Godric of Finchale (c.1070-1170) began his life as the son of a poor Anglo-Saxon farming couple in Norfolk, Aeilward and Aedwen. He ended it as a saintly hermit, formally associated with the monastic priory of Durham Cathedral and considered a miracle-working holy man by local society. As an acknowledged saint, he is the subject of an enormous biography, or hagiographical vita, by a Durham monk named Reginald of Durham. Reginald was a close attendant on Godric in his later years. He began his vita up to a decade before Godric’s death, and its first audiences would have known the hermit very well.
|Later depiction of Godric from Wikipedia Commons. Source: British Library MS Cotton Faustina B VI, part II|
Godric’s grew up poor and unlettered. In his early life, he had a successful career as an international merchant. Yet worldly wealth did not satisfy him. He travelled on many pilgrimages as part of his trading activity. A visit to the island of Farne, one of the places where St Cuthbert of Durham had lived as a hermit, encouraged him to consider a very specific form of spiritual life: the solitary career of the recluse.
|This image from the British Library shows a hermit in his cave being tempted by a devil. It comes from f.113 v of BL MS Royal 10 E IV ('Smithfield Decretals'), an early fourteenth century set of illustrated legal texts. It remains copyright of the British Library|
Hermits withdrew from society to live an austere life of prayer and devotional meditation- barely eating, barely sleeping, and living alone in the local wilderness. They might become famous for their great devotion. Hermits frequently ended up surrounded (much to their disgust) by others. A religious community might grow up around their cell, while local people would seek them out for advice and spiritual counsel. They might have visions and receive prophecies. They might regularly work miracles for those who came asking for their help. A hermit was not an outlaw: he gained permission, usually from the local bishop, to live in a remote place in this very demanding spiritual way.
|Here the hermit is shown as a 'wild man' with his body covered in hairs: f.118r, BL MS Royal 10 E IV, copyright of the British Library|
Godric clearly became deeply conflicted about what to do with his life. Abandoning his mercantile career, he visited Jerusalem and on the way back, Santiago de Compostela. He worked as a steward in a secular household. He went on further pilgrimages, including visiting Rome with his elderly mother. After this trip, Godric sold all his worldly goods and set off to find a hermitage. Around 1106, he seems to have begun his spiritual ‘apprenticeship’, living near Carlisle with an elderly solitary called Aelric. After Aelric’s death in 1108, Godric set out again for Jerusalem.
|Hermits were visited by local people. Here, we see a man with a letter visiting the hermit in his cave: f.136, BL MS Royal 10 E IV, copyright of the British Library|
Just like the first time he travelled to Jerusalem, Godric formally took the cross, receiving the Dominicae vexillum crucis, the banner of the Lord’s Cross, along with a blessing from a priest as part as a formal ceremony. Today, we might think of ‘taking the cross’ in purely military terms. But for medieval people, crusading was simply another type of (armed) pilgrimage. It was not a contradiction for Godric to be a crusader and a penitent pilgrim. Although it is extremely unlikely that Godric ever intended to do any kind of physical fighting in the Holy Land, he may well have seen his journey as a form of spiritual warfare. Assuming the Cross ‘on his shoulder’ also had practical benefits. It marked Godric out as a pilgrim to strangers: as someone who should be given food, alms and hospitality, and generally helped along his way in return for prayers and blessings.
For further reading see:
Christopher Tyerman, England and the Crusades, 1095-1588 (Chicago, 1988), pp.26-27
Libellus de Vita et Miraculis S. Godrici, Heremitae de Finchale. Auctore Reginaldo Monacho Dunelmensi. Surtees Society 20 (London, 1845)