St Catherine’s Chapel is a small chapel situated on a hill above the village of Abbotsbury in Dorset, England. It is dedicated to Saint Catherine and now in the guardianship of English Heritage, and has been Grade I Listed since January 1956.
The chapel is best seen from the viewpoint on the B3157 Abbotsbury to Bridport road, with Chesil Beach in the background. The medieval strip lynchets etched into the side of the hill are known locally as the Chapel Rings.
Although no records survive of the chapel’s construction, the chapel has been dated in style to the late 14th century, the same time as Abbotsbury’s tithe barn was built. The chapel is built on a definite platform which could have been originally for a pagan temple.
St Catherine’s Chapel was built as a place of pilgrimage and retreat by the monks of the nearby Benedictine monastery Abbotsbury Abbey, which the chapel overlooks high up on the hilltop. Its position on the top of a hill about 80m (260 ft) high, overlooking the coast from Portland Bill to Bridport, meant that it was a prominent feature for seafarers. Only a handful of chapels of the same kind are located outside the precincts of the monasteries who constructed them. The isolated setting of the chapel granted the monks to withdraw from the monastery during Lent for private prayer and meditation.
In the 16th century the main abbey buildings were destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries, but the chapel survived, most likely due to its usefulness as a coastal beacon and sea-mark. In later times a navigation light used to be lit at the top of the stair turret. The chapel was repaired in 1742 and the late 19th century, but is largely unaltered.
Under the care of English Heritage, the chapel is open over the peak season, with free entry. Abbotsbury’s local parish holds several informal services at St Catherine’s Chapel during the year, usually in the latter half of the year, from June to December.
Access: The chapel is accessed on foot up a steep incline of approximately 1/2 mile.
Parking: Parking is available in town centre off Rodden Row (car park postcode DT3 4JL) a short walk from Chapel Hill.
How to Find It: The path to the chapel can be reached via Chapel Lane (opposite Red Lane) off Market Street in the centre of the village.
Facilities: Shops, food and toilets are available a short walk away in the village centre.
Be Aware: The path takes you through land grazed by cattle, so please keep dogs on leads.
St Catherine is the patron saint of spinsters and virgins, particularly those in search of husbands, and until the late 19th century the chapel had a local tradition where young women of Abbotsbury would ‘wish’, which involved using the niches provided (one for a knee and two other two holes for the hands) in the east jamb of the south doorway to ‘post’ prayers and make a wish to the saint asking for her help and aid. A traditional prayer used here says:
A husband, St Catherine,
A handsome one, St Catherine,
A rich one, St Catherine,
A nice one, St Catherine,
And soon, St Catherine.
In the local dialect version the request ends with the expression “Arn-a-one’s better than Narn-a-one”, meaning that anyone is better than ‘never a one’.
The dedication of the chapel to St Catherine of Alexandria is rare, but her cult was one of the most popular in medieval England. It was St Augustine’s policy that his priests, sent out from Rome around 600 A.D. to convert the 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, and this chapel was most likely an example of that. Chapels dedicated to St Catherine are often found on hills, possibly in reference to Mount Sinai.