The Crime Readers' Association

When close confinement was a choice, by Kate Ellis

9th August 2021

My twenty-fifth Wesley Peterson mystery, The Stone Chamber, begins with the execution-style murder of Robert and Greta Gerdner at their home in the Devon countryside. DI Wesley Peterson suspects that the deaths may be linked to Robert’s past police career – until Robert’s name is found on a list of people sent tickets anonymously for a tour of Darkhole Grange, a former asylum on Dartmoor.

When Wesley discovers that other names on the list have also died in mysterious circumstances, he is drawn into the chilling history of the asylum and becomes more and more convinced that it holds the key to the case. Then, with the clock ticking he must solve the puzzle before the next person on the list meets a terrible end.

All my Wesley Peterson books deal with a modern day murder case – but there is always a historical mystery in the background. In The Stone Chamber a woman’s skeleton in found buried in a cell attached to a ruined church; a cell that once housed an anchoress (or holy hermit) back in the fifteenth century. Wesley’s friend, archaeologist Neil Watson, makes the grim discovery and Wesley wonders whether there could be a link between the skeleton and later tragic events at Darkhole Grange.

I love delving into history and the initial idea for The Stone Chamber came to me while I was attending a writers’ conference in the ancient city of Norwich some years ago. While I was there I visited the cell of St Julian, an anchoress born in the fourteenth century who was isolated from the world in a small cell where she stayed for life. Renowned for her spiritual wisdom, she was the first woman known to have written a book. St Julian was clearly a remarkable woman but she was far from being the only one who followed this particular calling.

Anchoresses and anchorites were part of the spiritual landscape of the Middle Ages and many embraced the solitary calling willingly, which is something we’d probably find hard to understand today. These people were shut away in solitary confinement (apart from having an attendant to provide food and other necessary services) and we might find it shocking to learn that they actually had to witness their own funeral mass before being led to a stone cell (usually attached to a parish church). Then a Latin command from the priest or bishop was given to seal the candidate into their voluntary prison, never to be seen alive again. Surprisingly there was no shortage of volunteers and making the commitment was seen as an honour. Such an existence would not only bring them closer to God but their prayers were thought to protect the community. It was customary to bury an anchorite or anchoress inside the cell where they had lived and died.

However, not everyone could endure the life. In fourteenth century Surrey an anchoress called Christina Carpenter had a change of heart and was found outside her cell. She not only received penance for her disobedience but letters exist ordering that she should be ‘kept more securely’ and the only small doorway into her cell was replaced by a solid wall.

There were anchoresses and anchorites all over the country and there are records of several in Devon where The Stone Chamber is set. A recluse lived in a cell at Axminster; Alice Bernard was enclosed in a cell at St Leonard’s in Exeter in 1397 while another Alice was based at Pilton near Barnstaple; then in the mid fifteenth century Margaret Holt was an anchoress at Dodbrooke, Kingsbridge.

But it wasn’t only the historical aspect of a story that I needed to research. When I began to examine more recent history I made some disturbing discoveries about the horrifying way in which some women were locked away in asylums for the ‘crime’ of getting pregnant out of wedlock. I’d known this happened during the Victorian period when lunatic asylums were often used to get rid of inconvenient family members, but I was shocked to discover that the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act allowed unmarried mothers to be categorized as ‘moral imbeciles’ and confined in asylums until the act was repealed as late as 1959. Tragically, some of these women were still found to be incarcerated when the asylums closed in the late twentieth century.

Researching The Stone Chamber took me to some surprising places but one thing I didn’t need to research was Wesley’s fear of confined spaces because this is something I’ve shared with him for as long as I can remember. But to look on the bright side, at least my avoidance of lifts has meant that I’ve had plenty of exercise going up and down stairs over the years. However, if I’d lived in the Middle Ages I certainly wouldn’t have been one of the many who volunteered for life as an anchoress!

The Stone Chamber is published in hardback and ebook by Piatkus/Little, Brown.


Find out more about author Kate Ellis here.

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