Archaeologists from the Royal Agricultural University, working with colleagues from Wessex Archaeology, conducted detailed surveys of the Anchor Church Caves, between the villages of Foremark and Ingleby.
Researchers say the rooms’ narrow doorways and windows closely resemble Saxon architecture.
A rock-cut pillar is similar to those found in a Saxon crypt at nearby Repton that’s believed to have been completed by the Mercian King Wiglaf who reigned as King of Mercia—a kingdom in the English Midlands from the sixth century to the 10th century—from 827 until his death in 839.
“You’ve got the doors, the windows, the ceilings, the floors. It’s fragmentary, it’s been knocked around, but it’s there,” explains principal investigator Edmund Simons from the Royal Agricultural University.
“There’s no other place, really, in Britain where you can walk into something so old, where people were living, cooking, sleeping, eating, and praying.”
Caves, such as the Anchor Church Caves, are often associated with anonymous medieval hermits.
But researchers say in this case there’s a legendary association between the caves and Saint Hardulph.
A fragment of a 16th century printed book states that at the time, “Saint Hardulph has a cell in a cliff a little from the Trent.” Local folklore identifies the caves as those Hardulph occupied.
Scholars identify Hardulph with King Eardwulf, a king of Northumbria who was deposed in 806.
Hardulph died in around 830 and was buried at Breedon on the Hill, just five miles from the caves.
It’s thought that some of the surviving sculptures in the village’s church, which was founded as a monastery in the seventh century, came from his shrine.
“He’s had a very long and eventful career up in Northumbria, surviving executions, committing adultery, murdering people,” says the church’s heritage officer, Rachel Askew.
“So, now it’s a case of he’s been deposed as king, so he’s come for a quiet retirement, as it were, sitting by the River Trent.”
The area around the nearby village of Repton was a location of intensive Viking activity.
Shortly after Hardulph’s death, Vikings set up a winter camp at Repton.
Archaeologists believe the caves may have been modified in the 18th century, with changes including the addition of brickwork and window frames, and the opening up of some of the wall openings in order that well-dressed ladies could pass.