Anchorite Cell at St Luke's Church
At the end of the west wall of St Luke’s Church is a hole about 5'6" above the ground. The conventional explanation is that it is a leper’s squint, built to enable lepers and others forbidden from entering the church to view services. In this article, local historian Dave Blackburn argues for an alternative explanation – that there was an anchorite cell against the wall of the church.
Persecution of Christianity was so severe under the emperor Decius, AD249-251, that many Christians fled into the desert to preserve themselves - and their faith. During this period the first hermits are recorded. Later this habit of retreating from the world became an object in itself - either fully separated, as in a desert and alone, or as a recluse living alone but within society.
In the Middle Ages small cells were sometimes built against the walls of churches, usually on the north side, in which the recluse could live – these were known as anchorite cells. There would be an internal squint, or hagioscope, for viewing an altar, and an external hole through which food would be given by benefactors. I have examined two such external holes, one at St. Luke’s and one at Thurne in Norfolk. There are common features. Each is positioned at the west end; each is directed towards a religious building in the distance - the Abbey near Thurne and the Old Vicarage at Duston. Both are specially mounted at the outer end by a carved oolithic limestone orifice of similar dimensions with a circular hole of about 6” (15 cms) diameter. Each is worn externally. The inner is missing at St. Luke’s, but the similar orifice internally at Thurne is not worn.
Each church dates from a similar period: 12th to 14th C. (St. Luke’s); 13th to 15th C (Thurne). Each was connected to a monastery.
In the case of Thurne, the church is original, the inner cell being in the tower. There are no side aisles. St. Luke’s has a north aisle, in which such a cell could have been set. The side aisles at St. Luke’s are known to have contained altars and to have been dedicated as side chapels, prior to the Victorian restorations.
In both cases, the interpretation has been ‘lepers squint’ for the external orifice. Mark Child in Discovering Church Architecture (Shire Publications 2004), states that ‘lepers squints’ were ‘so named from the belief that lepers, who could not enter the church, used to see the mass in progress. The position of most such windows proves this to be untrue’. To this I would add a rider – at this time the mass tended to be an act of some secrecy with rood screens and officials tending to obscure the proceedings from the congregation.
There remains the suggestion of signalling. Each access hole is about, or would have been about, 4’0” (1m 20cms) deep, square in section with a flat floor and capped both ends by a limestone end piece, with the circular hole described. In case of difficulty, e.g. illness, hunger or danger to the anchorite or the church, a light could have been seen only from a very specific point directly opposite. In the case of Thurne, this would have been at the abbey gates some 1½ miles away; in the case of Duston, it would have been at the old vicarage about 50 yards away. Given the very similar construction in both cases, an anchorite cell appears to be the most plausible explanation, particularly taking into account the external wear pattern, suggesting food being pushed through the orifice over a long period.
My thanks to the producer of Riddles of the River with Bryan McNerney, Anglia Television, Northampton Central Library, the Parish of Thurne, Norfolk and the staff of Exeter Cathedral for their kind assistance in this investigation. D.B.