St Catherines Chapel


This secluded Chapel is full of mysteries and legends.

Why was it built here? The present building dates from around 1190 and there are lots of Norman features. It was a place of pilgrimage. But was there a building here before? It might even have started as an Anglo-Saxon minster, in which case it may have been constructed of wood and left no trace. Only archaeology could shed light on this. We have tried to get geophysics survey around the Chapel.

St Catherines Chapel, S doorwat 12th C, RCHME, fig241 (2016_01_17 15_27_57 UTC)

Look outside down the grass steps to the Abbey – you would think that this Chapel and the Abbey ought to be on the same alignment, but they are not. Maybe the Abbey is not on its original Anglo-Saxon foundations, or on its Norman replacement foundations,  or the Chapel is not on its pre-Norman foundations. Or maybe the builders did not intend them to be on the same alignment.

Many chapels on hillsides are dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, but when was this one dedicated?

Look at the medieval tiles – they are in excellent condition and better than the fragments which are in the Abbey today. They are important for Dorset. We assume that they were lifted from the Abbey floor during one of its many restorations.

St Catherine's Chapel. 12th-century, Milton Abbas. RCHME fig361 (2016_01_26 17_42_58 UTC)

Look out for the indulgence which is clearly carved in a stone by the door. It is in Lombardic capitals. There is also a brass plaque on the back of the door with a transcription. . But what does it mean? Many writers have said that it is an indulgence of 110 days. But this seems an extraordinarily long time for such a small chapel, and other readings of ten days are possible and more likely.

St Catherines Well is the name of a nearby street, but no well is marked on any map. Might there once have been a spring on the site of St Catherines Chapel? There are many “holy wells” on the site of a spring, and these have been revered since pre-Christian times.

entrenchment, St Catherines Chapel

The embankment – it could have been an encampment – legend says it was the site of King Athelstan’s army,  but it could also be the remains of a minster wall., or chapel yard.

For those interested in King Athelstan (and who isn’t?), he is the king who granted the monastery of Milton Abbey in 934 a charter with gifts of the relics of SS Sampson and Branwalader and extensive lands across Dorset. These lands were held by the monastery and are also listed in Domesday and were still almost intact at the surrender of the abbey in 1539.

There are several books on King Athelstan and he is one of the most important kings in Anglo-Saxon England, unifying the country, and defeating the Danes at Brunanburh. His coinage is of great interest in piecing together the history of this remote period. Here is one of his silver pennies:

Look out for the memorial stone outside the chapel inscribed “This has been a special place for the Ford family since 1937 and those who are not here are here”.