Richard Rolle, also often called Richard Rolle de Hampole, was a 14th century English mystical writer and composer of devotional prose that was mostly for the benefit of women readers. He was a hermit for most of his lifetime, originally from the northern part of the county of Yorkshire until eventually settling close to Hampole Cistercian nunnery in the southern area of the county. A number of mystical and ascetic tracts have been attributed to him, written in both Latin and English.
He was born sometime around the beginning of the 14th century in a farming community close to the North Yorkshire town of Pickering. Little survives of his early history but it is known that he was a student of theology and biblical studies at Oxford university thanks to the sponsorship of Archdeacon of Durham, Thomas de Neville. He did not see his course of study through to the end, choosing to leave at the age of 18 or 19 to live in isolation.
It is believed that he lived on the country estate of John Dalton for a number of years and it was here that he his initial mystical experience was had. The following quotation is recorded about this event, spoken by Rolle himself:
A year after this he had another vision while hearing a choir and, from then on, he had less and less time for temporal matters. Although it cannot be proved with any certainty some records show some time was spent in Paris at the Sorbonne university where he may have been ordained following his theological training. Most accounts though show him to be a wandering soul, living in various places in Yorkshire, finding patronage wherever he could. One such person may have been the nun, Margaret Kirby, described as an anchorite in that she had withdrawn from secular society in favour of an ascetic, prayer-oriented life. She was almost certainly sent many of Rolle’s writings while living at the Hampole nunnery.
During the latter stages of his life he filled some kind of spiritual role at Hampole. What that might be is unclear as it cannot be confirmed for certain that he was actually ordained in Paris. It is believed though that he wrote his last piece of work, specifically for Margaret Kirby. He also wrote Ego Dormio for a nun at Yedingham.
Perhaps one of his most popular pieces, Incendium Amoris , translated as ‘The Fire of Love’, is a detailed description of three kinds of mystical experiences that he claimed to have experienced. These are:
This book became very popular during the middle ages, readers gaining an understanding of the stages a person must experience to gain closeness to God. These four stages were known as
Here is a short example of one of his poems, titled A New Song:
Richard de Rolle died at Hampole on the 29th September 1349 aged 49, possibly one of the many victims at that time of the Black Death, and he was interred by the nuns within the nunnery grounds.