And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The hairy gown and mossy cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every star that Heav'n doth shew,
And every herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain.
These pleasures, Melancholy, give,
And I with thee will choose to live.

(John Milton, Il Penseroso)

The spring has finally arrived, and I am looking so much forward to resuming my explorations of British stately homes. Even if one has already visited quite a few, there is still a lot to discover. While recently taking the Long Walk and strolling through the vast eighteenth-century park in Kedleston Hall I chanced upon a small picturesque stone house with an imposing arched doorway and a conical thatched roof. I was delighted by my discovery: huddled up to a mighty plane tree, it stood there as if straight out of a fairy tale. An ideal hobbit’s dwelling, perhaps? As I subsequently found out, “hermitages” like that one were very much in fashion at the time and graced the parks of Stourhead, Stowe, Twickenham, Belton House, Goodwood and many others.

In the 1760s, Lord Scarsdale, the owner of Kedleston Hall, and famous Georgian architect Robert Adam conceived a three-mile circuit walk around the grounds at Kedleston, with views on the house, the country beyond, and some accompanying buildings. This route came to be known as the Long Walk. Bordered by flowering shrubs and trees, it was punctuated with occasional architectural features, such as Turkish Tent and the Hermitage. Unfortunately, it is only the latter that survives today, overlooking the scenic countryside from the hill. As some sources suggest, it was used by the owner and his family as a summer house and a tranquil spot for refreshments, where they could rest and drink tea (the place was even furnished with a mahogany tea table).

“The walls to be built of flints or rough stones and lined with wool or other warm substance such as moss and [it] should be situated on a rising ground planted with evergreen.” This is a quote from the popular book by architect William Wrighte known as Grotesque Garden Buildings (1767), where he explained how to build a winter hermitage. Apparently, the structure at Kedleston Hall was built according to these instructions.

So, why would wealthy English aristocrats be so keen to set up hermitages in their parks? Perhaps, some historical explanation might help. Hermitages, as ornamental buildings, started to appear in English landscape gardens from around 1730. Among the first was the Hermitage at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, designed in 1730 by architect William Kent. Such structures served as reminders of the transience of life, and perfectly embodied the philosophical spirit of the Age of Enlightenment, with its love of moral didacticism. However, the tradition of hermitages as a form of religious ascetic practice stems from much earlier days of Christianity.

In early Christianity, a hermitage was a place, usually in the desert, where monks, or hermits, lived on their own to escape the temptations of the world and expiate their sins. This tradition was especially popular from the Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. In Europe, the hermitages were established in remote places, such as islands, forests and hills, caves, coasts, or highways. Occasionally, hermitages could be found in towns: some of them ended up incorporated into the town walls and gates, lighthouse towers and bridges. Gradually, their role and significance diminished until they entirely disappeared.

A new surge of interest in hermitages could be registered during the Renaissance, after the villa of Roman emperor Hadrian was excavated at Tivoli. The first documented rediscovery of the Villa was by Historian Biondo Flavio in the late fifteenth century. The second excavation took place early in the sixteenth century, when Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este had much of the remaining marble and statues in Hadrian's Villa removed to decorate his own Villa d'Este located nearby. It was at that stage that a small lake with a structure built for retreat was discovered. When the ruins of this early hermitage were unearthed, it was suggested that Pope Pius IV build one for himself, which he did at the Casina Pio IV.

However, as Gordon Campbell, the Renaissance Studies professor at the University of Leicester, wrote in his book The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome, the earliest hermitage was documented near Rouen, in northern France at Château de Gaillon, the first Renaissance château in France. “The château was built by Cardinal Georges d’Amboise, archbishop of Rouen and minister of King Louis XII, and was designed to serve as his summer archiepiscopal residence.

Construction began in 1502, and in the same year the cardinal-archbishop commissioned the Italian priest and garden designer Pacello da Mercogliano to lay out the gardens. Within these gardens there was a private retreat called Le Lydieu, which contained a small house, a chapel, a small garden, and the first garden hermitage in France.

In the 1550s Charles Cardinal de Bourbon decided to aggrandize this part of the garden in imitation of similar gardens built by Italian princes of the church. The small house became a sumptuous two-storey white marble pavilion called the Maison Blanche, which was set on an island at one end of a short canal dug for the purpose. At the other end of the canal a rockwork hermitage was constructed on an island in a large water tank.”

At the same time, hermitages grew in popularity in Spain. The Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V decided to spend his final years in eremitical seclusion at the Hieronymite monastery of Yuste in Estremadura, central Spain. He withdrew there in 1556, after his abdication from the throne. For that purpose, he commissioned the construction of a miniature palace on the hill below the cloister. “His bedroom adjoined the monastery church, from which it was separated by a glazed door. This arrangement meant that he could attend mass without having to get out of bed, which was a great convenience for a man with gout.” However, the emperor lasted as a hermit-monk for only two years.

Shortly before his death in 1558 he asked his son, King Philip II of Spain, to construct an appropriate tomb – a request that resulted in the palace of Escorial, which connected a royal residence with the Hieronymite monastery, and accommodated the royal tomb. Almost a century later, the palace of Buen Retiro on the eastern edge of Madrid became the project undertaken by King Philip IV with the same purpose to build his own version of a royal hermitage. In the eighteenth century, this tradition of palatial royal hermitages found its further expression in the hameau (hamlet) at Versailles and a ferme ornée (ornamented farm) adjacent to Petit Trianon, both being playgrounds of Queen Marie-Antoinette, and finally culminated in the sumptuous complex of buildings commissioned by Catherine II, and known today as the Hermitage.

Another famous inspiration for English landscape parks was the seventeenth-century Villa Cetinale built in the Roman Baroque style in Tuscany, ten kilometres west of Siena. Surrounded by beautiful gardens and a holy wood known as the Thebaid (a reference to the early monastic Christian settlement in Egypt), it was overlooked by a five-storey hermitage, completed in 1713-16 and known as the Romitorio. The Romitorio, that still survives today, was inhabited by monks who may have been Europe’s last religious garden hermits that remained there until the nineteenth century. The villa was completed in 1680 by Cardinal Flavio Chigi (1631-1693), who inherited it from his Uncle, Fabio Chigi (Pope Alexander VII) in 1655. To redesign the villa, Flavio Chigi employed Bernini’s famous student Carlo Fontana.

There is a legend that persists to this day that Flavio Chigi spent all his time in the Thebaid, living as a hermit to atone for the guilt he felt for murdering a rival. There is, however, no historical evidence to support this story. Chigi, who lived mainly in Rome as a worldly and wealthy man, would visit Cetinale to escape from the turbulent politics of that city, and to indulge his passions of horse racing and hunting.

After Flavio’s death in 1693, Cetinale was inherited by his nephew Bonaventura Chigi Zondadari (1652-1719) who turned the estate into some kind of religious theme park, where pilgrims and visitors would take contemplative walks through the Thebaid and beyond, visiting the seven chapels dedicated to the sorrows of the Virgin, surrounded by the numerous statues of saints and animals sculpted by Bartolommeo Mazzuoli. Then they would ascend the 300 stone steps of the santa scala (holy stair) up to the Romitorio. It was very fortunate that in 1978 the villa was purchased by architectural enthusiast Lord Lambton, who spent much of his time, funds and effort on Cetinale’s restoration.

In view of these developments, we may understand how hermitages became fashionable in England. In the same manner, they would imitate ancient Christian dwellings. However, in the eighteenth-century English landscape gardens, hermitages were mostly architectural features that drew the eye in the landscape and allowed its aristocratic owners to rest on their walks. Speaking in today’s language, they were architectural settings for those wealthy landowners who wished to cosplay hermits contemplating the meaning of life and death, preferably, with a cup of tea in hand. However, in some cases, even the contemplation was done on their behalf by hired garden hermits.

In that case, the estate owners would require those people to dress as druids, grow their hair long, and not wash for years. The hired hermits would lodge in shacks, caves, and other hermitages constructed in a rustic manner. “Recruiting a hermit wasn’t always easy. Sometimes they were agricultural workers, and they were dressed in a costume, often in a druid’s costume. There was no agreement on how druids dressed, but in some cases, they wore what we would call a dunce’s cap,” sums up Professor Campbell.

A 1784 guide to the Hawkstone estate in Shropshire belonging to Sir Richard Hill describes its resident hermit: “You pull a bell, and gain admittance. The hermit is generally in a sitting posture, with a table before him, on which is a skull, the emblem of mortality, an hour-glass, a book and a pair of spectacles. The venerable bare-footed Father, whose name is Francis (if awake) always rises up at the approach of strangers. He seems about 90 years of age, yet has all his sense to admiration. He is tolerably conversant, and far from being unpolite.”

As we can see, the abode of the hermit is picturesque, somewhat reminiscent of the popular seventeenth century Dutch paintings. For instance, Gerrit Dou, a student of Rembrandt’s, was so fascinated with the subject that he painted at least eleven hermit scenes over the course of his career. The description of the Hawkstone hermit seems to perfectly correspond to such paintings and even echo their compositional arrangements.

However, some owners demanded so much of their hermit that the latter was unable to meet their terms. At least, such was the story of “one Remington” from Painshill, who was hired by Mr Hamilton, the owner of the estate, by advertisement. The terms of Hamilton’s employment were recalled in a ‘Curious Anecdote’ recounted in the Public Advertiser on 17 June 1788: “the late owner Mr Hamilton advertised for a person who was willing to become the hermit of that retreat, under the following among many other conditions: that he was to dwell in the hermitage for seven years; where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his bed, and a hassock for his pillow, an hour-glass f[o]r his time-piece, water for his beverage from the stream that runs at the back of his cot, and food from the house, which was to be brought him daily by a servant, but with whom he has never to exchange one syllable; he was to wear a camblet robe, never to cut his beard or his nails, to tread on sandals, nor ever to stray in the open parts of the ground, nor beyond their limits, that if he lived under all these restrictions till the end of his term, he was to receive seven hundred guineas; but on breach of any one of them, or if he quitted his place any time previous to that term, the whole was to be forfeited, and all his loss of time remediless. One person attempted it, but three week [ sic!] were the utmost extent of his abode.”

The later versions of the story had the hermit being caught in the local tavern after three weeks and dismissed, and some even imply improper relations with a dairy maid.

Some owners who despaired of finding a suitable hermit (or could not afford one) would install an automaton instead or set up the hermitage as if its resident had just left. Sir Richard Colt Hoare, owner of Stourhead, visited Hawkstone on 28 July 1801, where he had the experience of seeing a substitute hermit called Fr Francis, dressed up as a druid. Colt Hoare described a hill with a grotto on which there was a hut, “wherein is the figure of a hermit who moves and speaks. The face is natural enough, the figure stiff and not well-managed. The effect would be infinitely better if the door were placed at the angle of the walk, and not opposite you.”

Obviously, such features (or should we call them “installations”?) were popular at that time because of the melancholic frame of mind that characterized Romantic literature and eighteenth-century poetry. Milton’s famous poem ‘Il Penseroso’ served as another major source of inspiration for such architectural and garden features. Milton also contributed to the long line of architectural descriptions of the first Adam’s hut in the Garden of Eden, and many hermitages were looking back to such descriptions, as well.

I did not manage to find any evidence confirming that Kedleston Hall’s hermitage ever housed a hermit. However, it might also have been inspired by the local stories of the so-called Anchor Church’ at Foremark, Derbyshire, which is situated about fourteen miles away to the south from Kedleston. In July 2021, Church Time wrote that the ancient complex consisted of what might have been a chapel and an accompanying hermitage, both carved out of a sandstone cliff overlooking a river. The recent archaeological and historical research confirmed it to be almost certainly Anglo-Saxon, dating shortly before the 830s. That place, as the research suggested, was the home of a former Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria, Eardwulf, after he had been deposed in 830. Afterwards, he came to be regarded as a local saint known by the later Middle Ages as St Hardulph.

In a similar manner, Warkworth Hermitage, situated on the North bank of the River Coquet in Northumberland, close to the village of Warkworth, existed as a cave-like structure. It consisted of an outer portion built of stone, and an inner portion hewn out of the rock above the river. The inner part housed a chapel and a smaller chamber, both with altars. As scholars suggest, the chapel was built as a chantry, and occupied by a series of clergy from 1489 to 1536. However, the traditional story attributed its origin to one Bertrams of Bothal Castle, as was later recounted in Bishop Percy’s ballad “The Hermit of Warkworth.”

As we can see, the eighteenth-century fashion for landscape hermitages sprang both from the European intellectual and architectural trends, and from the local countryside traditions. The ornamental hermits mainly vanished towards the end of the eighteenth century. “The garden hermit evolved from the antiquarian druid and eventually declined into the garden gnome,” concludes Campbell. In any case, I am delighted that the architectural feature I chanced upon during my walk in the park of Kedleston Hall encouraged me to explore the subject and discover such fascinating things along the way. Who knows, perhaps this tradition should make a comeback? In our time, when we are constantly bombarded by so much information and overwhelmed with sensory stimuli on a daily basis, we need a quiet solitary space to calm our senses and organise our thoughts, and meditate on the meaning of our lives, preferably, with a cup of tea in hand.