The hermit saint who lived in a Yorkshire cave
Yet pilgrims believed he could cure them of physical ailments, and flocked to seek his wisdom.
His name lay all but forgotten for centuries. But as they prepare to mark his anniversary, a new kind of celebrity is to be conferred upon him.
A volume of historical fiction about St Robert of Knaresborough is being prepared in his home town, for publication next autumn – the 800th anniversary of his death.
Peter Lacey, a member of the local Anglican community, who is writing it, said the short stories would be embroidered around the life of the hermit saint and those who came into contact with him.
“I wanted to write fiction that would put him into perspective, because he wasn’t the sort of hermit who sort of locked himself away and never connected – I think he just became dissatisfied with all,” Mr Lacey said.
However, there is no dispute that for the last 15 years of his life Robert lived away from whatever then constituted the rat race, in the cave that can still be found off Abbey Road.
“It was actually at the heart of a little community of labourers and others who administered the poor fund – what we would now call a food bank,” Mr Lacey said.
The earliest history of Robert, he added, was written down and translated within living memory and before the reformation.
“Sainthood was beckoning and there was a desire to extol his virtues. Even during his life he was quite a celebrity, not just in England but across Europe.”
Among the stories to be found in Latin and early English verse is one concerning his complaints about the king’s deer eating his crops. Sir William de Stuteville, the constable of Knaresborough Castle, accuses him of harbouring thieves and outlaws, and provokes Robert into trying to catch the offending beasts. According to the legend, the hermit manages not only to herd the deer into his barn as if they were a flock of tame sheep, but to also harnesses them to his plough and put them to work.
The story is told in seven stained glass panels originally installed at the 12th century Dale Abbey in Derbyshire and now at St Matthew’s, nearby. However, only one church in England takes its name from St Robert – just down the road from Knaresborough, at Pannal, on the fringe of Harrogate. It is running an £8,000 appeal to restore the clock face on its tower, in celebration of his anniversary.
Robert was never officially canonised. Born in York in 1160, the son of the mayor Touk Flower, he was a religious man from the outset. He became a sub-deacon and a novice at the Cistercian abbey of Newminster in Northumberland, but later decided he preferred his own brand of solitude.
He was apparently not enamoured by his fame as a holy man, and was “tempted to sin by women”. He was also said to have maintained an extremely poor diet, and to have found the monks at Hedley, near Tadcaster, with whom he tried living, “too easy going” for his liking.
King John visited St Robert at the Knaresborough cave, and his brother Walter, then the Mayor of York, paid for a chapel and other new buildings around his cave, the floor plan for which can still be seen.
In the years after his death, his shrine became a major pilgrimage centre.
Rev Garry Hinchcliffe, the rector of the Anglican churches in Knaresborough, is among those putting together the celebration of his life, which will culminate on September 24, the date designated as St Robert’s Day.
He is one of 20 Yorkshire saints, who also include Hilda of Whitby and Bosa of York.