Most 21st century worshippers at St Mary’s Church, Iffley knew that Annora lived as an anchoress here in the 13th century. We had been told of royal gifts of firewood from Henry III to Annore, recluse de Iftel. We squinted to make out the faint mark of an arch on the exterior of the south wall of the sanctuary and believed this to indicate the site of her cell. And we knew that Annora had dedicated the last years of her life to prayer. The notion that she had slept on the spot where she would be buried and, indeed, that the door of her cell had been sealed as soon as she entered it, tended to make us shudder and ask why?
On 7th July, in what was probably the 777th year since she died, Living Stones hosted a celebration in honour of Annora. Dr Hilary Pearson invited three eminent medieval historians to help her bring Annora and her world to life (not literally!).
Hilary filled us in on who Annora was. She told us about her mother, Maud de St Valery, who was said to have built a castle single-handed in one night, carrying the stones in her apron, and about her father, William de Briouze, who fell from royal grace thereby losing his great wealth and suffering the ‘disappearance’ (imprisonment and death) of his wife and eldest son. We were astonished to learn from Dr Henrietta Leyser that quite large numbers of women became recluses in the middle ages. Were they attracted by the dogged independence of the solitary (as opposed to monastic or domestic) life? Did they seek simplicity and relative safety and the chance to focus their thoughts on God? We learned how they were prepared for the life of devotion, what they read (Virgil and Horace were recommended for one would-be recluse), who vouched for them (vetting both their serious intentions and their ability to meet their material needs), and what they were not allowed to do (touch a man through their tiny window, for example). Dr Cate Gunn and Professor Catherine Innes-Parker spoke about two books that were specially written in the early 13th century for anchorites. An ‘Anchoritic Guide’, Ancrene Wisse, was written for three sisters as a set of rules and recommendations. It forbad the wearing of hedgehog skins as a self-inflicted penance: sackcloth and ashes were uncomfortable enough! A book of prayers was circulated among anchoresses at that time under the bewitching title, The Wooing Group. An anchoress’s maid was her lifeline not only for daily necessities but also as the carrier of messages and books between the community of anchoresses. Before the concluding service of Evensong, gloriously sung by the girl choristers of Frideswide Voices, Hilary vividly described the Service of Enclosure which ended with the sealing up of Annora’s anchorhold or cell. The booklet she produced to accompany these fascinating talks makes an informative and striking souvenir of the day.
I found the whole experience curiously moving. Annora was almost there! We still don’t know if Ancrene Wisse was translated into Norman French for her and her formidable sister, Loretta, (also an anchoress), or whether she refrained from gossiping with the villagers of Iffley, but there was a real feeling of there having been a very holy woman who was almost physically a part of the living stones of St Mary’s 777 years ago and who certainly prayed for our forebears. The very enjoyable talks, and the service of Evensong, were a powerful experience.
There were lots of enthusiastic comments from people who were there, including, ‘An amazing day!’ ‘I felt I had glimpsed a completely new world.’ ‘Starting evensong with Hildegard’s Virtutum sapientie was particularly moving.’ ‘I think [the booklet] is a great resource. I really like the double-page ‘visual guide’ at the end of the booklet.’ There are some copies of the booklet left over. If you would like to buy one for £5 please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you, Hilary. What an absolutely fascinating day. It was a real triumph, and all thanks to you! And thanks, too, to the Living Stones volunteers and cake-makers. Providing tea for 70 in thirty minutes flat was probably a record – and the choristers proved champion cake-eaters!