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The Hermit of Depedale – The Legend of Dale Abbey Part I by Richard Tann-Watson

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The small village of Dale Abbey has, as the name would suggest, originally a religious settlement. There are no records to explain how this history began, and the founding of the Abbey at Dale Abbey are steeped in myth. There is only one manuscript giving a history of the foundation: the Dale Chronicle, written by ‘Thomas de Muscam’ probably in the 13th Century. The only surviving copy of this manuscript is bound into the back of a later document, a Chartulary (or register) of the Abbey from the early 14th Century, now held in the British Museum[1]. The Chronicle charts the history of the Abbey, including the legends surrounding its foundation.

 

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In fact, the first piece of mythology actually has very little to do with the Abbey itself, but was included in the Chronicle to show the deep religious importance of the area. It is to this myth that we now focus our attention: the myth of the Hermit of Depedale. This myth is generally accepted to be set around 1130.

In the Dale Chronicle, De Muskham tells a tale about a baker from Derby, who was a very caring and charitable man. He would give alms to the poor every week, donating any excess food and clothes above the needs of his household. As a result of this piety, the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a dream, saying to him:

“Acceptable in the eyes of my Son and of me are the alms thou hast

bestowed. But now, if thou art willing to be made perfect, leave all thou

hast, and go to Depedale, where thou shalt serve my Son and me in

solitude; and when thou shalt happily have finished thy course, thou shalt

inherit the kingdom of love, joy, and eternal bliss, which God has

prepared for those who love Him”[2].

The baker listened to these words, and followed the instructions of the Virgin, wandering into the surrounding country. Eventually, he reached the village of Stanley. Here, his wanderings would have continued (the baker not knowing where Depedale was), if he hadn’t had the good fortune to have overheard a woman calling to her daughter, ordering her to take some cattle to Depedale. Hurrying over, the baker asked where Depedale was. The woman told him to follow her daughter until they arrived. This he did, and, upon his arrival, he found nothing but a marshland.

[1] British History Online (2017), available at: <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/derbs/vol2/pp69-75>

[1] John Ward, Dale and its Abbey, (Derby: Frank Murray, 1891), p.22.

Despite the harsh conditions presented to him, he dug a cave into the side of one of the stony hills, and here he lived. After a while, Ralph fitz Geremund, who owned the land, came through on a hunt. He discovered the hermitage, and went to confront the man who had set up home on his property. However, touched by the impoverished sight of the hermit, and moved by his tale, fitz Geremund granted the land to the hermit, along with a tithe from his mill at what is now Borrowash.

The hermit lived in the cave he had dug for around about 20 years, before he eventually moved down the hill and built himself a small oratory, around about 1150. Here, he lived and worshipped for the rest of his life. Upon his death, the oratory became part of the Abbey, and, following additions in 1480, is believed to have been used as a hospital. Later, the building was used as a pub called The Blue Bell Inn. Today, however, following a Victorian rebuilding, the addition is a farmhouse, and the oratory has reverted to its traditional use as a place of worship, being The Church of All Saints in the village of Dale Abbey.

The cave, too, is still obvious today. Perched on the side of the hill, with only a mud track to get there across the fields, it is surprisingly well preserved. It is still possible to see wooden peg-holes where the hermit had erected a lean-to shelter, and there is still a small alcove where a cross and candles would sit, as we still get in many churches today. The cave is a scheduled ancient monument.

[1] British History Online (2017), available at: <http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/derbs/vol2/pp69-75>

[2] John Ward, Dale and its Abbey, (Derby: Frank Murray, 1891), p.22.

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