Exiled Medieval Anglo-Saxon King May Have Lived as Hermit in 9th-Century Cave Dwelling

Exiled Medieval Anglo-Saxon King May Have Lived as Hermit in 9th-Century Cave Dwelling

Archaeologists have identified an Anglo-Saxon cave house that may have belonged to a 9th-century king of Northumbria named Eardwulf. The discovery was made by the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) and Wessex Archaeology, which recently published their findings in the Proceedings of the University of Bristol Speleological Society.

The series of sandstone caves in Derbyshire, central England, were once believed to be follies—a popular 18th-century trend that involved elaborate structures with no real purpose, built mainly for decoration. New evidence, however, shows they were likely constructed or enlarged in the 9th century, after erosion from the River Trent had created natural caves at the site.

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Anglo-Saxon architecture is featured throughout the rock-cut dwelling, with narrow arched windows and doors, as well as a pillar that resembles the nearby Repton crypt from the same period. “Using detailed measurements, a drone survey, and a study of architectural details, it was possible to reconstruct the original plan of three rooms and easterly facing oratory, or chapel, with three apses,” Edmund Simons, principal investigator of the project and research fellow at RAU, said in a statement.

Anchor Church cave, as it is known locally, was rumored to house a medieval anchor or anchorite. Anchorites were religious hermits who removed themselves from society to focus on prayer and contemplation, living a life of solitude in a simple cell. Through a ritual funeral, they could become “dead” to the world and were colloquially considered to be a living saint. The caves were associated with Saint Hardulph in legends and folklore, and a 12th-century list of burials identifies the saint as Hardulfus rex, or King Eardwulf.

A Northumbrian king who ruled from 796 to 806 C.E., Eardwulf was deposed and exiled for reasons unknown, and fled south to the kingdom of Mercia in central England. It is here that Eardwulf appears to have taken up residence at Anchor Church cave, and became known as Saint Hardulph.

One 16th-century book refers to the incident as “that time Saint Hardulph has a cell in a cliff.” Simons said in his statement, “It was not unusual for deposed or retired royalty to take up a religious life during this period, gaining sanctity and in some cases canonisation. Living in a cave as a hermit would have been one way this could have been achieved.”

When he died in 830 C.E., Hardulph was buried only 5 miles away from the Anchor Church cave. Vikings soon set up a winter camp in the region, indicating that it was mostly abandoned by then. The next known use of the caves was in the 18th century, when they were altered to host dinner parties for aristocrats like Sir Robert Burdett. Researchers believe Burdett had brickwork and window frames added, and widened the doors to accommodate the large bustles of the era’s dresses.

According to Simons, Hardulph lived in the only intact domestic interior known to have survived from the Anglo-Saxon period, but the cave dwelling may soon be joined by others. “This project has so far identified more than 20 other sites in the West Midlands that could date from as early as the 5th century,” he said in his statement.

The team plans to conduct further investigations, and will perform testing to confirm the dates of Anchor Church cave. Mark Horton, a professor of archaeology at RAU, said in a statement, “It is extraordinary that domestic buildings over 1,200 years old survive in plain sight, unrecognised by historians, antiquarians and archaeologists.”

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