AN ANCHORESS CELL
St. Julian’s church, Norwich
Unlike the Prior of Wymondham who had gone insane and, no doubt against his will, had been kept in a cage at Binham (see Binham Priory entry), hidden from the world, some individuals chose isolation quite voluntarily. An anchorite (female: anchoress) was such a person who, attached to a particular confined space, had retired from the world to devote themselves to prayer. Considered dead (having gone through a rite similar to a funeral service), they were viewed as holy and wise and answerable only to a bishop.
During the medieval period, more women led such an ascetic life than men. Following the horrors of the Black Death, anchorites and anchoresses became more numerous. They lived, singularly, in a confined cell attached to a church, sealed by walls and, bar windows to allow light in, a small window to observe the altar and an opening to allow the necessities of life to be taken in and handed out.
One such anchoress is known as St. Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416), whose cell was attached to the south side of the small church of St. Julian, in St. Julian’s Alley, just off King’s Street, Norwich. Her name is unknown and she is identified only by the church (Fig. 1) where she resided (she has never been officially canonized). Unfortunately, her cell (and the rest of the Saxo-Norman church, including its round tower) was badly damaged during a German air raid in 1942, but the walls remain (including Saxon occuli (round) windows which she would have walked by before confinement) and on the presumed site of the cell (which was used both before her arrival and after her death) there is a modern shrine.
Julian of Norwich, from a painting is Saints Andrew and March Church, Langham, Norfolk
Saint Julian (Fig. 2) wrote, Revelations of Divine Love, which tells of the sixteen visions she had in 1373. This, the first book written in English by a woman, is still a highly respected and influential work.
Saint Julian’s shrine is the focus of pilgrims from all over the world. When I visited (to enter the cell today, from the nave, one walks through a small, worn, but beautiful Norman arch), camera in hand, I felt it would have been singularly inappropriate to take photographs whilst people were in prayer in such a confined space - hence the lack of images here.