Robert of Knaresborough

(c. 1143—1218) hermit

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(1160–1218), hermit. The son of an important townsman of York, Robert became a cleric early in life. As a subdeacon he was a novice at the Cistercian abbey of Newminster, but he stayed only a few months. He then chose to live as a hermit at Knaresborough in a cave where another hermit, also in residence, was a knight in hiding from Richard I, on whose death (1199) he returned to his wife. Robert continued there for some years, until a wealthy widow offered him a cell and chapel at Rudfarlington, nearby. A year later this hermitage was destroyed by bandits, so Robert lived at Spofforth under the church wall for a few months, then at Hedley (near Tadcaster), where he found the monks too easy-going, before returning to Rudfarlington. Here he had four servants and kept livestock, but was soon in trouble with William de Stuteville, constable of Knaresborough castle, for harbouring thieves and outlaws. The charge may have been true, for Robert was well known for charity to the destitute. The hermitage was destroyed by William; Robert returned to his cave at Knaresborough, where he lived for the rest of his life.

His benefactors included King John who gave him forty acres of land in 1216, which he eventually accepted for the poor and so refused to pay tithes on it. William de Stuteville also gave him land and cows. Robert had a companion called Yves, who remained with him for the rest of his life.

Robert's death, like much of his life, was controversial. Cistercian monks from Fountains tried unsuccessfully to aggregate him to their Order on his death-bed and, after his death on 24 September, to bury his body in their church. But he refused the first and foiled the second by arranging for his burial in the chapel beside his cave. Later the Trinitarian house at Knaresborough acquired the hermitage: papal records for 1252 offered an indulgence for ‘Building the monastery of St Robert at Gnaresbur, where that saint's body is buried’. This document followed his translation, but preceded any official process of canonization, for which a book of Lives and prayers was prepared. Official canonization never took place, but implicit approval was given to the cult. The chapel became a place of pilgrimage, where oil flowed from the tomb. Matthew Paris regarded Edmund of Abingdon, Elizabeth of Hungary, and Robert of Knaresborough as the outstanding saints of the early 13th century.

Churches at Knaresborough and Pannall (N. Yorkshire) were dedicated to Robert; seven stained-glass panels of his Life survive at Morley (Derbyshire), from Dale Abbey. The site of Robert's chapel can still be seen, overlooking the river Nidd. Feast: 24 September.

From The Oxford Dictionary of Saints in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Christianity.

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