Otherwise known as "The Anchorite's Cell".
One of the most unusual buildings in Chester is the Anchorite's Cell or 'Hermitage', a small sandstone building by the River Dee at The Groves. The present building is believed to date from the mid 14th century and was one of two 'cells' built as religious retreats for reclusive monks or hermits. Until the reformation it belonged to the collegiate Church of St Johns which stands on the sandstone ridge "Redcliffe" above the river.
The cell itself stands on a sandstone outcrop in a former quarry, which is now set out as a bowling green (which does not appear to be used). It was re-modelled in the 19th century, when gothic traceried windows were added. The porch on the north side originally came from St. Martin's Church which was demolished in 1897. During its long history, the cell has also been a grain warehouse, the meeting place of the Company of Shoemakers and, more recently in the 1970s, an architect's office. The Anchorite's Cell was refurbished as a cottage sometime in the 1970s and is presently a private dwelling.
The historical record shows that a "hermit" named "John Spicer" was pardoned in 1358 for 'acquiring' land by the River Dee and building an enclosed hermitage. A later hermit John Benet, described as "hermit of St. James, Chester", was accused of receiving robbers, sheltering common malefactors, and keeping a brothel. In 1456, the Mayor and sheriffs of Chester were ordered to "investigate the conduct" of another successor, Jeven ap Bleth' ap Carwet, (recently appointed to the hermitage by the king - a nice guy called Richard III).
So - just a little historical interest there? - well actually things are about to get a lot more complex.
One hermit may have been none other than Harold Godwinson, once king of England and supposed survivor of the Battle of Senlac Hill (sometimes called the "Battle of Hastings"). Harold's connection with Chester is actually quite a bit more than myth, although the story that he lived on here after his supposed defeat in 1066 takes quite some believing. In 1063 Edward the Confessor's military leader Harold son of Earl Godwin, attacked Gryffudd ap Llywelyn's palace at Rhuddlan in Flintshire using Chester as his base and made himself master of the Vale of Clwyd. Following either Gruffydd's death (apparently at the hands of his own troops) - or simply the fact that Gruffydd had fled - Harold married his widow. Harold's January 1064 marriage seemed like a shrewd political move. Aldgyth was the widow of his enemy and the daughter of the ruling house of Mercia. One of Ealdgyths brothers, Edwin was Earl of Mercia while another, Morcar, would also rise to prominence. Outlaws had just become inlaws. Curiously, these two brothers are mentioned in Alice in Wonderland:
- "Ahem!" said the Mouse with an important air. "Are you all ready? This is the driest thing I know. Silence all 'round, if you please! 'William the Conqueror, whose cause was favored by the pope, was soon submitted to by the English, who wanted leaders, and had been of late much accustomed to usurpation and conquest. Edwin and Morcar, the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria....
Harold! - isn't he supposed to be dead?
The popular story is well known - Harold fights at the Battle of Hastings, gets shot in the eye with an arrow and dies. When one starts to pick into the detail it gets a lot more murky:
Arrow? - What Arrow?
The first issue is whether Harold was shot in the eye at all. Florence of Worcester writes:
- "At last, after great slaughter on both sides, about twilight the king, alas! fell."
.... but gives no indication at all as to the manner of his death.
- "Now the victor, joyful France almost ruled the field; already she was seeking the spoils of war when the duke sighted the king far off on the steeps of the hill, fiercely hewing to pieces the Normans who were besetting him. He [William] called Eustace [of Boulogne] to him ... Hugh, the noble heir of Ponthieu, escorted these two ... fourth was Giffard, known by his father's surname: these four bore arms for the destruction of the king... The first, cleaving his [Harold's] breast through the shield with his point, drenched the earth with a gushing torrent of blood; the second smote off his head below the protection of the helmet and the third pierced the inwards of his belly with his lance; the fourth hewed off his thigh and bore away the severed limb: the ground held the body thus destroyed." (the reference to his "thigh" being cut off may be a euphemism)
..so again no mention of an arrow. Instead this death sounds much more like that being suffered by the man standing (or rather falling backwards) next to the traditional "Harold" in the Bayeux Tapestry and suffering a perhaps symbolic blow to his groin - "hewed off his thigh" probably means taking a significant trophy.
The arrow story seems to originate with William of Malmesbury, who writes that Harold:
- "... fell, from having his brain pierced with an arrow ... receiving the fatal arrow from a distance, he yielded to death. One of the soldiers with a sword gashed his thigh, as he lay prostrate; for which shameful and cowardly action he was branded with ignominy by William, and expelled from the army."
So where was he buried?
William of Poitiers' "Gesta Guillelmi" (circa A.D.1075) reports that after the battle, Harold's body was brought into William's camp, and that Duke William had the remains buried on the shoreline (by William Malet):
- The two brothers of the King were found near him and Harold himself, stripped of all badges of honour, could not be identified by his face but only by certain marks on his body. His corpse was brought into the Duke's camp, and William gave it for burial to William, surnamed Malet, and not to Harold's mother, who offered for the body of her beloved son its weight in gold. For the Duke thought it unseemly to receive money for such merchandise, and equally he considered it wrong that Harold should be buried as his mother wished, since so many men lay unburied because of his avarice. They said in jest that he who had guarded the coast with such insensate zeal should be buried by the seashore.
Although Malet was a Norman knight a curious legend states that his mother was English, and that he was the uncle of Harold II's queen-consort Ealdgyth (the claim being that he had a sister Ælfgifu who married Ælfgar, Earl of Mercia, who was the father of Ealdgyth).
- "Harold's dismembered body gathered together, and wrapped what he had gathered in fine purple linen; and returning to his camp by the sea, he bore it with him, that he might carry out the customary funeral rites."
Of course none of this appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, as the last sections (perhaps seven yards) of that work is missing and it ends very shortly after the "death" of Harold.
Other versions have it that Harold's body was recovered and removed to Waltham Abbey. Certainly, for many years Waltham Abbey made a good income from the patronage of Anglo-Saxons who came there to visit the tomb of the last Anglo-Saxon king. William of Malmesbury, claims that Duke William:
- "... sent the body of Harold to his mother, (who begged it), unransomed though she proffered large sums by her messengers. She buried it, when thus obtained, at Waltham; a church he [Harold] had built at his own expense, in honour of the Holy Cross, and which he had filled with canons."
So he is dead then?
But there is another version.
According to Gerald of Wales, King Harold II fled only badly wounded from the Battle of Hastings to Chester where he survived as an anchorite (blind in one eye of course) in "The chapel of St. James", close to St Johns Church. Gerald of Wales tells the story as follows:
- Chester boasts of being the burial-place of Henry, a Roman emperor, who, after having imprisoned his carnal and spiritual father, pope Paschal, gave himself up to penitence; and, becoming a voluntary exile in this country, ended his days in solitary retirement. It is also asserted, that the remains of Harold are here deposited. He was the last of the Saxon kings in England, and as a punishment for his perjury, was defeated in the battle of Hastings, fought against the Normans. Having received many wounds, and lost his left eye by an arrow in that engagement, he is said to have escaped to these parts, where, in holy conversation, leading the life of an anchorite, and being a constant attendant at one of the churches of this city, he is believed to have terminated his days happily.
Descendants of William de Aliot, who supposedly shot the arrow into the eye of Harold Godwinson, do not always believe this to be the case! (Curiously, the Aliot clan centre is Hermitage castle which has "a history filled with intrigue, murders, trysts, torture, and treason"). Other legends have Harold living as a hermit in a cave near Dover and this just may be another 'once and future king' variant of the Arthur legend. (I should caution that the writer of this article is an Aliot - but he does hope that Harold survived)
The document "Vita Haroldi, quondam Anglorum Regis" (Life of Harold, Once King of England": MS. Harl. 3776. ff. 1-25 b. 4to. veil. XT. cent.) is reported as follows in Thomas Duffus Hardy's Descriptive Catalogue of Documents (it can also be found in Wace - if Wace is to be believed):
- ...Harold was mortally wounded, and to all appearance dead, but when the field of battle was examined by some women who were searching for their friends, it was discovered, and life still lingered in his body. With the aid of two English franklins, he was removed to Winchester and placed in a secret place, where he was attended for two years, and finally cured by the surgical skill of a Saracenic woman. On his recovery, lamenting the A.D. 1066 fate of his country, he determined to try and rid her of the yoke under which she was groaning, by expelling the Normans. He left England and sought the assistance of Saxony and Denmark, but without success. Disgusted and foiled in his attempt, he determines to abandon ambition and revenge, and by way of penance to go barefooted to Palestine. He spent two years there, and underwent the greatest privations and austerities, and at the same time collected many relics, evidently for his foundation at Waltham. When at Rome he carried off the bones " Crisanti et Dariae;" he is pursued, however and brought back in bonds. The author states in that the oak is yet standing near Rouen under which Harold swore to William when he was in his power. He says that the oath was extorted from him under fear of perpetual imprisonment or death, from which there was no escape, and that on his return to England he related what he had done, and all persons were enraged with him; yet notwithstanding, he was, at Edward's death, unanimously chosen king. That when the King of Norway invaded York, and Harold went against him, he was attacked with a disease in his legs, and that he was cured by Elsinus, Abbot of Ramsey, through the mediation of the spirit of Edward the Confessor. The writer relates how Harold during his peregrination pined for his native land, which he determined to visit. He lands at Dover, and from the top of the high cliffs surveys the kingdom once his own. Assuming the name of Christian, he passes through Kent and goes into Wales, concealing his scarred features with a cowl. In Shropshire, at a place called Ceswrthin, he constructs himself a cell, where he remains ten years, but leaves the spot on account of the annoyances he received from the Welsh, who frequently beat him and stole his garments. He has now become decrepit with age, and prays to have a place assigned for his death, and wanders in search of it. He goes to Chester, where by a supernatural intimation he finds a dwelling prepared for him in the chapel of St. James, within the cemetery of St. John the Baptist, on the banks of the river Dee, a little beyond the walls of the city of Chester. An anchorite had recently died there, and Harold succeeded to his cell. They suspected from his wounds that he was Harold, but he generally gave evasive answers to all who questioned him as to his name and rank. He confessed that he had been at the battle of Hastings, and that no man was dearer to Harold than himself. He lived there seven years, and at his death revealed his secret, and acknowledged that he was indeed the last Saxon King of England. The writer says that he does not wonder at the error of Malmesbary in his account of Harold's death and burial, since the canons of Waltham themselves buried a body which they falsely believed to be Harold's, but that those who had carried off Harold alive from the battle-field had circulated a report of his death, and conveyed a mutilated and decaying corpse to Waltham. The author states that he had obtained his information from a certain venerable anchorite named Sebricht, who had been Harold's servant at Chester, and who, at Harold's death, left Chester and made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On his return he settled at a village in Oxfordshire called Stanton, where the author became acquainted with him, and heard from him the history of Harold. Many persons of indubitable veracity, who had quite as favourable opportunities of knowing the truth, confirmed the testimony of Sebricht. Gurth, Harold's brother, who also survived the battle of Hastings, confidentially confirmed Sebricht's statement that the canons of Waltham were deceived as to the body of Harold, which had been interred at Waltham. Michael, a Canon of Waltham, who was alive when the narrative was written, had also conversed with Gurth on the subject. Two supplementary chapters contain the testimony of the recluse who immediately succeeded Harold in his cell at Chester, who quotes the information he received from Harold's confidential attendant, named Moyses, and that of Andrew the priest, to whom the dying King made his last confession. Nothing is known of the author of this narrative, but from internal evidence there is sufficient to prove that it was written about 150 years after the battle of Hastings.
According to the text of the Vita, Gurth is quite clear on the point:
- In the days of King Henry II., there was feen by that King himfelf, as well as the nobles and people of the land, a brother of Harold named Gurth, whom the above-mentioned hiftorian in his book relates at the time of the arrival of the Normans to have been in years little more than a boy, but in wifdom and uprightnefs of mind, almoft a man. But he was, at the period we fpeak of, of a great age, and, as we heard from many who faw him at that time, beautiful to look upon, noble in mien, and very tall in figure. The Abbot of the regular canons at Waltham, the Lord Walter, of pious memory, was the firft to fee him; and was very eager to aik him, as well as his brothers, who were about the King's Court at Woodftock, whether in real truth the afhes of his brother were preferved in their monaftery, as was generally believed. He replied in Englifh, "You may have fome countryman, but you have not Harold." Yet he came to the place himfelf to worfhip the Holy Crofs, and when his brother's coffin was mown to him, look-ing afkance at it, faid : " Man knoweth not " (for fo he fware). "Harold lies not here."
The Vita ends with the hermit's dying confession that he was indeed Harold:
- "Verum eft quod rex fui quondam Anglic Haroldus nomine . nunc autem pauper et jacens in cinere . et ut celarem nomen meum appellari me feci nomine Christianum." (It is true that I was formerly the King of England, Harold by name, but now am I a poor man, lying in afhes ; and, that I might conceal my name, I caufed myfelf to be called Chriftian.")
While all this seems very convincing, being based on a book that can be traced back to the early middle ages, it has been said that the Vita is a fraud, written by the monks of Waltham Abbey to prove that Harold was buried elsewhere, and thereby please their new patron, Henry II, grandson of William. If this is a fraud, it seems a particularly odd way of going about things - why can't they just say that he is dead!
In his description of the City of Chester in the Polychronicon, Ranulf the monk of Chester makes passing mention of the supposed "retirement" of Harold to the Hermitage on the banks of the Dee.
- "Þere is here riȝtene dwellynge. Of kyng Haralde"
Perhaps the "Harold" story was just Hugh de Kevelioc trying to spread rumours that Henry II and the rest of the Angevins did not have a legitimate claim to the throne, so that he could set up an independent principality. Interestingly, the author of the "Vita Haroldi" also ascribs the story to a priest of St. John's named Andrew, and there was a Canon Andrew of St. John's who attested grants to St. Werburgh's in the period c. 1150-80. And then there is the Norse saga "Jatvarþar", which also has King Harold as a hermit living near Chester. The saga adds that it was there that King Harold spoke to King Henry I.
The story does seem remarkably persistent. Rudyard Kipling wrote a story, The Tree of Justice (1910), describing how an old man (blind in one eye) who turns out to be Harold is brought before Henry I. A very similar story "Wallingford Castle" was printed in the Metropolitan Magazine (see volume III, January June 1837 page 410).
- Years afterwards when the Norman yoke pressed heavily upon the English and the battle of Hastings had become a tale of sorrow which old men narrated by the light of the embers until warned to silence by the sullen tolling of the curfew there was a decrepit anchorite who inhabited a cell near the Abbey of St John at Chester where Edgar celebrated his triumph This recluse deeply scarred and blinded in his left eye lived in strict penitence and seclusion Henry I once visited the aged Hermit and had a long private discourse with him and on his death bed he declared to the attendant monks that he was Harold As the story is transmitted to us he had been secretly conveyed from the field to a castle probably of Dover where he continued concealed until he had the means of reaching the sanctuary where he expired. Anglo Saxon Period By Francis Palgrave
Finally, the "mad monk of Chester" turns up in one version of the Death of William Rufus
- "He fought on the side of the Saxons at Hastings and was left for dead on the field Some benevolent brothers of Walthain who went over the field after the battle in the hope that they might be of service to the wounded discovered some signs of life in this person and bore him to the Abbey There they succeeded in healing his wounds but could never prevail upon him to reveal his name or rank. From the richness of his dress and the value of the jewels which were found upon him he is supposed to have been a Saxon lord of distinction He afterwards became a brother of the order of St John at Chester and has rendered himself remarkable by his acts of piety and penitence but his misfortunes are supposed to have disordered his intellect". source: The Romance of History England By Henry Neele
In 1332, the monks of St Johns Church in Chester supposedly discovered his alleged remains, still "fragrant" and clad in leather hose, golden spurs, and crown. Admittedly, they were a bit short of cash at the time and a few pilgrims would have brought in some money. Supposedly, there is a 'secret passage' which links the Hermitage with St John's, so that the Hermit could attend mass without revealing himself.
It has also been suggested that the hermit in Chester was German Emperor Henry V. Henry V has a further connection with Chester - the altar tomb in the south aisle of the choir of the Cathedral Church of Chester, is said (by tradition) to be that of Henry V. (see Ormerod (New Edit. i. 295, see also 193)). The annals of Chester Cathedral state (for the year 1110):
- Henricus rex filius Willielmi Bastardi filiam suam Udescalco imperatori Alemanie dedit qui nunc Cestrie jacet. (King Henry, son of William the bastard, gave his daughter in marriage to Udescalcus, emperor of Germany, who now lies buried at Chester.)
According to the tale Henry abdicated, but then (instead of dying at Utrecht as historians relate) came to Chester, where he lived for many years as a hermit, died, and was buried in the church there. In the words of Gerald (Itinerarium Cambriæ, G. C. vi. 139)
- "Imperatorem itaque Romanum se jactat, hæc urbs (Cestria) habere sepultum. Qui quoniam suis diebus tam patrem carnalem, quam etiam spiritualem summum pontificem scilicet Paschalem incarceraverat, demum pœnitentia ductus, et ultroneus exul effectus, sanctam in eremo finibus istis vitam ut fertur consummavit."
Walter de Mapes (De Nugis Curialium, Distinctio V. cap. 6. 229, Cam. Soc.) mentions the belief that the emperor's death and burial as related by historians were fictitious, and that he really passed the remainder of his life in poverty, but makes no mention of his residence or burial at Chester. Ranulf Higden, in his Polychronicon (b. vii. c. xvi.) believes Gerald, whom he cites, and adds that the emperor lived ten years at Chester as a hermit under the name of Godescallus "quod sonat a Domino vocatum." Udescalcus (as used in the Cathedral records) is clearly the same name as Godescallus. Like the rumours about Harold a surviving Henry V would also undermine the claims of Henry II and the rest of the Angevins to legitimacy. If Henry V was not dead when his "widow" Matilda married Geoffrey Plantagenet, then their son (Henry II) would have been the product of an adulterous relationship.
In 1770 (according to Lysons' Magn. Brit. vol. ii) two skeletons were discovered here in coffin-shaped cavities, scooped out of the rock. Legend has it that Harold's queen, Aldgyth, became a nun in Chester and when she died, she was said to have been buried in the grounds of St. John's. Two bodies - perhaps Harold and his queen together again at last? Another version of the story states that Queen Aldgyth, gave birth to King Harold's son, (Harold Haroldson) at Chester in 1067, and it was the revolt against William, now crowned King of England, led by Aldgyth's brothers, Edwin and Morcar, which led to William's nightmare winter march from Yorkshire in the winter of 1069/70 and the brother's defeat at Stafford, the fall of the Chester and the harrowing of land about. Aldgyth fled with her infant son to Dublin, and disappeared from recorded history, however Harold's sons also went to Dublin with their huscarls to seek aid from King Harold's friend, King Diarmait. In the summer 1068 they were back with a force of Dublin Norse mercenaries. The connection with Chester is that there was also a sizeable Hiberno-Norse community here.
The whereabouts of Harold's mortal remains will perhaps continue to be a mystery, however, the marked gravesite at Waltham Abbey was once excavated out of curiosity - and it was found to be empty. Waltham may however provide another answer to the question of where the legend came from, as there is a story that Harold's son (also called Harold) became a monk at Waltham Abbey and is said to have met Henry I, leading to the idea that Harold Godwinson had survived, instead of Harold Haroldson. Harold remains the only king of England since the time of Edward the Confessor whose final resting place is unknown (one could have quibbled about Richard III, until he turned up some years after this article was written) .. but perhaps Harold is not even "at rest"..
Now converted into a cosy, centrally heated, two bedroomed house, the cell has a rapid turnover of owners - local rumour suggests recent occupiers left soon after a terrifying experience one night when a heavy oak door was inexplicably ripped from its hinges in front of their eyes. A further rumour (without any substantiation at all) suggests that these unfortunate tenants were French! (not a good idea, as Harold's ghost might just have a few anti-French feelings). The local "ghost register" also states that the area is haunted by "a monk in a dark habit who occasionally accosts witnesses in 'Haunted Alley' beside St John's Church, speaking a guttural Saxon-like language."
The first modern sighting of the ghost comes from a rather trustworthy source (if the story is to be believed). In 1941 a Franciscan Friar and a man were walking the grounds of St Johns church when "a monk" is said to have appeared before them. The two men turned in a different direction only to be again confronted by the mysterious "monk" who was talking to them in a strange language. The story goes that both men were interested in languages and so, after some research, they came to the conclusion that the monk was speaking Anglo-Saxon. Another encounter with the monk is said to have happened in December 1973 when a college lecturer was making his way home around midnight. He used the cobbled alley near the church when the monk appeared before him on the footpath. The monk tried speaking to the man but the man did not understand. The monk looked very distressed and held out his hands, as if pleading with the man. The man continued around the monk, but, having a second thought, turned around only to see that the monk had disappeared. Others that have reputedly seen a spectral monk include a woman on her way to her daughter's wedding at St Johns and a schoolboy who was much shaken by the apparition. Curiously, the foot of this route down to the River Dee used to be the site of the ancient landmark Jacobs Well - prior to 1923 when the well was moved to Grosvenor Park.
In the final reckoning, the legend of Harold at Chester is probably a mixture of myth and wishful thinking - a refusal to accept the death of a King whose times, with hindsight, might have seemed like a golden age in the Anarchy that was to follow. If only we had the last section of the Bayeux Tapestry, possibly showing the burial of Harold, or perhaps a mysterious one-eyed monk.. (good basis for another "Chester Mystery" there..).
However, if you are ever on that path alone at night and encounter a ghostly monk, do try the Anglo-Saxon phrase: "ferþu hal, god cyning" ("go well, good king") - and don't fear to shed a tear, he probably deserves it - this (perhaps troubled) spirit isn't one to be dispelled by "bell, book and candle".
Sources and Links
- Vita Haroldi. The romance of the life of Harold, king of England.
- Anchorites Cell on Wikipedia;
- Anchorites Cell at English Heritage;
- A. T. Thacker, 'Chester and Gloucester: Early Eccl. Organization in Two Mercian Burhs', Northern Hist. xviii. 199-200; P.N. Ches. iv. 151; V.C.H. Ches. i. 239; Bede, Eccl. Hist. 140-2; cf. N. J. Higham, Origins of Ches. 85-7.
- P. Carrington, Eng. Heritage Bk. of Chester, 53; cf. S. Ward and others, Excavations at Chester: Saxon Occupation within Roman Fortress, 32-5; V.C.H. Ches. i. 238.
- Northern Hist. xviii. 200-1.
- P.N. Ches. v (1:i), 68-9; M. Gelling, Signposts to the Past, 134-7, 154-7.
- Two Saxon Chrons. ed. C. Plummer and J. Earle, i. 87-8; A.-S. Chron. iii, ed. J. M. Bately, pp. xxv-xxxiv, 58.
- G. Webster, 'Chester in the Dark Ages', J.C.A.S. xxxviii. 42-3; A.-S. Chron. ed. D. Whitelock (1961), 56.
- Early medieval Chester 400-1230
- A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3
- Haunted Chester;
- Hemmingway on Harold
- Ranulf and the Civil War
- More stuff on why the arrow story might be a fabrication
- Harold's Death
- Harold's family
- A blog on the subject
- The Shropshire Hermitage?
- Hermits in Cheshire