Reasons for Designation
Following St Augustine's re-establishment of Christianity in AD 597,
monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular medieval
life in the British Isles. Although most monasticism centred on communities,
some men and women chose to live solitary lives of contemplation and
simplified religious observance, akin to those of the Christian fathers and
early British saints. They lived in what we now refer to as hermitages,
occupying secluded sites such as isolated islands and caves in river banks,
marshy areas or forests. The hermits lived off alms or under the patronage of
the nobility who established hermits to pray for the souls and well-being of
their families. Hermitages were generally simple, comprising a dwelling area,
an oratory or room set aside for private prayer, and perhaps a small chapel.
Hermitages fell out of favour with the general dissolution of religious
establishments in the middle of the 16th century. Around 500 hermitages are
known from documents but the locations of very few have been identified and
this is therefore a rare monument type. All examples which exhibit surviving
archaeological remains are worthy of protection.
The monument is a very rare surviving example of a medieval hermitage, which
includes both the hermit's cave and living area, as well as the remains of a
chapel. Although the chapel survives only as ruined foundations, the monument
as a whole is unique, given its association with a known and famous medieval
hermit, St Robert of Knaresborough.
The monument includes the medieval hermitage of St Robert, situated along
Abbey Road, on the north western bank of the River Nidd at the south eastern
end of Knaresborough.
The monument includes a cave, chapel and living area which were cut out of the
cliff face of the magnesian limestone bedrock.
The cave includes a plain `L' shaped chamber nearly 4m long east-west by 3m
north-south at its widest, which formed the hermit's living area.
Outside the cave entrance against the rock face of the cliff there is a low
rock-cut bench, beyond which is a further small living area to the north end
measuring approximately 3m square. To the east of this lies the remains of the
chapel, containing an altar area to the east and the site of St Robert's
grave, orientated east-west to the west of the altar area, towards the centre
of the chapel floor. This was cut into the rock in front of the altar step of
the chapel chancel, and was recessed to provide a covering slab flush with the
floor in the manner of important burials of that time. It measures 2m long by
between 0.35m-0.53m wide.
The chapel itself survives as the remains of low stone foundations for the
original chapel walls and measures approximately 6.25m long north east-south
west by about 3m wide north-south and is bounded by the edge of the bedrock
along its southern side, beyond which the land drops into the bank on the Nidd
River. The deviation from the usual east-west alignment is probably owing to
its restricted situation between the cliff face and the river bank.
The hermitage dates from c.1180, when Robert of Knaresborough, a renowned
local hermit, first occupied the cave. At this time, the cave was located
within what was then the Forest of Knaresborough.
Robert was the son of a leading citizen of York, and early in his life he took
a religious vocation, first briefly joining the Cistercian community at
Newminster in Northumberland. He did not remain there, however, moving firstly
to join an established hermit in Knaresborough by the Nidd, and then moving
from site to site. His reputation as a holy man and consequent popularity
rapidly spread, which caused him to become an object of persecution by the
local authorities for a while, in particular by the Constable of
Knaresborough, who repeatedly evicted him from the different sites he had
Robert returned to the cave by the River Nidd where his popularity continued
to grow. Tradition tells us that the constable had visions warning him to
cease his persecution of Robert, after which he was given a grant of land and
allowed to live there in peace.
Robert's brother Walter caused the small chapel - the chapel of the Holy Rood
- and living area to be built next to the cave for Robert, who had refused to
move to a more acceptable location such as a monastery. He spent the remainder
of his life there in contemplation and prayer, and eventually became renowned
across Europe during the 13th century, his cave and chapel becoming a focus
for pilgrims both during his life and following his death in 1218. In 1252 he
was recognised as a Saint in a Papal Bull although he was never officially
Robert was first buried in the chapel of the hermitage, but his body was later
moved to the priory in Knaresborough built by the Order of the Holy Trinity
for the Redemption of Captives from the Holy Land (the Trinitarians), who were
devotees of Robert.
The entire structure of the cave and the chapel, which together are Listed
Grade II*, with its living area, are included in the scheduling, which
includes the rock cliff face into which the cave is cut.
Modern stone walls and post and wire fences bounding the monument, steps and
hand rails of the steps leading down to the hermitage, together with
information plaques are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground
beneath them is included.
The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features,
considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.