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History & CommunitySt Catherine's Chapel

St Catherine’s Chapel

St Catherine’s Chapel has stood on top of Chapel Hill, overlooking the village of Abbotsbury, for over six hundred years. A prominent landmark in the countryside, it can be seen when approaching Abbotsbury along the coast road.
The monks of Abbotsbury Abbey built the chapel from the local golden stone at the end of the fourteenth century. It is of massive construction with substantial stone buttresses and parapet walls. No timber was used in its building, presumably to avoid the risk of fire from a lightning strike in this exposed hill-top position. Centuries of weathering by salt-laden winds have rounded all the sharp angles on the stonework.
The use of the building as a lookout tower and as a prominent seamark for mariners meant that it survived the demolition and stone robbing following the dissolution of Abbotsbury Abbey in 1539.
The chapel is a poignant reminder of Abbotsbury’s monastic past. It is dedicated to St Catherine, who is believed to have lived in the fourth century in Alexandria. Beautiful and well-educated, she was converted to Christianity by a monk. Maximinus, Caesar of Egypt and Syria, held pagan beliefs and ordered the local populace, in Alexandria, to attend a ritual sacrifice. Catherine persuaded others not to attend and ended up being imprisoned.
Curious to find out more about Catherine, Maximinus’s wife visited her in prison and ended up being converted to Christianity. Maximinus, on learning of this, ordered Catherine to be tortured on revolving wheels. These shattered during the torture and Maximinus had her beheaded. According to legend the wound flowed with milk, not blood, and angels carried her body to a grave on Mount Sinai. Catherine was a popular Saint when the chapel was built and there are other examples of hilltop chapels being dedicated to her. St Catherine has been adopted by unmarried young women as their patron saint and Dorset folklore has it that local women visit the Chapel to invoke St Catherine’s help in finding a husband:

A husband, St Catherine,
A handsome one, St Catherine,
A rich one, St Catherine,
A nice one, St Catherine,
And soon, St Catherine.

A walk from Abbotsbury to the top of Chapel Hill is necessary for a detailed inspection of this impressive building. Anyone making the ascent on a clear day will also be rewarded with magnificent views to the east over the Fleet to the Isle of Portland, and across Lyme Bay to Tor Bay in the west.
Entering through the north porch with its steeply pitched stone slab roof, you find yourself in the main part of the chapel. Despite the colossal construction of the building with its 4 ft thick walls, the interior is only some 42 ft long by 14 ft wide. The barrel-vaulted ceiling is constructed of stone, split into eight main bays by moulded ribs. Each bay is further split into two ranges of three panels with cinquefoil heads. Between the panels there are carved bosses, the details of which have become indistinct with age. It is believed that the ceiling was originally painted and as such would have been indistinguishable from a conventional timber ceiling.
The east window in the chapel is the only one to retain its stone tracery. The window is of 3 cinquefoil lights with vertical tracery in a two-centred head. On each side of this window are stone brackets, one of which must surely have held a statue of St Catherine.
On the north west corner of the chapel there is a distinctive octagonal tower which projects above the level of the parapet walls and provides access to the roof. There is also a small chapel at the top of the tower with windows looking out over the surrounding countryside. This tower may be one of the reasons for the siting of the chapel. The area at the time was suffering from raids on the coast by the French, and a lookout point was needed. The abbey also wished to reinforce its position in the community. So what better way than to build an imposing building looking down on the mediaeval lynchet field strips being cultivated by the abbey’s tenants on the slopes of Chapel Hill?
The chapel is in the care of English Heritage. When visiting at reasonable times of the day I have always found it to be open—but to be sure, check on the English Heritage Web site (www.english-heritage.org.uk).
Sources: St Catherine’s Chapel at Abbotsbury and the legend of the saint – published by Abbotsbury Music; The 1952 Royal Commission Inventory of the Historic Monuments in Dorset (Volume 1 – West Dorset).

 

Story and photograph by John Culshaw

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