Thomas Parkinson, Thirsk Hermit

The tragic story of the Catholic hermit and anchorite Thomas Parkinson (1489-1558?) is ironic in several ways, not only in his personal history but in the fact that it is brought to prominence by John Foxe, the polemical sixteenth century English Protestant and author of Acts and Monuments or Book of Martyrs chronicling those who suffered under Catholic and Anglican regimes. The original biography of Thomas Parkinson was intended as an indictment by Foxe in defense of one "Driven to Open Penance by the Papists" as Foxe's title puts it. One irony comes in the judgment of subsequent editors who frequently omitted the story as insufficiently anti-Catholic.

Parkinson's father was bailiff of Thirsk (Yorkshire, England) and apprenticed his son to a tailor. By twenty, Thomas was able to earn his own living. He married Agnes Hollywell and two years later she gave birth to a child. However, the child was stillborn. Because the child could not be baptized and therefore excluded from burial in the churchyard, the little body was buried in a nearby field. Apparently the burial was slipshod and weeks later a "raven" scratched up the soil, fed on the corpse, and flew to roost in a tree. Some townsfolk saw the gruesome sight and reported it to the parish priest, who informed the recently bereaved parents. Thomas and Agnes Parkinson took it as a sign from God. They vowed, as Foxe put it, to "live chaste and solitary." They formally separated and each went their individual way into religious life.

Thomas joined a Franciscan order and may have been ordained a priest. But he was far more disposed to eremiticism and solitude and was eventually granted a hermit life in a chapel on the outskirts of Thirsk. Meanwhile, Agnes had sought entrance into the order of Poor Clares, the female counterpart of the Franciscans. There being no convent in the district she pursued the habit and rule on her own, eventually becoming a nun in a hospital, then a "bead" woman under a wealthy patron who offered room and board in solitude in exchange for her prayers.

Thomas was such an exemplary friar and hermit that he was persuaded to take up the more rigorous life of an anchorite, which required stability and greater isolation. The parish embraced his intention by lodging him in a new structure of the local church, supported by the entire community. Two years later, under the auspices of the Carthusian order, patronage of Queen Katherine of Aragon (wife of King Henry VIII) was secured. Thomas moved to an anchor hold in a Mount Grace priory under the administration of the archbishopric of York. And though his wife Agnes died several years before Thomas' move to Mount Grace, what should have been a happy ending turned, once again, to tragedy.

Twenty years  after becoming an anchorite at Mount Grace came the dissolution of monasteries under King Henry. The monastery lasted longer than most, but in 1539, several monks were granted pensions and Mount Grace was suppressed. Thomas Parkinson was given nothing, cast out to survive as he could. He kept his Carthusian habit. Without monasteries of the poor relief they had traditionally provided, anyone like Thomas was homeless and destitute. He traveled incessantly, begging and seeking fruitlessly for an anchorite patron.

The situation for religious worsened, and Thomas's reluctant attempt to become a secular clergyman proved unsuccessful. As the years progressed and the traditional religious life disappeared in England -- and with it chanceries, schools, and hospitals, let alone orders and anchorites -- Thomas's plight became despondent.

After years of wandering and no chance of a religious life, Thomas Parkinson found himself in Shropshire, where in 1552 he married a poor widow, Elizabeth Romney. He returned to tailoring. Unemployment was rampant and he had to go far to find work, spending weeks away from home to provide for his wife and her children. This isolation rekindled his desire for solitude and the anchor hold. His old vocation came to the attention of a Lady Gifford, who arranged for Sir Thomas Fitzherbert (who had supported an anchorage now vacant) to become Thomas's new patron. Thomas Parkinson made an arrangement with his second wife, who would become an anchorite at Worcester, though, unbeknownst to him, she had fallen ill and did not make the journey.

And here commence the final tragic irony. With Mary Tudor ascending the English throne in 1553, a favorable climate for Catholic practice emerged, but also the revival of canon law which forbade clergy to marry. Thomas Parkinson was brought before an ecclesiastical tribunal, where he and his wife were interrogated and Thomas's violation of canon law confirmed. At age seventy he was sentenced to imprisonment for as long as was "the bishop's pleasure." And in prison he probably died, although it is possible that if he survived a few years long to 1558 and the accession of Queen Elizabeth, Thomas Parkinson may have found himself again cast out into destitution and solitude.


Based on the article "Thomas Parkinson, the Hermit of Thirsk," by Frank Bottomley, in the magazine Historian, July 1, 2002.