Living the high life
Just what does it take to make a hermit? According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it’s “a person who lives alone and apart from the rest of society, especially for religious reasons”. But in reality, these characters can be far more complex. For more than 1,500 years holy, eccentric or billionaire recluses have been figures of fascination – but also of paradox.
One example is a monk named Simeon. While he lived in the monastery of Teleda, Syria, in c411 AD, he sparked many complaints. Simeon smelled so bad that no one could bear to stand near him. Further investigation revealed that he had bound a rope around himself beneath his tunic, yanking it so tightly that his flesh had rotted, and his bed was full of worms.
At this stage, however, Simeon Stylites had barely begun on his unusual career. By the time that he died in AD 459, he claimed to have spent 47 years living on top of a pillar. Even allowing for some boasting, he seems to have spent at least 28 years up there. To be precise, there had been various pillars, of increasingly great height – the last being 60 feet tall. Measuring 3.5 feet in diameter, his final pillar supported a good-sized platform of around 43 square feet at its summit, and it initially had a canopy of palm branches to keep off sun and rain. Isabel Colegate (who details all this in her wonderful book on hermits, A Pelican in the Wilderness) adds that Simeon also had use of a lavatory, with an earthenware pipe running down to the ground.
If to many of us, “hermit” means solitude, Simeon appears paradoxical. He might nowadays be dismissed as a pathological attention-seeker. His excesses of asceticism and self-loathing drew crowds from all over Europe and the Middle East to marvel at him. Simeon tirelessly shouted sermons at watching crowds, and one observer saw him make 1,244 genuflections (bending one knee as a sign of respect) before they lost count. In our times, Simeon would doubtless have signed a lucrative contract for a special edition of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Down From Here.
Hermits for hire
In the 1740s Charles Hamilton (son of the sixth Earl of Abercorn) began creating a landscape garden at Painshill, near Cobham in Surrey. Along with a grotto and a Roman ruin, Painshill had a rustic two- room hermitage, “composed of logs and roots”. All that was needed now was a live-in hermit. What could better satisfy the 18th-century vogue for picturesque history? And so Hamilton advertised for applicants, stressing that the hermit must “continue in the Hermitage [for] seven years, where he would be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hour-glass for his time-piece, water for his beverage and food from the house”.
The hermit would have to wear “a camlet robe, never… cut his beard or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servant”. Isabel Colegate explains that he would be paid 700 guineas if he lasted for seven years, but he would receive nothing if he broke the rules or left early. In fact, the hermit who was hired only “lasted three weeks before he was spotted creeping out of the grounds to go down to the local pub”.
Another version of the story puts the reward at £3,000. And the place was hardly gloomy. The gardening expert Thomas Whately stated in 1770 that, from the front room, the hermit could look out over “the gardens and the country” around the river Mole, “which is rich with every appearance of inhabitants and cultivation”.
Perhaps our paid hermit was driven to drink by the inauthenticity of the whole set-up. If so, he might have been much happier when the estate fell into ruins after 1948 – until a programme of restoration began in the 1980s.
Love and squalor
Come the Victorian era, a holy hermit could still be found at Llanbedr in Wales. Here in July 1872, the curate Francis Kilvert paid him a visit, leaving the bright sunshine for the interior of a hut where he found “the squalor, the dirt, the dust, the foulness and wretchedness… indescribable, almost inconceivable. And in this cabin thus lives the Solitary of Llanbedr, the Reverend John Price, Master of Arts of Cambridge.”
At the same time, walking out with Price a little later, Kilvert was struck by the way “the people… touched their hats to his reverence with great respect. They recognised him as a very holy man, and if the Solitary had lived a thousand years ago he would have been revered as a hermit and perhaps canonised as a Saint.”
Price was amazingly unworldly and selfless. According to the writer Jeremy Bolwell, to get any sort of congregation, Price had to resort to bribery, paying his listeners between two and six pence a head to come to services, and almost certainly out of his own pocket.
“Price even offered,” claims Bolwell, “to marry pairs of vagrants who were ‘attached’ or ‘living in sin’ on the road as couples, paying them five shillings as an incentive. With poor eyesight and a failing grip on reality, apparently he married several couples a few times each.” And, Bolwell contends, Price was so generous that “he even provided oil-fired heaters in the colder winter months in the church and permitted tramps and hoboes to cook their dinners during his services.”
More or less abandoned by the church establishment, Price lived on in varying degrees of squalor until his death in 1895, aged 86. When he was finally “taken to Talgarth hospital… his clothes had to be scissored off his body and he was bathed, which resulted in his death, such was the trauma”.
A dandy in a pigsty
Secular hermits could be even more unusual. At Pailton near Rugby, a man called Joseph Underhill lived in a pigsty. It was around five foot square, and he had to crawl into it on his hands and knees. Readers may be relieved to hear that he was not sharing it with pigs. This, after all, would have been a glaring case of sub-letting – as Underhill paid a Mrs Robins sixpence a week for his cramped accommodation.
Underhill, supposedly a great dandy until he was disappointed in love years before, was not poor. In February 1890 two boys were charged with stealing £26 from him, and the newspaper account of the theft stated that he “gave nearly £200 to be banked”. Local authorities had tried and failed to move Underhill from the pigsty. After the theft he was placed in a charitable home for some time, but he was soon back on his hands and knees, squeezing himself through the low gap into the muck.
Underhill was finally removed, stretchered off on a door, the following January, in a dying state. Even now, in terminal weakness, he attempted to escape and get back in. Those clearing out the sty found the floor “covered with filth fully half a foot deep”. When Underhill died, apparently of exposure and bronchitis, he left behind him £125 6s.2d (approximately £16,000 today).
The reclusive aviator
Aged just seven, I saw Howard Hughes stretchered across an airfield on the evening news. The sight was so horrific that it has stayed with me all my life. When he died in April 1976, officially from kidney failure, Hughes stood 6ft 2ins and weighed just 90 lbs. He had once been the great Renaissance man of America: a daredevil aviator, a visionary filmmaker and a figure of impossible glamour. When millionaires were still mythical, Hughes was a billionaire.
By 1950 Hughes was already so obsessive about germs that the unused windows of his cars and houses were sealed with masking tape. As authors Donald Barlett and James Steele explain, aides, drivers and message clerks all had to wear white cotton gloves of the type used in film editing. According to the pair, to open a can of food for Hughes you needed: “One unopened newspaper, one sterile can opener, one large sterile plate, one sterile fork, one sterile spoon, two sterile brushes, two bars of soap and sterile paper towels.”
Come spring 1957, Hughes was living at the Beverley Hills hotel in Bungalow Four. He refused to allow janitors to clean and banned his projectionists and guards from the bathroom, suggesting they use milk cartons to relieve themselves. Wearing the same brown shirt and slacks for weeks, he suddenly discarded his clothes and went about naked. Refusing to touch doorknobs, he would kick the door as a signal for an aide to open it. For long periods Hughes, with unwashed and straggling hair and beard, and finger and toenails so long that they curled in on themselves, must have looked indistinguishable from any American tramp.
Beyond all ordinary help, Hughes was the supreme victim of affluence. He had no friends. When the Las Vegas Desert Inn hotel tried to throw him and his entourage out in 1966 to accommodate wealthy new years’ guests, Hughes bought the place. Like King Lear, Hughes may have been a victim of his own delusions of power. But Lear, at least, had a late epiphany with his daughter Cordelia.
Was he any happier than Underhill, in his rented pigsty? Dollar for dollar, Howard Hughes was perhaps the most expensively miserable man of the 20th century.
Richard Sugg is the author of 13 books, including Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires (KDP, 2020). He is currently completing Talking Dirty: The History of Disgust from Jesus Christ to Donald Trump