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by Richenda Fairhurst, historyfish.net. August 2008.
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V. HIGHWAY AND BRIDGE HERMITS
“To ordain a
hermit to stay in
the hermitage and labour with his
Sir Thomas Malory, looking back in imagination to the golden age of King Arthur, says that “in these dayes it was not the guyse of heremytes as is now a dayes”. Formerly, they had been men of worship and prowess : “and the heremytes helde grete housholde, and refressehed peple that were in distresse”. During the Middle Ages, however, ministering hermits, often of the peasant class, were found throughout the country, dwelling beside the highways, bridges, and fords. Their duties were those of host, guide, light-bearer, labourer, alms-gatherer, turnpike man, or bridge-warden.
year 1114, Goathland hermitage, on the moors near
acted as guides at the passages of rivers.
There were cells above Rownham Ferry near
The work of light-bearer at the riverside is illustrated by the story of St. Christopher. In that beautiful legend it is a hermit who bids Offerus serve travellers, and lights the
giant in his
pious labours. In many drawings of St.
Christopher depicted on the walls of our ancient churches, the solitary
on the bank with a huge lantern, to light him as he fords the river,
the Christ-Child ; as, for example, in the wall-paintings at St.
Winchester (now destroyed), and at Poughill (restored).
The painting in Shorwell church shows on one
shore a cell, and on the other a tripod-beacon and cross.1 That in St.
begin to appear early in the fourteenth century. Throughout
the Middle Ages the upkeep of
highways was left to the charity of the few.
Some of the religious houses did their share, and the
almsdeeds in this form. Langland, the
fourteenth-century social reformer, exhorted the charitable to repair
ways” and “brygges to-broke”. The
complaint of the ancient rhyme that “
bridge-maker’s chief duty was to raise funds for materials and wages. Brother John le Marechal went about the
country collecting alms for the sustenance of himself and of the men
the causeway between
--blank page, not numbered--
The office of these bridge-keepers was at once secular and religious. One of the hermits of Lancaster brought twenty-six oaks from John of Gaunt ; he paid for them in advance and selected them with the chief forester of Wyresdale.2 Another, thirty years later, received from Henry of Lancaster, after his accession, a gift of vestments of his chapel : Item, a lermite de Lancastre un chesible, aube, amite, stole, et fanon, deux draps dor ragmas rouges, un corporas et un towaille.3 The keepers of this “Bridge of Loyne” received a yearly grant from the Duchy.
sometimes granted material assistance.
The king, as Earl of Chester or Duke of Lancaster,
supported work which
was designed to benefit his tenants. By
writ of Richard II, the forester of Mara was ordered to deliver to the
of Tarvin one oak for the repair of “Holmestrete” and of Stanford
bridge. Henry IV granted five timber
that lay in the hands of such men is illustrated by the story of one
In the forest, the labours of the roadmender were most necessary. The rough tracks were often impassable on account of fallen trees, and deep ruts in the mire, whilst the low wooden bridges of remote country districts were frequently swept away in flood-time. Several instances from the neighbourhood of
Travellers in the fens were constantly in peril. It can have been no light task to keep open several miles of highway, which, in that land of watercourses, suffered from serious inundations. The absolute necessity of the work is set forth in an indulgence issued by the Bishop of Ely (1458) in order to facilitate communications with the cathedral city :—
“Since our church of Ely is surrounded by waters and marshes, and the relics of the Holy Virgins lying in it can only be visited over bridges and causeys, requiring daily repair, we commend to your charity William Grene, hermit, who, at our command and with consent of our church of Ely, has undertaken the repair of the causeys and bridges of Stuntneye and Some”.
About the year 1400 there are frequent grants of a similar character in the Episcopal regisers.5 At Cambridge one man
had charge of
the great bridge at the Castle end of the town, and of two lesser ones
branches of the river at Newnham, and also of the road to Barton ;
the road towards Trumpington. A certain
John Lucas kept the bridge and causeway between Great and Little
later, he made
When funds were being raised, the collector required either an Episcopal or royal certificate, which might run as follows :—
“Edward the king [no date] hearing that Newbrygge and the two causeys leading from it, the one to Standlake and the other to Kingston, all of which were made of charity by John Golofre, knight, deceased, are out of repair and dangerous, gives his protection to Thomas Brigges, hermit dwelling by that bridge, who, moved by piety, proposes to collect money in Oxon, Berks, and Gloucester for the repair of the bridge and causeys”.
About the year 1434 there was a hermit of Newbridge who was highly respected. He made his office an opportunity for talking openly on the subject of temptation and sin. The learned Thomas Gascoigne, who doubtless heard him when on his way to Oxford, gives in his theological dictionary a brief account of “good William of Cormwall”.6
The office of bridge-warden was one which was liable to abuse. Some of the persons placed in these independent positions proved untrustworthy. In Piers Plowman, Langland inveighs against false hermits that “edify” the highway—men who were once labourers and ill off, but took the habit for the sake of an idle life, preferring alms to wages. He pictures a time of dearth, when even hermits seized spades and dug, in dread of death by hunger. Langland would have rich men give to the lunatic rather than to the “loller,” who gathers alms at eventide to rest his back by the hot coals, drink deep, and
go to bed ; rising when he will, he roams out to espy where he may get a repast—a round of bacon, some meat, a loaf of at least a half a loaf, a lump of cheese—and carries it home to his cot. Thus does he live “in ydelnesse and in ese and by others trauayle”. The roadmender, indeed, was much in the world and might readily fall into bad company. Langland’s Glutton finds a hermit in the tavern with a pedlar, a ratcatcher, and the hangman of Tyburn.7
of St. James near
The vow of Richard Ludlow of Maidenhead shows the abuses of which this office, at once religious and secular, was liable. He undertook to have the minister’s profession in worship and reverence, to live to his life’s end in temperance, soberness, and chastity, to eschew all open spectacles, common scot-ales, taverns, and other suspect places of sin ; to hear Mass, pray, and fast ; and lastly, he undertook that whatever he should receive by way of charity, he would expend truly, without deceit, upon the mending of the bridge and common ways of the town, reserving only sufficient to support himself. The bishop’s charge in the office for the benediction of a hermit (see Appendix B), included a clause declaring that he must labour with his hands in order to obtain food, and also in making roads and bridges : “for idleness is the enemy of the soul.”
In too many cases, however, these men were expected
important duties without being responsible to any competent local
authority. This seems to have been
remedied to some extent during the fifteenth century.
Henry IV when granting pontage to the hermit
of Stony Stratford appointed overseers of the repairs.
The public-spirited wardens of St.
Christopher’s gild, Thame, took the matter in hand, themselves
found a hermitage at Tetsworth “and to ordain a hermit to stay in the
and labour with his hands for the maintenance of the highway between
Stokenchurch and Hareford Bridge, which has long been a nuisance for
thereof”. The hermits of
Stratford-on-Avon were members of the town gild, which was a guarantee
of good conduct. The appointment to such
posts was often made
by the commonalty of the town.
Letters-patent sealed by the mayor of
and mending of roads continued to be regarded as a work of individual
private enterprise. Simon Cotes of
Westborne had the needs of travellers much on his heart ; he therefore
on his property the hermitage of
faithfully carried out, were appreciated by the people, as appears from
bequests. A butcher of
the causey” ; after describing the situation of the stony bit of street, the testator offers a like sum for the repair of a little causeway between the Tabard Inn and the stone bridge ; whilst a third installment is to be expended “at the discretion of the sayd Armytt” in filling up with ramell (rubbish) the holes in the street towards Coton.
As late as 1532 Nicolas Wodhull directs his executors to repair the hermitage “at the Brigg foot” at Banbury (i.e. in Grimsbury on the Northamptonshire side of the river), to place therein an honest man to pray for him and his friends.
The repair of bridges and of the adjoining highways became a matter for legislation in 1530-1. Justices of the Peace were charged to inquire “of anoysances of bridges broken in the highe wayes to the damage of the Kynges liege People”. In cases where no person was liable to repair them, taxes might be levied for this purpose by appointed collectors.8
close upon this statute, however, the Suppression of Religious Houses,
in the crippling of communications for many years.
After the Dissolution bridge-cells disappear,
like other religious institutions directly or indirectly associated
with the monastic
life. Leland notes : “At the very end of
Wayfaring men suffered sadly though the suppression of religious houses. The new owners of church property did not consider themselves to be under any obligation to carry on charities of this kind. The people preferred to be almsgivers rather than ratepayers. In 1588 they were complaining that since the Suppression they were burdened, taxed, and charged for the repair of divers great bridges. Even in the time of Queen Elizabeth, when the hermits of the highway were already dim figures of a bygone age, their work, however imperfect, won recognition as useful to their own days and to the days
that followed. In 1596 the story was being handed down in Highgate that : “Where now the Schole standeth was a hermitage, and the hermyte caused to be made the causeway betweene Highgate and Islington, and the gravell was had from the top of Highgate hill, where is now a standinge ponde of water”.
In due course, when the social upheaval of the sixteenth century had righted itself, things were placed on a sounder basis. It was, of course, far better that the maintenance of roads should become a public charge, organized by a local body which had continuity. The world of the pioneer need not, however, be forgotten, an it merits at least the slight record which had been attempted in this chapter.
1. Fourn. Brit. Arch.
Ass. x. pl. 10, 11 ; P. G. Stone, Antiq. I. of W.,
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