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Godric

(c. 1069—1170) trader and hermit


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(c.1069–1170),

hermit. Born of Anglo-Saxon parents in Walpole (Norfolk), he became a pedlar in Lincolnshire from c.1085 to 1089; he then made a pilgrimage to Rome. Soon he went to sea, trading in Flanders, Denmark, and Scotland. Later he bought a half-share in one ship, a quarter-share in another, and became the captain. In 1101 he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but he might be identical with the Godric, an ‘English pirate’, who took Baldwin I from Arsuf to Jaffa in 1102. On his return to England through Compostela he became a bailiff, but soon left to make more pilgrimages to Rome and Saint-Gilles in Provence. Soon afterwards he made a third pilgrimage to Rome, accompanied this time by his aged mother.

In c.1105 he sold all his goods, left home, and tried to be a hermit, inspired perhaps by visits in seafaring days to the island of the Inner Farne, once the home of Cuthbert. For a time he lived in forests near Carlisle with the Psalter of St Jerome as his prayer-book; then he joined the hermit Ælric at Wulsingham (Durham) until his death in 1108. A few months later Godric made another penitential pilgrimage to Jerusalem: he visited the Holy Places, he lived with other hermits in the desert of John the Baptist, and worked in a hospital for several months.

On returning to England, he resumed his old trade of pedlar to enable him to settle in a deserted hermitage at Eskedale Side near Whitby. A year later he arrived at Durham, acted as sexton in the church of St Giles, and went to school with the choirboys at St Mary-le-Bow. Now over forty, he settled finally at Finchale on the bishop of Durham's land; first at St Godric's Garth, finally on the beautiful site now occupied by Finchale Priory.

His regime was one of ‘almost superhuman’ austerity and penance for his past sins, as sailor and merchant, of impurity and dishonesty. At first, without a director, he lived on roots and berries; later he grew vegetables and both milled his barley and baked it into loaves. He felled trees to make a hut and a wooden oratory (dedicated to St Mary), in a corner of which he had a covered bath of cold water. Later a small stone church of St John the Baptist was built, joined to St Mary's with a cloister of wattle and mud. He wore both a hairshirt and a metal breastplate. Roger, prior of Durham, eventually gave him a rule of life and confraternity with the Durham community. His life was generally uneventful, but twice he was nearly killed: once by the Wear in flood and once (1138) when Scottish soldiers killed his cow and beat him severely, believing he had hidden treasure.

His holiness, clairvoyance, and prophetic gifts attracted visitors, among whom were Ailred of Rievaulx, Robert of Newminster, the two Laurences (of Durham and Westminster), William of Newburgh, and, above all, his future biographer, Reginald of Durham. Geoffrey of Coldingham knew him as a boy and described him: ‘He had a broad forehead, sparkling grey eyes, and bushy eyebrows which almost met. His face was oval, his nose long, his beard thick. He was strong and agile, and in spite of his small stature his appearance was very venerable.’ William characterized him as ‘eager to listen, but slow to speak; always serious, and sympathetic to those in trouble’. Another pleasing trait of his character was his care for animals. In snow and ice he would bring rabbits and field-mice to his hut, warm them by the fire, and set them free. Once a stag took refuge in his hermitage (Finchale was in the bishop of Durham's hunting-land), and when the huntsmen asked where it was, Godric answered: ‘God knows where it is.’ They, impressed by his radiant appearance, rode off, apologizing for disturbing him.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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