The photo shows the entrance to one of the least known hideaways in Westminster Abbey. And hideaway it certainly was, in the best possible sense of the word. It was through the doorway on the right of the photo that the Abbey’s anchorite would pass, seldom to see the light of day again. He – or very occasionally she – would retire for a life of prayer and contemplation except for food deliveries and unusual occasions.
One such moment was when Henry V, mourning the death in 1413 of his father (which took place in Westminster Abbey as it happens), went to the anchorite with the purpose of, as Shakespeare put it, “laying bare to him the secret sins of his whole life”.
Previously, during the Peasants’ Revolt against the poll tax in 1381, Richard II left the Tower of London to escape the violence and visit the shrine of Edward the Confessor at the Abbey, where he had his confession heard by the anchorite, a word that comes from the Greek word “to withdraw”. (One of the most unusual anchorites was St. Simeon Stylites – 390-459 – who apparently spent three years in a hut before establishing his dwelling on top of a 60 foot column).
The anchorage at Westminster is close to Poet’s Corner on the right hand side of the chapel of St Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order, which ran the monastery at Westminster until Henry VIII’s dissolution in the 1530s. It had four stone walls with a window on to St Benedict’s Chapel so the occupant could partake in services. He would be served with food by an attendant, who would also deal with matters of personal hygiene.
Anchorites have largely disappeared from religious life. It could be argued, though, that they have reappeared, involuntarily, in secular form as a consequence of the Covid-19 epidemic, which has led to lots of people, particularly older ones, being isolated in small rooms, often left to themselves throughout the day and night alleviated only by carers or relatives bringing food. Anchorites, of course, did this as a conscious choice to achieve spiritual fulfilment, whereas with modern day anchorites it often leads to depression.
The doorway to the anchorage, which has a bust of a monk above it – presumably St Benedict – was only rediscovered in 1878 during cleaning work, when a stone tablet was removed. The location of the cell had remained a mystery since being demolished at the dissolution of the monasteries. Even today you get an eerie feeling looking at this door to eternity.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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