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English cave may have ties to king-turned-saint and Viking invasion, archaeologists say

The exterior of the Anchor Church Cave showing what is likely a Saxon door and window. (Edmund Simons/Royal Agricultural University)

Nestled in a sandstone crag along a winding river in the English countryside, a near-complete Anglo-Saxon cave house has been waiting to tell centuries-old stories.

Perhaps one of a Northumbrian king driven into exile and living out his last days as a hermit — possibly within its stony walls. Or one of the Great Heathen Army — Viking warriors from Scandinavia — that invaded England by the thousands and set up camp outside, conquering what was then the Kingdom of Mercia.

Researchers from the Royal Agricultural University, with colleagues from Wessex Archaeology, believe the Anchor Church Caves, once thought to be an 18th-century entertainment venue for aristocrats, may have medieval origins, which could make it one of the oldest intact domestic dwellings in Britain.

“It’s been hiding in plain sight,” lead archaeologist Edmund Simons told The Washington Post. “Everybody knows it’s there; it’s been there all along. But now we can demonstrate that having an earlier origin is really quite likely.”

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Simons, a research fellow at the Royal Agricultural University, said that history, archaeology and local folklore led the archaeologists to their recent discovery in Derbyshire. The team used a drone to survey the area, took detailed measurements and studied the architectural details to reconstruct the original plan, which consisted of three rooms as well as an adjacent oratory, or chapel. They found that the caves had narrow doorways and windows that resemble Saxon architecture, dating back to medieval times, according to a news release.

Their findings were published earlier this week in the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society’s journal, Proceedings.

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The Anchor Church Caves sit back from a trail along the River Trent between Foremark and Ingleby, where passing locals will often point and say, “A hermit used to live in there,” Simons recalled.

One of them may have been Saint Hardulph — believed to be Eardwulf, the former king of Northumbria (now Northern England), who was deposed in the early 800s and went into exile across the border in Mercia. Some researchers say he could have lived in caves, based on legend and a book printed in the 16th century that mentioned “Saint Hardulph has a cell in a cliff a little from the Trent.”

“The only contender for that site — if we believe that book — is the Anchor Church Caves,” Simons said.

But Hardulph would not have been a hermit in the colloquial sense; he would have been an anchorite, meaning that he would have been anchored to the church and may have had disciples, Simons explained.

Simons said it was not unusual for retired royals to pursue religious positions.

It is believed that the saint died about 830 and was buried at Breedon on the Hill, not far from the caves.

In light of the new findings, the existence of Anchor Church may also coincide with a Viking invasion.

Several decades after Hardulph’s death, the Vikings attacked Repton — “the jewel in the crown of Mercia,” and took the kingdom, said archaeologist Cat Jarman, senior adviser for the museum of the Viking Age at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo. Jarman, who was not involved in the Anchor Church study, said it was known that the Vikings camped right next to the caves because metal detectorists have found lead gaming pieces, coins and silver — “a signature of the army.”

But it was initially thought the Vikings’ camp was in an open field, she said.

“If this is true — if this was an important hermitage that was previously the home of sort of king, that also means we have to rethink why the Vikings set up in this part,” she said, supporting the idea that there may have been an Anglo-Saxon village there at that time.

“We used to think there wasn’t anything important there at all, because we thought the cave was built much later. If this is correct, maybe there was more there. Maybe they had a reason to camp there,” she continued.

Jarman speculated that the Vikings may have used the caves as well. “Perhaps there was something valuable in there to steal,” she said.

The Anchor Church Caves is two side-by-side caves. Simons and his colleagues think one was a domestic dwelling that contained three rooms — perhaps one for sleeping, one for cooking and eating, and one for consulting the faithful. The other was a chapel, he said.

It is believed that in the 1700s, Sir Robert Burdett, who lived in Foremarke Hall, a stately home above the caves, expanded them, knocking out walls and widening some doorways to create additional space for entertaining.

Simons said it is not uncommon to find cave houses in England. In fact, he said, he and his colleagues are surveying 170 others. “But this one has a domestic interior that is pretty much intact,” he said about Anchor Church. “I can’t think of any other good contenders that can say that in Britain.”

Another question is whether these other caves have ancient stories, too.

“The beauty of Anchor Church is it has got this known history and folklore and an event like the Vikings’ sacking of Repton,” he said. “So if we piece that together, we can learn a lot more about it than [we] can about most of the other sites.”

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