Yesterday was St Catherine’s Day—St Catherine of Alexandria that is—she of the Catherine Wheel and virgins seeking husbands. It seems only fitting to celebrate the fact by sharing our experience of a visit to one of her many chapels scattered across Europe. This one was the closest to hand at Abbotsbury in Dorset.
St Catherine’s Chapel is one of those magical places that once seen, stays in the mind. The portraits idealise her though she was quite a lady and a cult figure in Medieval Europe. Protesting against the persecution of Christians, she was tortured and broken on a wheel ringed with swords on the order of the Emperor Maxentius I. Subsequently she was carried to Mount Sinai by angels—and why not? — and became the patron saint of spinsters and virgins—especially those looking for husbands. A common prayer right up to the C19th was:
‘A husband, St Catherine
A handsome one, St Catherine,
A rich one, St Catherine,
And soon, St Catherine.’
In local dialect, the prayer ended ‘Am-a-one’s better than Narn-a-one’.
The Chapel was built in the C14th by Benedictine monks as a place of private prayer and retreat.
Their monastery can still be seen in the village below albeit in ruins after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The Chapel however was spared, not because the King had a place in his heart for fireworks, virgins and spinsters, but because the chapel served as a ready-made lighthouse. The view is breath taking but our pilgrimage was over. I was thinking of the pint with my name on it down in the village in The Ilchester Arms.
The story, in pictures is below
And now we are at its base, our target ahead and dark against the sun.
Behind us at the base of the mount is the village of Abbotsbury
And here it is, more like a war-lord's lair than a place of worship and prayer.
Seen from the side
And now with the sun on it, my back to the sea.
Inside, 700 years ago, it would have been like standing in a jewel-box. Stained glass windows flooded the small interior in colour.
And some quick views of the surrounding countryside, though by this time I was getting thirsty.
And to end with a song about St Catherine's Chapel