional reading.[17]

Richard Rolle, an English hermit and mystic, wrote one of the most influential guide books regarding the life of an anchoress. His book, The Form of Living, was addressed to a young anchoress named Margaret Kirkby, who was responsible for preserving his texts. Her connection to the town of Hampole has been commonly associated with Rolle, which is by he is sometimes referred to Richard Rolle of Hampole though he never traveled there. In a way her life and her work was credited to the man she was associated with.

Rolle’s book is based on the principles of mysticism, “the practice of religious ecstasies (religious experiences during alternate states of consciousness), together with whatever ideologies, ethics, rites, myths, legends, and magic may be related to them.”[18] It is separated into twelve chapters:

  • Chapter One: Rolle discusses the three weaknesses of humans: “lack of spiritual vigor, putting bodily desires into practice exchanging a permanent good for a transitory pleasure” [19]
  • Chapter Two: Rolle tells Mary how while her body may be sacrificing, her heart and soul will feel the ultimate pleasure of religious devotion.
  • Chapter Three: Public display of piety does not promise holiness, but people who "follow Jesus Christ in voluntary poverty, and in humility, in love and in patience" can begin to be reckoned devout.”[19]
  • Chapter Four: Anchorites must give themselves fully to Jesus and reflect on the shortness of life, the question of the soul’s final destination, the need to address and pay for how one spends their life, and the pleasure of perseverance.
  • Chapter Five: Rolle warns against excessive self-sacrifice.
  • Chapter Six: A heart that is pure, which the anchorite strives for, must understand “what things corrupt, what thing purify, what preserves purity, and what induces submission to the will of god.”[19]
  • Chapter Seven: Rolle argues that a life of solitude is the best way to devote themselves to Jesus Christ
  • Chapter Eight: The three degrees of God’s love are insuperable (robust and constant), inseparable (implies presence), and singular (in which all love and devotion is given to Jesus Christ).
  • Chapter Nine: Rolle claims that the name of Jesus must always be “fixed in the heart”[19]
  • Chapter Ten: Rolle asks "what is love," "where is love," and "how am I to love God?" He claims that love is the heart, and God is loved in the heart, strength, and soul. He provides seven ways in which love can be recognized: when a person gets rid of the desire for material things, when a person wishes only for God and believes the world hold no necessities, when a person talks about God instead of worldly things, when a person pursues spiritual practices, when difficult things become easy, when a person's mind is bold enough to endure sorrow, and when a person's soul feel joys in spite of their sorrow in the world.
  • Chapter Eleven: Rolle talks about the seven gifts of the holy spirit.
  • Chapter Twelve: Rolle discusses the differences between an active and contemplative life.

Famous anchoritesEdit

The earliest recorded anchorites lived in the 3rd century CE. For example, Hilarion (Gaza, 291–Cyprus, 371) was known as the founder of anchoritic life in Palestine.[20]

The anchoritic life proved especially popular in England. Well-known anchorites include:[citation needed]

  • Bede records that, prior to a conference in 602 with Augustine of Canterbury, British churchmen consulted an anchorite about whether to abandon their Celtic Christian traditions for the Roman practices which Augustine was seeking to introduce.[citation needed]
  • Towards the end of the 7th century, Guthlac of Crowland, related by blood to the Kingdom of Mercia, withdrew from the monastery at Repton to an island in the Lincolnshire Fens, where he lived for some 15–20 years.[21]
  • Wulfric of Haselbury was enclosed as an anchorite in a cell built against the church in his village of Haselbury.[citation needed]
  • Christine Carpenter, who submitted a petition in 1329[22] and was granted permission to become the Anchoress of Shere Church[23] (aka. The Church of St. James), in the Borough of Guildford, England. She received her food and drink from friends and family through a metal grating on the outside wall. In the interior of the church a quatrefoil shape was cut out of the wall through which she could receive the Eucharist and a hagioscope for her use for prayer and reflection. She left her cell, and in 1332 she applied again and was granted permission to be re-enclosed.[1]
  • Margaret Kirkby (possibly 1322[24] to 1391–4), an anchoress at Hampole, Yorkshire for whom Richard Rolle wrote his vernacular guide The Form of Living.[25]
  • Walter Hilton composed the first book of his Scale of Perfection for an unnamed enclosed woman.[26]
  • Julian of Norwich, whose writings have left a lasting impression on Christian spirituality.[27] Her cell, attached to St Julian's Church, Norwich, was destroyed during an air raid during World War II. The church itself was gutted but the original walls remain, and it was rebuilt. On the site of the cell is a modern shrine to Julian.[28]
  • Sister Nazarena, nee Julia Crotta of the USA, became an Anchorite in the Camaldolese monastery of Sant’ Antoni in Italy in 1945 and remained there until her death in 1990. Her call to become an Anchorite was from a vision she had of Jesus saying, “Julia, I am all alone- come with me to the desert. I’ll never leave you!” She attempted to become an Anchorite through the Carmelites first, and then eventually found her way to the Camaldolese. A biography of her life was written by monk Thomas Matus. (Nazarena: An American Anchoress, Matus, Thomas. 1998)

The evidence supports the existence of a total of around 780 anchorites on 600 sites in England between 1100 and 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered by Henry VIII, which brought anchoritism in England to an end. Women were more numerous among the anchorites than men, especially in the 13th century.[29]

English anchorholds can still be seen at Chester-le-Street in County Durham and at Hartlip in Kent.[citation needed]

Notable peopleEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Wyndham Thomas (2012). Robert Saxton: Caritas. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 16–20. ISBN 978-0-7546-6601-1.
  2. ^ Harper, Douglas. "anchorite". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  3. ^ ἀναχωρητής. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  4. ^ ἀναχωρέω in Liddell and Scott
  5. ^ BBB Radio 4: Making History – Anchorites
  6. ^ a b LePan, Don (2011). The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Broadview Press. p. 348.
  7. ^ The Code of Canon Law 1983, canon 603
  8. ^ a b Herbert McAvoy, Liz (2005). Anchorites, Wombs And Tombs : Intersections Of Gender And Enclosure In The Middle Ages. University of Wales. p. 13.
  9. ^ McAvoy 2010, p. 96.
  10. ^ Licence 2013, p. 87–9.
  11. ^ Licence 2013, p. 123, 120.
  12. ^ Licence 2013, p. 158-72.
  13. ^ Licence 2013, p. 77-9.
  14. ^ The Anchoress (2008-06-02). On-line Q&As. Retrieved in 2008-10 from
  15. ^ Ancrene Wisse
  16. ^ Translated by Mary Paul MacPherson in Treatises and the Pastoral Prayer, Cistercian Fathers Series 2, (Kalamazoo, 1971). In English the work is variously titled The Eremitical Life, The Rule of Life for a Recluse and The Training of Anchoresses.
  17. ^ Ancrene Wisse, trans Hugh White, (Penguin, 1993), p.viii
  18. ^ "Mysticism". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-12-17.
  19. ^ a b c d "Richard Rolle's Form of Living: A Medieval Guide for an Anchoress - Articles - House of Hermits - Hermitary". Retrieved 2018-12-17.
  20. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Jerome, Vita Sancti Hilarionis in P. L., III, 29-54.
  21. ^ Ancrene Wisse, trans Hugh White, (Penguin, 1993), p.xiii
  22. ^ Petition to Become an Anchoress University of Saint Thomas–Saint Paul, MN,, 2003, 2012-04-22
  23. ^ History of Shere,, 2011, 2012-04-22
  24. ^ Jonathan Hughes, ‘Kirkby, Margaret (d. 1391x4)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved on 2011-05-06 from
  25. ^ Ancrene Wisse, trans Hugh White, (Penguin, 1993), p.xiii
  26. ^ Hilton, W., The Scale of Perfection, tr. J. P. Clark & R. Dorward (New York City: Paulist Press, 1991), p. 19.
  27. ^ Revelations of Divine Love
  28. ^ Milton, R., Julian's Cell: The Earthy Story of Julian of Norwich (Kelowna, B.C.: Northstone Publishing, 2002).
  29. ^ Ancrene Wisse, trans Hugh White, (Penguin, 1993)


  • “About Anchorites.” Hermits & Anchorites : About Anchorites, University of Exeter, 2010,
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Great Chain of Being.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 27 May 2015,
  • Dixon, Alan. “The 'Great Chain of Being'.” Inner Civilization, 1 Jan. 1970,
  • Licence, Tom (2013). Hermits and Recluses in English Society, 950-1200. OUP Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-967409-1.
  • McAvoy, Liz (2010). Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 978-1-84383-520-2.
  • “Richard Rolle's Form of Living: A Medieval Guide for an Anchoress.” Tao Chien (Tao Yuan-Ming), Poet of Reclusion - Articles - House of Hermits - Hermitary, 2006,

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit