The Anchoress of Shere, Christine Carpenter

We had our very own Anchoress back in the 14th century. She lived in Ash and Willow cottages down by the Tillingbourne , the river which runs through the village, and her father was a carpenter by the name of William. Her name was Christine; the cottages are still there, lived in by generations of other families.

There have been more famous Anchoress’ in Christendom, at least one of whom became a saint, but I think they are all saints, willingly closing themselves off from the world to devote their lives to God. In 1329, our Christine asked to be perpetually enclosed in a cell attached to the wall of the village church, where the opening through which she received her food still exists.

She can’t have been much more than a teen-ager when she made the decision, a decision which was so binding that to change your mind was tantamount to excommunication, thus everlasting hell. But the church fathers investigated her, her family, her life, her friends, to assure themselves that she was indeed chaste and virtuous before they would allow her the privilege of being shut up in a cell. No therapy to help her decide if this ambition was what she really wanted, of course, just proof that she was good enough.

After their investigation as to whether or not she was worthy of such a splendid sacrifice, the then Bishop of Winchester, wrote:

That, whereas she desires for the fulfillment of a better life to remove herself, and spend her life in the service of God and in all sanctity and chastity in the churchyard of the parish church of Schire aforesaid, alongside the church there, striving with her whole heart to endure henceforth perpetual enclosure; we are please to grant her our consent in this matter…”

I often walk along the path in Albury Park, where livestock graze on each side of the fence in spring and summer. There are ancient oak and chestnut trees with trunks several feet in circumference, which she might have seen as younger trees; would have seen the same view as I do across the valley to wooded hills, and seen the spire of the same church. It is a beautiful world, inspiring and soothing. I can almost imagine her gratitude to her God for creating such a world, and to believe an even better one awaited the faithful.  I can understand her wanting to make this huge gesture with all the idealism and passion of a young teen-ager, not fully aware of the consequences.

Then, too, I can imagine that the lives of women were not so inviting to an intelligent and ambitious young woman, as I imagine she was to take such a step. She might have married a labourer , borne several children, half of whom would die, worked hard every day to keep up with the necessities of a large family. Or she might have become an ordinary nun, living in a convent, spending her days in prayer and contemplation with other nuns. But that would not have been enough for Christine.

So she was enclosed.

But in 1333 there is another document. It is a request for the re-enclosure of Christine. She had changed her mind, sometime between 1329 and October, 1332. Letters were written for her (she probably couldn’t write, females not being educated), requesting to be re-enclosed. We don’t know how long she was out of the cell, only that she “had left her cell inconstantly and returned to the world. Now with God’s help changed in heart, wishing to return to her former abode and calling, she has humbly petitioned us that she may be treated mercifully by the Apostolic See. Mercifully!!!!

The letter asked that she be permitted to return to her cell “lest by wandering any longer about the world she be exposed to the bites of the rapacious wolf and, which heaven forbid, her blood be required at your hands”.

Further, if she behaved herself after being re-enclosed, she would be granted a “penance in proportion to her sin; if, however, she neglects to come to you ….. henceforward she shall lapse into the sentence of excommunication. ” So “the said Christine shall be thrust back into the said re-enclosure”, there to contemplate her “nefarious” sin, and be saved .

It is difficult for my 21st century mind to wrap around the language of censure in these documents aimed at a young girl who changed her mind about being shut up in a cell for the rest of her life. Nothing could be more understandable. But it was breaking the vow which was such a huge sin; she might have lost her virginity, too, out here in the big, bad world, and thus her immortal soul!! There must have been tremendous pressure in the form of certain hellfire and guilt for a sensitive and religious young person to return to her cell. Cells and isolation in our day are forms of punishment. Back then, punishment for being human? For being susceptible to temptation? For being young and full of vitality? Was it a true choice for her to go back in?

We don’t know when she died. But I wonder, how long can you live without sunshine?

6 thoughts on “The Anchoress of Shere, Christine Carpenter

  1. www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=579324276

    Great insight into the mores of that century, Kay. You left me wanting to know more. What was her childhood like in a small village? In a permanent cell, who took care of the “necessities” in life for her? Did she ever get clean clothes? My mind just runs from our life now to her life then. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Lawrence Augustine

    I recently saw the movie “Anchoress” at the Cleveland Museum of Art which apparently is based on the life and experience of your Christine. Several discussions over coffee after asked a variety of questions but the most persistent one was the size of the cell. In the movie it was very tiny. There were standards for Anchorite cells and the size was to be approximately 12 foot square similar to the one Julian had at Norwich. Can you be of any help?
    Also the description of your village looks delightful. I will be sure to include it on my next trip over.
    Best regards for the New Year!
    Lawrence Seman
    Broadview Heights, Ohio
    USA

  3. Kathleen Hall

    Thanks for the comments. Laurence, Christine’s cell was torn down long ago, so I am not sure if the dimensions were standard for Anchoresses or not. The outline of the cell wall remains on the outside of the church, and trefoil shaped opening from what was the inside of the cell into the church. Someone wrote a book called The Anchoress of Shere, but it was a sort of macabre mystery story and not about her at all, according to the reviews I read. If there is a film about her I would love to see it, as anyone who has voluntarily enclosed themselves in a cell fascinates me in a horrible sort of way.
    It is a wonderful village, pretty and quaint, where there is a quality of kindness and willingness to help others which is amazing.
    It is well worth a visit.

  4. Lawrence Augustine

    Dear Kathleen Hall,
    Many thanks for your prompt reply. Here is a link to some info about the movie “The
    Anchoress”.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106271/
    One review I read said it was “wildly inaccurate”. Two of my favorite actors; Pete Postlethewaith, and Christopher Eccelston give very good performances.
    Shere does sound like a beautiful place and I hope to make it there some day. I had traveled for 10 years in the UK and had an idea to move across the pond but things didn’t work out. During my travels I had occasion to visit the reconstructed anchorhold at St. Julian’s in Norwich which is the size of a small cottage, almost half the size of the small church proper so when I saw the tiny space that Christine was interred in in the movie I thought to investigate. Another one I stumbled on to is in the chapel of St. Benedict at Westminster Abbey which was discovered by accident in the 1930’s when a statue was moved for cleaning. The people at the Abbey were very helpful pointing out the opening in the wall but beyond that it is not accessible to the public. Of further interest is the account of Richard II praying with the Abbey Anchorite befoe he went to face down Wat Tyler in the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381.
    I read about the book you mentioned and apparently it is a macarbe bit of fiction so I’ll pass on it. However I have read “Julian of Norwich” by Grace Jantzen a little gem that I picked up at the Friends Centre in Norwich and I can recommend that for more on the whole idea of what was going on at that time.
    I would be most grateful to hear If you ever come across any further info on Christine Carpenter. You can reach me at mustardseed000@gmail.com.
    Wishing you and yours all the very best for 2011!

  5. Lawrence Augustine

    Dear Kathleen,
    Can you please help with a travel question? I’m looking on the map and the National Rail website and it looks like the train from Waterloo to Guilford and the number 21 bus to Shere, or the train to Gomshall and then the number 21 bus to Shere. Any preference? Also Gomshall Mill looks good for lunch unless there is a good place in
    Shere.

  6. Kathleen Hall

    Dear Lawrence, either choice is more or less ok; Gomshall is closer to Shere (you can ALMOST walk it), but I am not sure the trains are very frequent. There will be more trains to Guildford, and you can either get off at Clandon, though I am not sure of bus service, or go on to Guildford and come back. Again, I know buses to Guildford will be frequent, but Clandon is closer.
    There are plenty of places to eat in Shere: The William Bray, a spruced up pub with good food; Kinghams, excellent food but need to reserve; The White Horse, an earthy pub with iffy service and food; and a tea room called The LUcky Duck. We get quite a few tourists and walkers here, so we are spoiled for choice.
    When are you coming?