Robert the hermit

In 1537 London butcher George Isotson told a story in court about a long-ago sanctuary seeker at St Martin le Grand named Robert. Robert’s story stuck in Isotson’s mind because he later became a hermit.

One day around 1508, Isotson said, Robert escaped from the Marshalsea prison and ran to the sanctuary of St Martin le Grand, with iron fetters still on his legs.

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The gates of the sanctuary were closed, so he sheltered in the gate all night, managing to escape the notice of the watch. When the doors opened in the morning he scampered into the precinct and took sanctuary.

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Piecing together the story told in 1537 with records from 1509-11, it seems that this escaped prisoner’s full name was Robert Baker and that in 1509, when Henry VIII came to the throne and offered a general pardon, Baker was able to use the king’s mercy to emerge from sanctuary. Rather than resuming a life of crime, Robert dedicated his life to God. In 1511 the prior of St John of Jerusalem granted a hermitage in Islington to Baker as a member of the hermit Order of St Paul (for more on this, see Virginia Davis’s 1985 article).

Robert was still a hermit in Islington when Isotson told the story in 1537. Robert Baker’s life story, with its the lessons about rehabilitation and redemption, continued to be told 25 years later, a profound exemplar of the salvific power of sanctuary and royal mercy.

TNA, STAC 2/20/323, mm 29–30; BL, Cotton Nero E VI, Hospitaller Cartulary, fol. 93r, translated in Thomas Edlyne Tomlins, Yseldon: A Perambulation of Islington (London, 1858), pp 143–5; L&P, 1:204. Top image source.

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