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Derbyshire cave may have been hermitage for Anglo-Saxon king and saint

23 July 2021

EDMUND SIMONS, RAU

The hermit’s residence is inside the rock on the right; the private chapel is inside the rock on the left

The hermit’s residence is inside the rock on the right; the private chapel is inside the rock on the left

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have identified what they believe to be one of the earliest intact Christian religious complexes ever found in England.

Located in South Derbyshire, the complex consists of what appear to be a chapel and an accompanying hermitage, both carved out of a sandstone cliff overlooking a river. Until now, the complex was thought to be 18th-century, but detailed archaeological and historical research has revealed it to be much earlier — almost certainly Anglo-Saxon.

Probably “built” in or shortly before the 830s, it was, the research suggests, the home of a former Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria, Eardwulf, after he had been deposed in 830.

King Eardwulf was popularly regarded as a saint (known by the later Middle Ages as St Hardulph) at some stage after his death, which was probably from natural causes.

Despite its present appearance, 12 centuries ago, complete with wooden doors, whitewashed walls, and probable wall hangings and furniture, it would have been considered upmarket, at least in hermit cave-house terms.

EDMUND SIMONS, RAUThe deposed Anglo-Saxon king’s cave-house residence, with his private cave chapel behind it

As a place of religiously observant exile for an Anglo-Saxon king, the new discovery in many ways symbolises the chronic instability of early medieval English society and government.

King Eardwulf, who was exiled to his retirement cave, had originally come to the Northumbrian throne after the successive murder and overthrow of his two predecessors. He had himself survived an assassination attempt, and had been deposed twice.

In the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, England was made up of at least seven large kingdoms, ruled over (in aggregate over those centuries) by some 200 kings, of whom up to 16 per cent were murdered, a similar percentage were killed in battle, and about 33 per cent were peacefully removed. It is estimated that only about one third ended their reigns through natural death.

At least a dozen Anglo-Saxon kings were declared to be saints after their deaths, and miracles were sometimes attributed to them. In the case of Eardwulf/Hardulph, legends suggested that he had risen from the dead — having been killed by an assassin — and had “come back to life” to eventually become King of Northumbria.

Eardwulf appears to have been forced to retire and become a religious hermit in the three-room hermitage. It is likely that he was allowed to continue living only on condition that he became a monk and lived in relative isolation as a hermit under the supervision of the Church in the territory of his former arch-enemy, the King of Mercia.

EDMUND SIMONS, RAUInterior of the hermitage

A specialist in early medieval religious sites, Dr David Petts, of the University of Durham, said: “The discovery illuminates a particularly fascinating and troubled period in English history.”

As a patchwork quilt of often unstable and sometimes conflict-ridden mini-countries, much of England frequently consisted of failed states in which the only stable element was the Church.

The cave-house complex has been investigated by archaeologists from the Royal Agricultural University and Wessex Archaeology, and the findings were published this month in the Proceedings of the University of Bristol Speleological Society.

Edmund Simons, of the Royal Agricultural University, the project’s lead archaeologist, said that the newly discovered hermitage was “the oldest intact domestic interior in the UK — with doors, floor, roof, and windows”.

The narrow doorways and windows in the complex closely resemble Anglo-Saxon architecture, while a rock-cut pillar is similar to those in the famous ninth-century Anglo-Saxon church crypt at Repton near by.

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