The Grade II listed Anchor Church has long been referred to as an Anchorite Cell. However, a new study suggests that the dwelling, which includes a small oratory – or chapel – is more likely to be from early medieval times.
Archaeologists from the Royal Agricultural University’s (RAU) newly-formed Cultural Heritage Institute, working with colleagues from Wessex Archaeology, have conducted a detailed survey. The interior shows early doors and pillars which survived walls being partially knocked through in the 18th century.
A fragment of a 16th Century printed book states “Saint Hardulph has a cell in a cliff a little from the Trent” and local folklore identifies these caves as those Hardulph occupied.
It was not unusual for deposed or retired royalty to take up a religious life during this period, gaining sanctity and in some cases canonisation.
Modern scholarship identifies Hardulph with King Eardwulf who was deposed as king of Northumbria in 806.
While such caves were often associated with medieval hermits, there was also a legendary association between the Anchor Church Caves and Saint Hardulph, who died in around 830 and was buried at Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire, just five miles from the caves.
It is believed that some of the surviving sculpture in the village’s Church of St Mary and St Hardulph, which was founded as a monastery in the seventh century, came from his shrine.
Edmund Simons, principal investigator of the project, said: “Our findings demonstrate this odd little rock-cut building in Derbyshire is more likely from the ninth century than from the 18th Century, as everyone had originally thought.
Mr Simons said: “The architectural similarities with Saxon buildings, and the documented association with Hardulph/Eardwulf, make a convincing case that these caves were constructed, or enlarged, to house the exiled king.
Mr Simons added: “This makes it probably the oldest intact domestic interior in the UK – with doors, floor, roof, windows etc – and, what’s more, it may well have been lived in by a king who became a saint.”
The area around the nearby village of Repton was the location of intensive Viking activity and shortly after Hardulph’s death, the Vikings set up a winter camp at Repton.
Researchers say the narrow doorways and windows of the rooms in the dwellings closely resemble Saxon architecture.
A rock-cut pillar is similar to those found in the Saxon crypt at nearby Repton which is believed to have been completed by the Mercian King Wiglaf who reigned as King of Mercia from 827 until his death in 839.
The caves are thought to have been modified in the 18th century, with changes including the addition of brickwork and window frames, and the opening up of some of the wall openings.
Mark Horton, professor of archaeology at the RAU who is also running excavations of Viking and Anglo Saxon remains at Repton, said: “It is extraordinary that domestic buildings over 1,200 years old survive in plain sight, unrecognised by historians, antiquarians and archaeologists.”
The findings are published in the Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society.