St Catherine’s 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. See Nicky and Steve Griffin‘s work and catalogue of these tiles.

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:

In the 12th and 13th centuries places of worship proliferated, both parish churches and particularly chapels. There were several reasons why a chapel might be built: chapels of ease where there was a long journey for parishioners to attend the main parish church; chantry chapels supported by a guild or benefactor; and household chapels attached to a wealthy or noble household. None of these reasons apply to the building of our St Catherine’s Chapel. Because Milton Abbey, a house of Benedictine monks, was also used as a parish church, it might have been difficult for women to attend the Abbey Church. Furthermore, from the time that the Abbey Church burned to the ground in 1309, there may not have been a church in the parish for anyone to attend. It took nearly 200 years to rebuild and it was certainly slow progress during the early years. St Catherine’s Chapel may have been a capella ad portam, a chapel outside the walls of the monastery, literally ‘at the gate’, that is outside the monastery precinct where different rules obtained, where women could visit and pray, where pilgrims may have rested and washed before entering the Abbey church and it may have been located along the road to the entrance of the Abbey precinct from the west.

The form of St Catherine’s Chapel is simple with a small chancel and nave, and without aisles. The exterior buttresses were added in the 15th century to support the nave walls, and no aisles were ever built, although they were starting to be built in parish churches at this time. The original design is very typical of chapels and some of the smaller parish churches of the 12th century. There is a fine example at Kilpeck, Herefordshire, although a more elaborate building, with an additional apse and much carving, it was also originally attached to a Benedictine monastery. Inside St Catherine’s Chapel the walls would have been whitewashed with lime and then painted. Over the chancel arch would have bee a Doom painting showing Jesus in majesty and scenes of the Judgement – those free of sins ascending to heaven and the sinners doomed to hell descending. In medieval times with most of the population unable to read, the scenes would have been a reminder of the importance of the church and the way to lead a good life. It is difficult to determine how often people attended church. Certainly on the feast day of the patron saint, St Catherine’s was on 25th of November. She was one of the most important saints in the Roman Catholic church, being a virgin martyr. Also everyone would have attended church at Easter. The rules on attendance, and much else besides, changed during the 12th to 15th centuries with instructions from the various Lateran councils to the bishops. Whether these were followed at a local level is not easy to determine, there are few surviving reports of visitations by the bishops and their deputies on what they found actually going churches. Of course attendance at church was to witness the miracle when the priest elevated the host to turn bread and wine into the actual flesh and blood of Christ. In many cases this was not easy to see since the elevation took place at the high altar at the far east end of the chapel, with the congregation assembled standing in the nave and wooden screen between the nave and the chancel (the rood screen) with only small openings. The mass was of course said in Latin and the ordinary people not understanding any of it.

No archaeological excavations have been carried out around the chapel. The embankments may have bounded the chapel yard which may have been used as a graveyard, as many chapels did. At an excavation at Poulton, Cheshire, osteological examination of the well preserved bones of 800 interments from such a chapel graveyard used in the 13th to 16th centuries has been carried out recently. The people buried were in poor physical health, with extensive signs of hard manual work combined with a poor diet. There were indications of periods of starvation, anaemia, osteoarthritis, vitamin deficiency such as rickets, and diseases such as congenital syphilis, Paget’s disease and periostitis. There was poor dental hygiene evidenced by the loss of teeth and the state of the remaining teeth, and signs of abscesses. There was high infant mortality and with many children dying at around age 3 it was suggested that they did not survive the change from breast milk to solid food (weaning in medieval England was around 3 years old). Stillborns were not buried in consecrated ground within the cemetery because they had not received the sacrament of baptism, so would be buried possibly just outside in a state of limbo.

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”.