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RELIGION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Oxford hermits charity fundraising contracts bridge maintenance testimonials officers lepers

Subject: Hermits used as agents for public charity
Original source: Items 1. and 2. Documents now known only through Twyne's transcription of 1624; item 3. Peterborough Cathedral, Snappe's Formulary, f.446
Transcription in: H.E. Salter, ed. Munimenta Civitatis Oxonie, (Devizes, 1920), 141, 154, 177.
Original language: Latin
Location: Oxford
Date: 14th century


[1. Presentation to a hermitage]

John de Hertwell mayor of Oxford, William de Codesale and Geoffrey Lodewell [bailiffs], together with the entire community of Oxford lease to John Bray of Shiplake, hermit, a plot of land with appurtenances in Swinsell, opposite the chapel of St. Nicholas and called St. Nicholas' yard, in the county of Berkshire, for 12d. annually etc. Given at Oxford on 28 February 1365. By this indenture he is obligated to repair and maintain all those buildings presently standing or that will be constructed in the future.

[2. A leper? appointed to the post]

Indenture by which William le Northerne mayor of Oxford and the entire community of that town lease to John Leper a plot of land next to Cowmead in the county of Berkshire, called the Bridgewright's Place, opposite the chapel of St. Nicholas, for the term of his life for an annual rent of 12d. [payable] quarterly. For the term of his life, John is to maintain, repair and support the bridge of Grandpont both on the inner and the outer sides of the New Gate, using the alms given and bestowed for that gate and what he receives for himself, and is to preserve the plot and the buildings presently standing or to be constructed there in the future without any deterioration or damage. Should it happen that the rent be in arrears for a full year, or John be responsible for deterioration or damage to the land or the buildings, or fail to maintain the bridge, John acknowledges that the community and its successors will be fully within their rights to re-enter and repossess the land, buildings, and appurtenances, etc. Given at Oxford on 20 January 1377.

[3. Letter of reference for a hermit collecting alms for borough works]

Let it be made known to all people through this document that we, Richard de Garston mayor of the town of Oxford, William Ryvel and John Banbury bailiffs of that town, Walter Bowne, John Shawe, John Merston and Edmund Kenyan aldermen, with the consent and at the wishes of the entire community of the town of Oxford, have ordained and appointed William Cardon hermit, the bearer of this document, as warden of the great south bridge in the county of Berkshire. To live in the hermitage located there, as long as we wish it, to repair any defects found on the bridge and, in addition, to maintain various other places around the town of Oxford and correct anything found to be a threat to life and limb in the vicinity. Consequently, we humbly request each and every person who reads this letter that, when William comes to you seeking alms and collecting on behalf of the causes mentioned above and you do not feel inclined to be responsive, as a favour to us you give credence to William and that you show a willingness to give generously by way of charity whatever is within your means and pleasure, in support of the aforesaid project. In witness to which we have set the seal of the mayoralty of Oxford to this document. Given at Oxford on 10 November 1399.


Hermits, also known as anchorites, accepted poverty, deprivation and seclusion as part of their lives of contemplation and devotion. The Church tolerated rather than approved this form of religious expression, but hermits were on the whole well respected in lay society. How well they were supported by that society, in terms of charity, is less well understood. The third of the documents above indicates that charity was not more freely given in the Middle Ages than it is today, people being suspicious of beggars; a stationed supplicant might be more favoured than an itinerant one. Testaments occasionally include small charitable bequests to hermits, but far less frequently than to parish churches, communities of monks or friars, leper-houses, or the poor (on the other hand, hermits were likely fewer in number, the heyday for eremitical leanings having passed by the Late Middle Ages).

The above documents suggest that Oxford authorities were killing two birds with one stone: providing some support for those committed to a life of relative solitude, while also addressing the growing need for maintenance of civic works. The extracts from borough chamberlains' accounts made by Brian Twyne, Oxford university's first archivist, in the early seventeenth century show that during the 1360s, at least as early as 1363, the borough was providing the hermit of Grandpont with 13s.4d annually towards the costs of repairing "the south bridge of a certain school", with the money coming from the rent paid by the school.

The bridge in question lay across the Thames south of Oxford, controlling access to the causeway known as Grandpont, entering Oxford at its South Gate, one of the entrances through the town walls; from the late seventeenth century the South Bridge became known as Folly Bridge. Probably in the late thirteenth century the New Gate had been built atop the bridge, the outer fourth of which was turned into a drawbridge. In 1283 we hear of 12d. rent from a tenement in Oxford assigned to the pontarius of South Bridge, and it may be that this officer was a hermit from that time; hermits were appointed to the task up until the late fifteenth century. That the bridge was situated partly on land within the liberties of Oxford, and partly on Berkshire soil created a complication to arranging for financial support for repairs. The use of a hermit able to move about freely collecting alms may have tapped into diverse communities in a way that the Oxford authorities could not, had they sought a more conventional solution.

In these circumstances, clearly the hermit could not have been almost wholly divorced from society. But his work on behalf of the borough also provided him with somewhere to live at a modest rent. It is not certain whether John Leper was a hermit, or whether he was living alone and seeking alms because diseased, or again was perhaps leasing the property as a business arrangement – although that would seem to defeat the charitable aspect of the initiative. In a rental of town properties compile in 1387/88, John Leper is still paying 12d. a year for the plot on Grandpont. It is not unlikely that this man was a leper, living in isolation at the edge of town as a hermit would do; although leprosy was a term applied to a range of skin diseases in the Middle Ages, seclusion was the general approach insisted upon by lay authorities. However, we should not put too much reliance on surname evidence, for one of the chamberlains in 1363/64 was named John le Leper, and we hear again in the poll tax of 1380 of a married baker named John Leper, sufficiently well-to-do to have six servants.

That the alms collected by the hermit were insufficient to meet needs is suggested by a section of the 1404/05 chamberlains account, itemizing expenditures of almost 43s. on materials and labour for work on "the bridge at the new gate". Occasionally royal grants of pontage were obtained to help fund bridge repair.

Rochester provides another example of a town where a hermit was commissioned to travel around the parishes responsible for maintenance of its bridge, collecting donations for the upkeep. And in 1496, the Henley-on-Thames authorities decided "that Reginald Wynche hermit should be given a certain public letter under the seal of the community [authorizing] him begging [for money] for repairs to the chapel of St. Anne on the bridge and the highway there, continuing [in this task] from year to year while it suits the warden and the community." [P.M. Briers, ed. Henley Borough Records: Assembly Books i-iv, 1395-1543. Oxfordshire Record Society, 1960, 117.] A building adjacent to the chapel was later, suggestively, known as the hermitage.



A village some distance south of Oxford, near Henley-on-Thames.

Easements, rights of way, or other rights belonging to a piece of real estate; in medieval use, the term may also have occasionally encompassed physical attributes of the real estate other than the main house, such as garden and outbuildings.

Swyneshull in the original, this was a suburb surrounding the South Bridge, crossing the Thames to the south of Oxford, bearing part of the Grandpont a causeway heading north from the bridge into Oxford.

"chapel of St. Nicholas"
A wayside chapel, where alms could be collected.

A "great bridge" was said to have been built by one of the companions of the Conqueror, Robert d'Oilly, who also built Oxford's castle; later the name came to be used for the suburb lying between the South Gate and South Bridge. The bridge had four arches.

"New Gate"
This was built towards the southern end of the bridge, over the piers beyond the third arch.

"threat to life and limb"
Literally "perils"; the authorities probably had in mind things such as fallen trees, blocked ditches, holes in the road, etc.

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Created: March 14, 2003. © Stephen Alsford, 2003

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