This murder has been shrouded in mystery since the body was found, for it was not known who the lone victim was and he would be forever known as ‘the Hermit of Eskdale’.
The death is still commemorated in Whitby every year in a tradition called Penny Hedge. The murder took place on October 16 1159 and since then the day has been commemorated
after the Abbot of Whitby imposed a penance on three murderers who stole the life of the unknown hermit.
Ralph de Percy (the lord of Sneaton), William de Brus (the lord of Ugglebarnby), and a man only referred to as Allatson were on an innocent hunting trip, hunting wild boar by a patch of land near the river Esk. The area was cloaked by forest and was the perfect place for some hunting without being disturbed.
Deep into the forest lived a monk of Whitby, though no one knew who he was and never has his identity been uncovered since, he was simply known as the Hermit of Eskdale. When the hunters and the ferocious hounds got deep enough into the woodland they began stalking their prey; a wild boar. As they set about hunting the poor beast something distracted the boar and scared it to run, run towards the home of the hermit. The hounds were in hot pursuit of their meat and just as the they were about to close on in the defenceless boar the doors to the hermitage opened and the monk let in the boar, slamming the door in the faces of the hounds. The hunters heard the desperate cries from their dogs and went in search for them, when they found the situation that befell their hounds they were furious. They forced their way into the hermitage and found that the wild boar was dead, and in anger they ran at the hermit wielding their weapons and brutally murdering the innocent monk. Shocked with what they had done, the hunters fled for Scarborough.
The hermit was not dead though, and in his dying hours he sent for the Abbot and asked that the men would be brought to him, and the three men agreed to the poor man’s dying wish. Stood around the hermit they struck a deal, instead of being executed they would take a penance. According to Lionel Carton’s “History of Whitby” (1779) the monk, in his dying words, said “you and yours shall hold your lands from the Abbot of Whitby, and his successors, in this manner, That upon Ascension evening you, ort some of you, shall come to the wood of the StrayHeads, which is in Eskdale-Side, the same day at sun-rising, and there shall the Abbot’s officer blow his horn, to the intent that you may know how to find him; and he shall deliver unto you, William de Bruce, ten stakes, eleven strout stowers, and eleven yethers, to be cut by you, or some of you, with a knife of one penny price; and you, Ralph de Percy, shall take twenty and one of each sort, to be cut in the same manner; and you, Allatson, shall take nine of each sort, to be cut as aforesaid, and to be taken on your backs, and carried to the town of Whitby, and to be there before nine of the clock the same day before-mentioned: At the same hour of nine of the clock each of you shall set your stakes at the brim, each stake one yard from the other, and so yether them on each side with your yethers, and so stake on each side with your strout stowers, that they may stand three tides without removing by the force thereof: Each of you shall do, make and execute the said service all that very hour every year, except it be full sea at that hour; but when it shall so fall out, this service shall cease. If you, or your successors, shall refuse this service, so long as it shall not be full sea at the aforesaid hour, you or yours shall forfeit your lands to the Abbot of Whitby, or his successors.”
Every year since Whitby has took in the penny hedge as tradition.