When it became fashionable in England to have a hermit living in the garden

How did the custom of garden gnomes start? Who had the idea of ​​decorating the green area of ​​the home with statuettes, some even polychrome, of these fantastic beings? We will never know but if the original idea has been so successful, to the point of becoming a recurring joke that we will always remember for a scene in the movie FullMontythe truth is that it is nothing compared to the bizarre fashion that spread between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the estates of wealthy people: instead of gnomes they put hermits, with the unusual peculiarity that these were authentic, of meat and bone.

Surely few have heard of San Francisco de Paula. He was a mendicant friar, a native of the town of Paula (in Italian Paola), located near Cosenza on the Calabria peninsula, with a curious past: his parents had been trying for years to have a child and only succeeded in 1416, after entrusting themselves to Saint Francis of Assisi, who also miraculously intervened to save his vision as a baby by healing a diseased eye.

For that reason they promised to dress the boy in a habit for a year, which they did when he turned thirteen, in the convent of Our Lady of the Angels. At the end of that period he accompanied his parents on a pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome, where he was scandalized by the luxury of the high ecclesiastical hierarchy.

So much so that when he returned he settled in a small cave on the family estate, where he lived as a hermit for a time until he moved to another a little further away. Thus more than five years passed and in 1435 two companions joined him, founding in this improvised way a new monastic order called the Minimos, whose motto was, as can be deduced from the name, extreme humility.

It was approved in 1470 and in the following decades both the French monarchs Louis XI and Charles VIII as well as the German Maximilian I and the Catholic Monarchs expressed interest in creating monasteries of the Minims in their countries. Pope Alexander VI approved the first rule of the order in 1493, and Leo X canonized Francis in 1519, twelve years after his death.

Now, what interests us here is the hermit facet of San Francisco de Paula, since some authors consider him the origin of that fashion that we said at the beginning of having hermits on private estates. Because as a result of his stay in the French court, to which he went in 1480 to give spiritual assistance to a Louis XI who saw his death imminent – as it was -, he had to fulfill the last will of the sovereign to be guardian of the heir and , while a monastery was being built for him and his family, he settled in a tiny chapel in the wooded surroundings of the Château de Gaillon, the Renaissance castle that was the summer residence of Georges d’Amboise, Archbishop of Rouen.

The Château de Gaillon in 1658/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

And so a precedent was set that, two centuries later, Louis XIV recovered by ordering a garden to be built a few kilometers north of Versailles where a hermit named Marly could settle. Although slowly, the trend was settling in, which hatched in the following century in a doubly paradoxical way: first, because it was the Age of Enlightenment, so that the desire for Reason and Science would coexist with the desire snob of owning his own hermitage, and secondly because the country where the thing really received momentum was England.

It is not known how this unheard-of episode unfolded, although there are those who point to the Weld family, a dynasty that claimed to trace its origins back to the 11th century and to the person of Eadric the wild, the Anglo-Saxon chieftain who led the resistance against the Norman invaders. It so happened that the Welds were ardent Catholics and had been disqualified for remaining faithful to the Pope, in accordance with the Act of Supremacy of 1558, the law that made it compulsory to attend religious services of the Anglican Church under various penalties that included from fines to expropriations, going through jail and, sometimes, even execution. The fact is that this recalcitrant lineage would have erected a hermitage on their land in Lulworth (Dorset) to accommodate a hermit.

anchorite asleep (Joseph-Marie Vien)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the Weld farm would not be the only one. Places specifically designed such as Painshill Park, a landscape park in Cobhan (Surrey) created between 1738 and 1773 by the deputy Charles Hamilton, and Hawksone Park, a hundred acres also made to the taste of the time and located in Market Drayton (Shropshire, West Midlands), had their respective anchorites as if they were just another decorative element, in the first case in a tiny hermitage and in the second in a grotto that carved into a hill. That is why it is not surprising that in English they were also called ornamental hermits.

The great moment came in the first quarter of the 19th century, when Romanticism established itself as the main cultural and artistic movement. Reacting against the geometric and rational serenity of Neoclassicism that had characterized the previous decades, the new style left behind the Enlightenment and the imitation of classical Antiquity to exalt freedom and feeling, replacing the horizontality that characterized Greek and Roman temples with the ribbed verticality of medieval cathedrals, and friendly literature with a courtly or didactic atmosphere through stories of terror, adventures, legends and impossible loves.

In this new stylistic order, the Middle Ages became the reference and in the popular imagination, religion was closely linked. And, of course, there could be little more romantic, more extreme, than abandoning everything to retire and live in poverty in the middle of nature. Of course, it was one thing to practice it in person and another to have someone who did it and gave a special, eccentric and chic, to the farm. It is curious that sometimes, even when a volunteer was not at hand, a corner was set up as if someone really were there: a cave with a table and a chair at the entrance, perhaps enriching the setting with a book, some glasses and a candlestick.

Later, that was not enough and props extras hired ad hoc were incorporated, with a deliberately uncared-for personal appearance: long hair, beard and nails, lack of hygiene, threadbare habit… Some consider that it was an attempt to evoke the typical image of the Druids, in that revival of folklore brought by Romanticism. Often they were actually peasants who worked on the farm, who were assigned that extra function of acting as hermits when there were parties with guests, with whom they could even interact by discussing philosophy or religion and offering advice as if they were wise men. it was treated

As strange as it may seem, there was no lack of contracts in this sense, as witnessed by the writer Edith Sitwell in her work English Eccentrics, in which he speaks of contractual periods of seven years during which the false hermits had to exhibit themselves to visitors, received one meal a day as payment and could perform other functions such as waiters or work the land. The famous sailor Charles Hamilton, who fought under the orders of Admiral Hood against the French navy at the end of the 18th century and who we mentioned before as the promoter of Painshill Park, had an anchorite on his estate and the conditions agreed with him are preserved in a document him, which included a payment of seven hundred pounds (which he did not receive because after three weeks he ran away to a pub and was fired):

«… he will be given a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a cushion for a pillow, an hourglass to tell the time, water to drink and food for the house. He must wear a camel-colored robe and must never, under any circumstances, cut his hair, beard or nails, stray beyond the boundaries of Mr. Hamilton’s land, or exchange a single word with the servants.”

Two hermits in a cave (anonymous nineteenth-century) / Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

In other cases, it happened the other way around and advertisements were published in the press of people who offered their services as anchorites. There are also documents about that, like a newspaper clipping courier dated January 11, 1810, which reads verbatim:

«A young man who wishes to withdraw from the world and live as a hermit in some convenient part of England is ready to betroth himself to any nobleman or gentleman who might be willing to have one. Any letter addressed to S. Laurence (postpaid), to be left at 6 Coleman Lane, Plymouth for Mr. Otton, mentioning what tip is to be given and all other particulars, will be duly attended to.’

In short, the fashion for ornamental hermits lasted approximately until it began to decline after the first quarter of the 19th century due to new landscaping concepts for parks. In the middle it disappeared because a new fashion imported from Germany was imposed. Guess which one? Indeed, the garden gnomes.


English eccentrics and eccentricities (John Timbs)/The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome (Gordon Campbell)/english eccentrics (Edith Sitwell)/Wikipedia

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