St Catherine's Chapel, Abbotsbury (Dorset)

A sturdily buttressed 14th-century chapel set high on a hilltop overlooking Abbotsbury Abbey. Free admission.

Places to stay near here

Summary

  • 14th century buildings
  • Free admission
  • Historic Property

Introduction

Set high on a hilltop overlooking Abbotsbury Abbey, this sturdily buttressed and barrel-vaulted 14th-century chapel was built by the monks as a place of pilgrimage and retreat.

Open all year round at any reasonable time.

History to the present day

St Catherine's pleasing chapel on the hill above Abbotsbury presents an interesting puzzle. It was St Augustine's policy that his priests, sent out from Rome around 600 A.D. to convert the heathen English, should replace pagan temples with Christian churches and chapels.

The early Christian missionaries would naturally try to choose a patron saint that continued, as closely as possible, the pagan dedication of the temple.

St Catherine's chapel, Abbotsbury, was probably one of these. Her chapels are often on hills, perhaps as a reference to Mount Sinai. It is interesting that if one says 'Catherine' in Welsh, the word sounds very like 'Cader rhyn' or 'hill throne'. One can understand how merchants in the Roman period spread Christianity up the Altlantic seaboard, founding the Celtich Church in the process. Perhaps, when they mentioned 'Katerina', the pure one, to the Celts, their audience recognised the new goddess in an old one.

This chapel is built on a definite platform which could have been made originally for the pagan temple. But the chapel we see today was built in the expansionist 1300's. Wessex first became Christian around 800. It seems unlikely that a pagan temple could still be active 500 years after the conversion of Wessex to Christianity, so today's building presumably replaced an earlier Christian structure.

It would be interesting to try to guess the original pagan dedication. We suspect that Abbotsbury was the site of a Roman villa, if only because it is one of a small number of sites in Dorset - indeed in Britain - that are very fertile and have easy access to navigable water; in this case, the Fleet, a 10 mile stretch of semi-tidal water that runs behind the Chesil beach from Portland harbour. The Roman Army in Britain depended heavily on sea borne transport for its supplies, so Abbotsbury might have been a military farm providing grain for the garrisons at Exeter, Chester, Dover and Colchester. It is possible that the visible foundations of the medieval mill in the village are Roman. The Fleet is famous today as the home of a herd of swans who used to belong to the Abbey (a swan is theologically a fish and can be eaten on Friday). They are known to have lived here for at least 600 years.

It is not hard to find a Roman goddess that is similar to St Catherine. Venus is the Greek Aphrodite who is the Middle Eastern Astarte or Ashtaroth. We think of Aphrodite now as a 'departmental goddess' in charge of sexuality, but originally she had far wider responsibilities for wisdom, learning and love in all its categories. The swan is one of her creatures. There is no reason to think that the abbey brought the swans to Abbotsbury. They have probably lived here for millennia.

Arrival information and how to find us

Address: St Catherine's Chapel, Abbotsbury, Dorset, , United Kingdom

Directions:

By Car: 1⁄2 mile South of Abbotsbury; by steep path from village, off B3157

By Train: Upwey 7 miles