October 17, 2020

The Story Of St. Robert’s Cave, Knaresborough

Down on the bank of the River Nidd, Knaresborough, there’s a small, open doorway. As unassuming as it looks, this little hole-in-the-wall actually holds over 800 years of rich British history, thanks to a man who once called it his home – St. Robert of Knaresborough.

St. Robert was born in York, the son of the Mayor of York, Robert Touk, in 1160. It was within the early stages of his life that St. Robert became heavily involved with the church, being made a sub-deacon at Newminster Abbey – however, he quickly learned that it was not the life he desired.

What Robert wanted was a life of solitude, living in peace away from others. In search of this, he found himself arriving at the cave by the River Nidd, where he resided, ironically, with another man – a knight, hiding from Richard I. After Richard I died in 1199, the knight returned home to his family, leaving Robert alone in the cave, where he became a hermit.

Robert was satisfied with his newfound life, living in isolation from others, and lived this way for a number of years. That was until he received a visit from a wealthy widow named Julianna. Upon visiting Robert in the cave, she offered him a home in a nearby chapel, Rudfarlington’s St. Hilda’s Chapel, which he graciously accepted. Robert didn’t live in the chapel for very long at all – it’s thought he remained there for just under a year of his life – but in that short time, he developed a reputation as being a wise and holy individual, who dedicated his time to helping the weak and the poor.

Robert may well have wished to continue living in the chapel, but was unfortunately forced out of his home by bandits and made the decision to live with a group of monks in nearby Tadcaster. Incredibly, Robert found the way of life that the monks led to be far too easygoing for his liking, and he longed for the days of his solitude in the cave! Disillusioned, he decided to leave the monastery – but wasn’t quite ready to return to his cave just yet.

Instead, Robert returned to Rudfarlington once more, where he continued his work providing charity and assistance to the poor, in turn becoming somewhat wealthy himself – he even had servants, and owned and raised his own cattle! Robert dedicated months of his life to redeeming men from nearby prisons in an effort to improve their lives – unfortunately, this noble cause would be Robert’s undoing. Soon, William de Stuteville, the constable of Knaresborough Castle, would bring Robert’s new life crashing down, as he accused him of harbouring outlaws and thieves that would otherwise be kept away from society. Forced from his home and with no choice but to abandon his way of life for a second time, Robert was more disillusioned than ever and decided to return to the cave near the River Nidd.

This time, however, Robert did not find himself in constant solitude – his reputation as being a wise and holy man had followed him through the years, and Robert began receiving regular visitors, who had sought him out in the hope of receiving spiritual guidance. In fact, it’s said that even Richard I’s successor King John was among those visitors to the cave, along with a group of Trinitarian friars who held huge admiration for Robert and his way of life.

He was given gifts, too, even being given his own land by the river. This gift was to form the basis for one of the most famous stories about Robert, after he complained that deer had started ravaging his crops. Sir William, amused by Robert’s obvious annoyance at the situation, suggested that Robert should catch the deer himself. Not one to be mocked, Robert did just that – he managed to herd the deer like a flock of sheep into the barn that he owned and began setting them to work on his land! Perhaps it’s stories like this one that reached those living in the surrounding towns and villages, allowing them to believe that Robert had spiritual gifts and powers – followers even visited Robert to seek physical healing.

Towards the end of his life, Robert received a visit from his brother Walter, who had become the Mayor of York after the death of their father. Inspired by Robert’s reputation as a holy man, he paid for a chapel to be built by the cave, where Robert was buried after his eventual death. Pilgrims travelled miles to visit the grave, having heard that holy medicinal oils flowed from the tomb – even in death, Robert continued to receive those in search of spiritual healing.

To this very day, the cave is still there along the River Nidd, visited by hundreds of tourists each year. By the cave stands a sign, telling Robert’s story and showing a floorplan of the old chapel as it stood when it was built.

Strangely, on the site of Robert’s original burial, green flora sprouts year-round. It’s one of the many reasons that this cave and chapel is still so important to religious people around Knaresborough – and, perhaps to some, proof of Robert’s reputation as a man with spiritual gifts.

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