My thoughtful friend Jane commented recently: ‘There aren’t many jobs left for people who do better at life when left on their own’.
Jane and I had been talking about the men who lived at the Warkworth Hermitage. Carved into a stone rock face, the hermitage sits in a secluded spot beside the River Coquet, just upstream from Warkworth Castle in Northumberland. These days it is reached via the good offices of a friendly boatman who obligingly ferries visitors back and forth across the river.
Warkworth’s hermitage is thought to have been founded in the 14th or early 15th century, probably during the time of Henry Percy (1341‒1408), the 1st Earl of Northumberland. The Percys’ forebears had been supporters of William the Conqueror and lived in Britain from the 11th century onwards, gradually accruing vast swathes of land in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Northumberland and elsewhere. For a time, Warkworth was their favoured base.
Why build a hermitage?
A hermitage can be home to a hermit or, more simply, any secluded habitation. Strictly speaking, the hermitage at Warkworth falls into the latter category. As English Heritage puts it: ‘Rather than a secluded dwelling for a religious recluse (hermit), it was in fact probably a chantry, or private chapel, where a priest performed services in return for a stipend.’
During medieval times, wealthy patrons endowed chantry chapels, often in memory of a particular family member, and then paid a Christian priest to say prayers for the soul of the departed.
Whose soul was Henry Percy concerned about? Perhaps it was that of his son, the crazy-brave Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, who was killed in battle in 1403 or perhaps it was a presentiment regarding his own demise five years later. After switching his support for English monarchs a number of times, the earl was killed at the Battle of Bramham Moor during one his several royal rebellions. His body was decapitated and quartered, and his head ignominiously displayed to the public on London Bridge.
Another theory on the origins of the hermitage is offered in the ballad The Hermit of Warkworth, first published in 1771. The hermit-narrator of the long poem recounts a story to two young lovers, one of whom is the son of Harry ‘Hotspur’. The story concerns a knight named Sir Bertram: a close friend of the first earl, a gallant fighter, and a man in the throes of love. Late in the story, Bertram finds himself on a mission to rescue his true love. The mission goes badly awry when Bertram (spoiler alert!) mistakenly slays both his brother and the maiden fair. Mortified by his actions, Bertram seeks to end his life, but ‘time and thought and holy men’ send him on another path. ‘No more the slave of human pride’, he decides to spend his life ‘in penitence and prayer’.
According to the ballad, Earl Percy offers his friend refuge and Bertram, now re-named Benedict, hews some rooms from the Northumberland sandstone. In one of these, he sculpts the ‘beauteous form’ of his lost love. Fifty years on, Warkworth’s hermit-narrator identifies himself to his listeners as that self-same knight, now turned recluse.
Did the hermitage really have its beginnings in a tale of murder and lost love? It’s unlikely, but nobody is sure. Certainly, there are figures, now worn by the weather, carved into the hermitage’s stonework. There is a tomb with an effigy that appears to depict a woman’s image with a warrior (or hermit?) kneeling at her feet. And surrounding one of the chapel’s windows, are more figures. The generally accepted view, disputed by some, is that they represent the nativity—Mary with the baby Jesus on one side of the window, Joseph on the other.
Whatever happened to hermits?
Whatever the truth might be, prayer-making priests had ceased living at Warkworth Hermitage by the mid-16th century, the site’s demise probably coinciding with Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
Where did hermits and like-minded, solitary souls go in the centuries that followed? A populist theory is suggested in a novel by 19th century English author, Sir Walter Besant. In the closing stages of The Fourth Generation, Besant writes:
The Hermit, or the Recluse, has long disappeared from the roadside, from the bridge end, from the river bank. His Hermitage sometimes remains, as at Warkworth, but the ancient occupant is gone. He was succeeded by the Eccentric, who flourished mightily in the last century … For reasons which the writer of social manners may discover, the Eccentric has mostly followed the Recluse; there are none left.
And so, my friend Jane’s observation remains.
In the 21st century, where is the place for people who prefer the peace and quiet of solitude and isolation?
Links and Sources
Percy, Thomas. The Hermit of Warkworth: A Northumberland Ballad: In Three Fits or Cantos. 2nd ed. London: Printed for T. Davies and S. Leacroft, 1771.
Besant, Walter. The Fourth Generation. New York F. A. Stokes 1900.
There are various descriptions of Warkworth Castle and Hermitage available online, some are brief and factual, others more meandering and impressionistic. They include:
- ‘Description of Warkworth Castle and Hermitage.’ English Heritage.
- ‘Plan of Warkworth Castle and the Hermitage.’ English Heritage.
- A Hand-Book to Alnwick Castle, Hulne Park and Abbey, Warkworth Hermitage & Castle. Alnwick: M. Smith, 1842.
- ‘Warkworth Hermitage.’ The Penny Magazine. Published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 7 March 1875.
For more on the Percy family, begin with the Alnwick Castle website. See also:
- Bean, J. M. W. ‘Percy, Henry, First Earl of Northumberland (1341–1408).’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Oxford: OUP, 2004.
- The first earl Percy and his son Harry ‘Hotspur’ are mentioned in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV. More details via the Shakespeare and History website.
10 thoughts on “Hermits and the Hermitage at Warkworth”
This reminds me of searching through dense woodland in Essex to find the remains of the fortifications set up years before by a local hermit. Thirty years ago it was just about possible to find the ditches, banks and huts he had constructed but suspect all gone by now. I discovered all this in a book by RaIeigh Trevelyan “The Hermit Disclosed” published Longmans 1960. I suspect hermits will always be around. Thanks for fascinating article.
Hello Lucy. Thanks for your comments. I’ll search out that book by Raleigh Trevelyan. Sounds fascinating.
I enjoyed your article, Tessa. Perhaps, these days, the place for people who prefer solitude and isolation is beneath a set of headphones. Not exactly peace and quiet but an escape nonetheless? Hermits amidst the crowds.
Good point, Lesley. There’s certainly an element of social isolation when people are ‘hidden’ beneath headphones.
I know I’m a bit slow commenting on this, but I love this article Tessa J. I’m reminded that there is something about the eccentric recluse that is appealing. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but a large part may be the counter-cultural/subversiveness of it. (Of course, nothing to do with my long held view that plants and animals are far easier to relate to than people). There’s a poster around with ‘Introverts unite! Quietly, in your own homes’. Sure will. I’d love to hear your views on the book ‘I want to be alone’ by Barry Stone. Thanks for an interesting read.
Hi Erica, thank you for sharing your thoughts, especially the ‘Introverts’ poster – I’m on board with that! Thanks, too, for the tip about the Barry Stone book. I hadn’t come across it before and it sounds like something I’d enjoy. Cheerio, Tessa
Not so much a reply as comments on a statement and one of the photos. I lived on Morwick road, Warkworth as child. While I never crossed the river to the Hermitage I am almost certain that it is not on an island. Also, I can assure you that the castle is not visible from there and, even if it was, the river would have been on the right, not the left. That photo must have been take close to 55°20’38.7″N 1°36’56.9″W.
Hello John, thank you for taking the time to draw my attention to my mistake in locating Warkworth Hermitage on ‘an island’ in the River Coquet. I’ve amended the text of the blog post to accurately place the hermitage on the river’s bank. The photo with the view of Warkworth Castle was taken as I walked from the hermitage back to the castle. I’ve clarified the caption to reflect this. Thanks again for your comments. Much appreciated.
Hello Tessa, Thank you for responding. A visit to the street view URL below will show what is visible from directly opposite the Hermitage, including the ferryman😉. A long time ago I rowed a boat from Warkworth to that spot, it never crossed my mind to actually visit the Hermitage for some reason. Best regards, John. https://email@example.com,-1.6206539,3a,75y,141.06h,87.21t/data=!3m8!1e1!3m6!1sAF1QipPZ6M4XdgkVQriz4ofVzL5j1uzZNuF89CaFzV6X!2e10!3e11!6shttps:%2F%2Flh5.googleusercontent.com%2Fp%2FAF1QipPZ6M4XdgkVQriz4ofVzL5j1uzZNuF89CaFzV6X%3Dw203-h100-k-no-pi-0-ya181.08269-ro0-fo100!7i8704!8i4352
Hello John, thanks for the street view link. I must have been a bit further along the path when I took the photo. Caption now clarified. Cheerio, Tessa