The Church Guide of St Mary’s Iffley alludes to a mysterious person called Annora, the anchoress, who lived for nine years enclosed in a cell beside the church in the thirteenth century. An anchoress is a recluse – someone who lives apart from other people. Such a way of spending time is so foreign to our ears that it is worth investigating who she was and why she did this.
She was born in about 1179. Her father was William de Braose, a powerful baron in the reigns of King Richard I and King John. He held lands in the borders between England and Wales, and his wife, Mathilda, who was a fiery tempered Norman lady brought with her to the marriage lands in Gloucestershire, near Tetbury. Annora had sixteen brothers and sisters and she was brought up in a household where talk of baronial wars and wars with the Welsh were part of the stuff of life. Only six of the children survived infancy. One brother, Giles, later became Bishop of Hereford, her sister Loretta became Countess of Leicester and she herself was married to Roger Mortimer. She brought as her marriage portion the lands near Tetbury that had belonged to her mother.
Her father was one of John’s supporters early in the reign, but about 1207 a fierce quarrel broke out between the two of them, and John was so enraged by William that he vented his wrath on the whole de Braose family. William de Braose was outlawed, Mathilda and their eldest son were put in Windsor Castle and left to starve to death. Loretta’s lands were seized, and she and Giles fled to France. Annora and four young nephews were imprisoned in Bristol Castle.
We know of Annora’s imprisonment because there is an order for her release in 1214. We can only guess at Annora’s fears and distress while she was in prison, knowing as she must have done of the painful death suffered by her mother and brother and wondering about her own fate and that of her nephews.
For some years after her release we have only negative information about her. She apparently had no children and her husband died in 1227. But her sister, Loretta, decided to become a recluse and retired to a cell near Canterbury. In 1232 Annora followed her example and came to Iffley. To choose to become a recluse was not as strange a decision to take then as it seems now. To live in a cell by a church was to be in the safest of all places, and certainly Annora had had her share of danger and distress.
But that is only a small part of story. At a time of untempered passion and violence such as this was, religious feeling also ran high. Everyone had an unquestioning belief in God and the prospect of heaven or hell after death was a part of everyone’s thinking. Many people were moved to give up their lives in total commitment to God in the community of a monastery. But there were fewer communities for women than for men, and considerable numbers of women decided to live by themselves a life of contemplation. These women were known as anchoresses – not as the medievals supposed because they were anchored to a church, but because of a Greek word, anachorein, meaning “to go apart”. In the twelfth to the thirteenth century there were 92 anchoresses in England (and only 20 anchorites).
There were accepted rules about how an anchoress should live. She was put under the protection of the Bishop, and he had to satisfy himself before she entered the life that she intended to remain in her cell until she died.
The Bishop had to ensure that she had enough resources to sustain her. Annora was allowed to retain her marriage portion, which amounted to l00s a year. In addition there will have been gifts from other persons including, no doubt, the people of Iffley. We have records that Henry III himself gave instructions almost every year that oaks from the forest Shotover should be sent to “Annora the recluse of Iftele” for firewood “as a gift from the King”. One occasion he also sent a sack of grain, on another a robe, and on another timbers for building.
On the floor of her cell there will have been a stone coffin lid to remind her of her death. The cell itself would have been built out of timber or stone. In fact it will have been more like a small house than a cell. It may have had a window through the church wall looking into the chancel so that she could see the altar and receive the sacrament. There was another window looking to the outside world through which she could talk to visitors – this was usually curtained so that her concentration on prayer should not be disturbed.
She was not allowed to leave her cell, but there was a room adjoining it where her maid or maids will have lived, and cooked for her, collected water and attended to the fire. She was not meant to live a hard ascetic life, but one with out luxury or disturbance. One of the maids could go and visit people in village and bring back news of importance. The local priest will have cared for her spiritually. She will have had books to read: the psalms, the offices and books on contemplation, and writing materials.
We do not have any record of any gifts being sent to her after 1241, and so it may be presumed that that was the date of her death, and that she was buried under the stone that had formed part of the floor of her cell.
Annora may have become an anchoress partly because, as a widow, she needed a safe haven in a turbulent world; but such a way of life could only have been chosen by someone who was highly motivated towards contemplation. Day after day she will have gazed on the altar in her cell and meditated on the psalms, on the lives of the saints and particularly the Virgin Mary — arid said monastic offices. The inner world will have been her reality.
What strikes a modern person is her willingness to stay in one place; to separate from the company of most other people, to have the thought of death constantly in mind, and to give up all ambition except the life of prayer. Of course there will have been times when this was hard, and indeed will have seemed well nigh impossible; but these times will no doubt have been followed by periods of assurance and delight.
Women such as Annora drew the attention of the church to the importance of the interior life and were responsible for the development of contemplative tradition in their time. We have no record of writings by Annora, but in the following century Julian of Norwich lived just such a life, and her writings are a source of inspiration even today.
Victoria. History of the county of Oxfordshire. p203
Powicke. Historical Essays in Honour of James Tait. VIII
Patricia Rosof. Anchoresses in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. PhD. Dissertation. NY Univ. 1978
Close Rolls of Henry III, 1231-4 p.500, 1237-42 pp.44.66, 269, 299.
Patent Rolls of Henry III 1225-32 pp.50.
Complete Peerage Vol. VI p.275