A Medieval Oratory - A Possible Anchorhold in Surrey

18 May 2014

SIG: Archaeology and Heritage

The church of Saint Nicholas in the village of Compton in Surrey has, what is believed to be, an Anchorhold with access to a Medieval Oratory above, which was the ‘place of worship’ for an Anchorite.

An Anchorite (female: Anchoress) was a religious recluse and denotes someone who for religious reasons withdraws from secular society so as to be able to lead an intensely prayer-oriented, ascetic and, circumstances permitting, Eucharist-focussed life.

The Anchoritic life became widespread during the early and High Middle Ages.  A simple cell, also called an ‘anchorhold’ was built against one of the walls of the local village church.  Once the inhabitant had taken up residence, the Bishop would permanently brick up the door in a special ceremony.

Hearing Mass and receiving Holy Communion was possible through a small, shuttered window in the common wall facing the Sanctuary, called a ‘hagioscope’ or ‘squint’. There was also a small window facing the outside world, through which the inhabitant would receive food and other necessities and, in turn, could provide spiritual advice and counsel to visitors, as these men and women gained a reputation for wisdom.

Anchorites never left their cell, ate frugal meals, and spent their days in contemplative prayer.  Their bodily waste was managed by means of a chamber pot.  An idea of their daily routine can be gleaned from an anchoritic Rule known as Ancrene Wisse.

One very well known Medieval Anchoress is Julian of Norwich whose writings have left a lasting impression on Christian spirituality.  All Saints’ Church in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, still has its original 12th century Anchorhold, intact and still very much in use during the daily worship of the church.

Text and photograph by Ken Keen - the original image was printed using the Cyanotype-Rex process.

You can visit Ken Keen's gallery here