• Phil

Meditations from the Hermitage

I am writing at a time when many people will be feeling negative effects of isolation due to the "lockdown" restrictions. Many however have commented on some of the positives such as time to slow down from the distractions of everyday life and listen to bird song in a less polluted environment.

Over the centuries there have been many who have sought isolation. In my last post (CoVEntry Day) I mentioned that my own street - Hermitage Road in Wyken - is named after the farm on which it was built. That farm in turn took its name from being the site of a hermitage - i.e dwelling place of a hermit. All of this has the makings for an interesting story and I would like to find out more - who was the hermit(s)?, what were his (her?) beliefs and lifestyle? Were there other hermitages around Coventry?

Records show that Henry Ensor of “The Hermitage” was buried at St Mary Magdlene’s Church , Wyken Croft on 17th June 1907.

That church is recognised as the oldest standing building within Coventry’s modern boundaries. It was built by Ranulf, Earl of Chester and Lord of the Manor of Caludon in the early 1100s. The Earls of Chester had taken over Godiva's Caludon estate following the 1066 Norman invasion.

Mary Magdelene's Church burial records also give clues to the industrial past of the area with several references to Craven Colliery. The colliery was a neighbour of the church until its closure in the 1920s. It is also noticeable that the streets around the Barras Heath area get a mention in the early 1900s after these were built to house workers at the Cammell Laird Ordnamce Works in Red Lane. This was the biggest factory space in Europe at the time of its construction and included a railway line running through the centre of the site.

Earlier this year I gave a local history talk at a local angling club based in Dunchurch. My talk covered the history of that village, Draycote Water (the resevoir is situated on land once owned by Bagot, plunderer of Caludon Castle - see below!) and links to Coombe Abbey. By coincidence I was introduced to John Pearson, one of the club's members and learnt that he had been a mining engineer and that his family had brought the land of the Wyken coalfields from the Craven family of Coombe Abbey. Following WWII much of this land fell into public ownership including the parkland around Wyken Slough which was subject to a compulsory purchase order.

I had opened this history talk with a question “what is the purpose of a monk?”. After several suggestions were put forward I got to my point. Historically the rich and powerful would be “sponsors” of monasteries and other religious institutions on the understanding that monks and nuns would be employed to pray for their souls. As my locality was part of the Caludon Estate – part of the wealth of Godiva and subsequently a seat of Norman Earls and later home to some of the country's most powerful aristocratic families it is quite probable that one or more of the wealthy landlords would be willing to fund a hermitage on their estate with the understanding that the full time holy men would be putting in a good word for them!

The local monastries were central to the life of Coventry in medieval times. St Mary's priory, Coombe Abbey, Whitefriars, Greyfriars and the Charterhouse are all have interesting histories. The Chapter House of St Mary's Priory was home to English parliaments under both Henry IV and Henry VI in the 15th century.

Whitefriars, like St Mary's fell into the hands of John Hales (Civil Servant and property developer high in the service of Henry VIII) at the dissolution and became known as "Hales House". Hales converted the chapel at Whitefriars into the first King Henry VIII school before its move to "The Old Grammar School" building in the aptly named Hales Street. That building had previously been known as St John's Hospital (historically it was a hostel for returning Crusaders) and had also fallen into Hales' hands.

During reconstuction work at Caludon Castle the Berkeley family were invited to take up residence in part of Hales House - Henry Berkeley being godson to Henry VIII. Elizabeth I was a later visit to the house during her reign.

The Charterhouse has been in the news lately as excavation and restoration projects have been taking place there. The Carthusian monks at the Charterhouse although not hermits were a silent order and spent most of their time in solitary cells - one of which is being reconstructed as part of the project. The name "Charterhouse" suggests that the building once housed a charter of some sort - this could be expected of a monastic house. The name is actually a corruption of the French place name "Chartreuse" where the Carthusian order originated.

A link between the Charterhouse and the Caludon estate will be highlighted by the opening of a new footpath which will be named after Richard II and run along the disused railway line between Gosford Green and the monastry. Richard laid the foundation stone of the Charterhouse and also famously aborted a duel due to take place on Gosford Green. This scene is enacted in Shakespeare's history, "Richard II" following Thomas Mowbray's (Duke of Norfolk) ride out from his Caludon estate (passing the hermitage on the way!) to fight Henry Bolinbroke (Duke of Hereford) to the death. Each had accused the other of treason against Richard as they vied for power and influence. Bolinbroke had ridden out from Bagot's estate at Baginton for the fight. Bagot, Bolinbroke, Mowbray and Richard had all previously considered themselve allies and friends but the temptation of land and power proved to be a bigger motivator!

Richard aborted the duel and banished both of the combatants seizing their property for the crown. He appointed Bagot as steward over the Caludon estate which he subsequently plundered to enhance his own castle at Baginton.

Bolinbroke was to return to oust Richard and become Henry IV. An examination of the behaviour of all involved helps to explain why the royalty and aristocracy of the time may have felt the need to pay monks to pray for their souls!

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