St Mary's church, Hermitage, outside

St Mary's church, Hermitage, inside



Welcome to Hermitage!

Hermitage is a small village lying about seven miles south of Sherborne, in Dorset. St Mary’s Church, Hermitage, in its peaceful churchyard, lies to the East of the Village Green. The church is kept open; if you visit the village, you are invited to step inside the church, and to spend a little time thinking about its history.

Seven hundred years ago, deep forest clothed Blackmore Vale. In a small clearing, in the area then known as Roecombe, a group of hermit friars were carrying on their life of prayer and social service, following the rule of St Augustine. Their Priory must have provided a useful resting-place for pilgrims on their way from the Abbey of Cerne to the Abbey of Sherborne. Their patron at that time was King Edward the First, acting in his local position as Earl of Cornwall.

Royal patronage continued under Edward the Second, who in 1279 confirmed the friars in their possession of a forest clearing of ten acres, on which to build a house. Twelve years later, he extended the grant to one hundred acres of ‘waste in the forest’, to be given to ‘the prior chaplain hermits of Blackmore forEver’. Their priory was dedicated to St Lawrence, and was called the ‘Priory of Hermitage juxta Dorchester’. Later, the dedication was changed to the Virgin Mary, and the present Church is known as St Mary’s Church, Hermitage.

A small spring on the edge of the woodland near the top of the hill facing the church porch is still known as Lady’s Well. The use of springs in the area for healing purposes is a likely origin for the name ‘Remedy’, now applied to the summit of the hill behind this sprin. There is however a ‘Remedy Oak’ in the parish of Wimborne St Giles, under which King Edward VI is reputed to have ‘touched for the King’s Evil’ in 1552. The tradition that the King’s touch could heal diseases dates back to the eleventh century, and it is possible that our Remedy owes its origin to a long-forgotten Royal visit to Hermitage for this purpose.

The Forest of Hartleigh, on the near slopes of this hill, was famous up to at least the thirteenth century for its massive trees, supplying timbers for the repair of the Abbey buildings at both Cerne and Sherborne.

By 1460, the friars had long gone from ‘La Hermitage in vasto forestae de Blackmore’, and Hermitage became a ‘free chapel’ with its own priest. In 1514 Hermitage was annexed to Cerne Abbey, and in 1537, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII, it became a perpetual curacy under the patronage of the Crown. The names of some of the curates of Hermitage still survive; Timothy Wilcocks, for example, was instituted Curate here in 1672. In 1690 he was deposed, for refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance to King William the Fourth, after William’s victorious landing at Torbay. In 1702 he was forgiven and re-instated here by King William himself; he remained Curate here until his death in 1722, fifty years after his original instalment.

The link with Royalty continued until 1935, when the premises of Hermitage and Hilfield Village School, built on Duchy of Cornwall land, were transferred by the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) to the people of Hermitage and Hilfield for ever, to be used as a Village Hall.

The old Priory stood on land now occupied by the beautiful house known as Church Farm, in private ownership. We are grateful for the beauty of the gardens of Church Farm as we approach the churchyard from the West. The present church was extensively restored in the 17th Century; at that time, a tower at the West end of the church included a room in which the curate could live. A small room over the present porch held the bell, and also was used as a woodstore for the curate’s fire. The whole church was again re-built in 1800, but much of the earlier style was preserved. The pretty barrel roof dates from this time.

The single bell, dating from 1795, hangs in the small stone bell-turret above the west wall; its oaken bell-wheel was skilfully re-made in 1990. The gargoyle just below it is probably medieval, and so is the North door arch to the left of the chancel. Much-worn family memorial tablets on the floor of the chancel are dated 1600 and 1654; notice that the slate tablet to Elizabeth Collyar, lying on the right hand side of the altar, carries the unusual heraldic emblem of three charming bats! The font, of Ham-hill stone, is probably 17th Century.

Moving to more modern times, the small picture hanging in the nave was a gift from Bournemouth Art Gallery, as an acknowledgment for the help given to them by St Mary’s Hermitage during the air raids in the second world war, when several large pictures from the Gallery were hung here for safe-keeping. The sculptured figure of the Virgin Mary standing in the Chancel is on permanent loan from the Friary of St Francis at Hilfield.