Hermits and the Hermitage at Warkworth

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 on a small island in 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.

The River Coquet, crossing place for Warkworth Hermitage

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.’

Warkworth Hermitage

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.

The hermit tells his tale to Harry ‘Hotspur’ and Harry’s young love, illustration from The Hermit of Warkworth

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 gives his friend a refuge on the tiny island in the River Coquet and there Bertram, now named Benedict, carves out some rooms. 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.

Bertram becomes Benedict, extract from The Hermit of Warkworth

The Truth?

Figure to the left of one of Warkworth Hermitage’s window. Possibly Joseph.

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:

Warkworth Hermitage. Image published in the Penny Magazine.

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.

View towards Warkworth Castle from Warkworth Hermitage

G. A. Henty and Australia—Part III: A Final Reckoning

English novelist G. A. Henty (1832-1902) prided himself on the accuracy of his novels, so how did a man who never set foot on Australia’s shores write a believable book (A Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia) about colonial New South Wales, a book peppered with stories of bushrangers, border police, white settlers and Indigenous Australians?

 ‘His method was simplicity itself’

The answer? ‘His method was simplicity itself. When he had decided upon a subject he sent to the London Library for a batch of books dealing with the period, and read it up’ (‘Anglo-Australian Notes’, The Express and Telegraph [Adelaide], 26 December 1902: 4).

The London Library: © Copyright Bill Johnson. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Henty was one of a sizeable cohort of literary figures (including George Eliot, Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry James) who were all members of The London Library. The library opened at 49 Pall Mall in 1841 and moved to its present location in St James’s Square four years later.

The library’s borrowing records for the 19th century are scant and there remains no information on the specific books Henty borrowed, but a glance through the library’s printed catalogue from 1888—a year or so after Henty’s Australian novel was published—provides some clues about the books he may have had sent to his address at 103 Upper Richmond, Putney.

Catalogue of the London Library / Robert Harrison. The Library: St James’s Square, London, 1888

Henty probably consulted William Westgarth’s Australia Felix (1848) and William Howitt’s A Boy’s Adventures in the Wilds of Australia (1855). He may also have drawn inspiration and information from Rosamond and Florence Hill’s travel journal What We Saw in Australia (1875) and G. W. Rusden’s detailed, three volume History of Australia (1883).

Henty’s Modis Operandi—‘I get a man to do them for me’

Having borrowed his batch of books for preliminary reading, Henty would write his story ‘with the most useful of these open in front of him’, sometimes quoting from them verbatim (Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. 1984 edn, p. 245).

‘Writing’ in Henty’s case did not entail putting his own pen to paper. When once quizzed by a staff member from the boys’ magazine Chums, Henty explained: ‘I do not write any of my books myself. I get a man to do them for me—an amanuensis … it all comes out of my head, but he does all the actual writing’. In this manner, Henty could achieve an output of 6,500 words a day, never seeing the work ‘until it comes to me from the printers in the shape of proof-sheets. My amanuensis sits at the table, and I sit near him, or lie on the sofa, and dictate the stories which I publish’ (George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life by George Manville Fenn, p. 316).

Ah, the life of a 19th century English gentleman novelist!

Henty Transported to Australia

First instalment. Weekly Times, 11 April 1891: 5.

A Final Reckoning was the 29th of Henty’s nearly 100 books. Advertisements for the novel began appearing in Australian newspapers in the lead-up to Christmas 1886; five years later, many of those same newspapers began a serialisation of Henty’s Australian tale.

What was this Antipodean adventure about? A Final Reckoning is the story of Reuben Whitney, son of a deceased miller and shopkeeping mother. Reuben is a bright lad, hampered by his family’s reduced circumstances, but keen to learn. Just as his prospects are improving, he is accused of stealing from the home of the local squire (although the squire’s daughter, Kate Ellison, trusts steadfastly in Reuben’s plea of innocence throughout his trial). Justice prevails and Reuben is acquitted. Nevertheless, he determines to make his way to Australia for a fresh start.

Reuben gains passage on a Sydney-bound ship carrying convicts, wardens, marines, and a handful of paying passengers. An act of bravery on his part, while the ship is docked in Cape Town, leads to an offer employment at journey’s end. Reuben joins the New South Wales police and is tasked with protecting white settlers from the dangers of ‘natives’ and bushrangers.

Among those he ultimately protects is the English squire’s daughter (now resident in New South Wales with her married sister).

Reuben saves Kate, suffering ‘a flesh wound’ in the process. (1887 edn, p. 335)

Reuben wins Kate’s hand in marriage, settles in Sydney, and becomes one of fledgling city’s leading citizens. After 20 years, he sells up, returns to England, and buys an estate near Lewes, a short distance from his childhood home.

Henty’s Picture of Australia

A cover image showing Jim and Reuben

What sort of colonial scene does Henty paint in A Final Reckoning? There is evidence in the novel that he has ‘done his homework’ (minor contradictions and errors aside). The book was dictated to Henty’s amanuensis in 1886, but the novel is set some 40 years earlier. Henty uses localised colonial terms such as ‘squatter’, ‘ticket-of-leave’, ‘bushranger’, ‘native tracker’ and ‘black gin’. There is even a variation of the classic children’s ‘lost in the bush’ tale.

Reading the book for the first time from a 21st-century vantage—as I was—it is Henty’s depiction of Indigenous Australians that is most discomforting. Some examples from the text will point to what I mean.

Before leaving for Australia, Reuben tries to persuade his mother to accompany him.  She refuses outright: ‘I am not going to tramp all over the world’, she says, ‘and settle down among black people in outlandish parts’ (94). The local schoolmaster attempts to soften her view: it is ‘not so bad a place as you fancy … Besides, every year the white population is increasing and the black diminishing’ (95).

On his arrival in New South Wales, Reuben’s ‘education’ is furthered by the colonists. He is told that ‘the natives are nearly all thieves’ (118) and that they ‘seldom stand up in a fair fight’ (175). They ‘kill from pure mischief and love of slaughter’ (198), they are cannibals (225), and have little or no regard for life’, except for those to whom they are attached (299). Native trackers, Reuben learns, ‘have the instinct of dogs’ (176) but, if treated well, ‘they get attached to you [and] are faithful to death’ (178).  One tracker, called ‘Jim’, works clandestinely among the bushrangers on Reuben’s behalf. Jim’s presence within the group is dismissed by the outlaws: ‘he minds us no more than if he had been a black monkey’ (304).

Jim (at left) with the bushrangers in their hideout

Henty’s books were read widely across the British Empire, well into the 20th century. Apparently they even reached the bookshelves of Adolf Hitler (‘Hitler’s Taste in Books.’ Morning Bulletin, 30 Jan 1943: 2). If he read them, I suspect the Fuhrer would have found nothing in Henty’s novels to disabuse him of his belief in racial superiority.

Links and Sources

The latter part of Henty’s life was spent at 33 Lavender Gardens, Battersea. A London County Council Blue Plaque acknowledges his residence there.

‘Commemorating a man who wrote great adventure stories: the plaque erected recently by the London County Council’ – Illustrated London News, 11 April 1953: 560