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🌹 🎶 Fantastic Jurassic Dorset Adventure - VI: Getting High at Abbotsbury with Celts and St Catherine

Rambling Rose: Travel Blog

Katie’s Fantastic Jurassic Dorset Adventure

VI: Getting High at Abbotsbury with Celts and St Catherine

View from Abbotsbury Hill

High, high up, a very long time ago - around 500BC - the Celtic Durotriges built a fort on top of what is now Abbotsbury Hill, 215 metres above sea level. We don’t know what they called it, but we can be sure it wasn’t Abbotsbury Castle, as Abbots and Christians weren’t even a twinkle in the Universe’s eye back then. What we do know is that they made an excellent choice, commanding sweeping panoramic views of the coastline until the Romans chased them out in 43AD.

So here I am trying to pick out the path in a field full of cowpats, having jumped off the bus at the Abbotsbury Hill stop.  There are no signposts so I head off in the direction of a brick outpost and a beacon, apparently last used by the Tudors to send warnings of the impending Spanish Armada.  Soon I’m channelling my inner Braveheart, striding the blustery ridgeway that crowns this extraordinary landscape.  The entire coastline unfurls in all directions, dappled with variegated sunlight as the clouds roam over the rolling hills.

Celtic Cate on the Iron Age Fort



St Catherine’s Chapel perched lonely on a hill, acts as a drishti, drawing and focussing the eye as I descend from the ridgeway through bright neon-green fields bristling with the night’s rain into the traditional stone village of Abbotsbury.  According to a Survey of Dorsetshire written by Thomas Gerard (1592–1634), shortly after Christianity arrived in Britain in 597 AD, St Peter appeared to a ‘holie Priest’  Bertufus and consecrated a Church named Abodesbury, on the site of a former Roman water mill.    

Descending to Abbotsbury




Addesburi was later given to an abbot by King Edmund (920-946) and then by King Cnut (r 1016-1035) to his bodyguard Orc who built a Benedictine Abbey in 1044 which grew in size and prominence until Henry VIII dissolved it in 1539. It was acquired by the Strangeways family, who still own much of the land, and used stone from the Abbey to build the village and a Manor House, later destroyed when they backed the wrong horse in the Civil War.

Traditional Tea House, Abbotsbury





So it was Benedictine monks who built St Catherine’s Chapel as a pilgrimage site and secluded spot for Lent meditation sometime in the late 14th century.  The top-to-toe stone chapel is empty inside, but prayers and drawings on the ledges indicate it is still a place of contemplation, looking out over the gleaming shoreline of Chesil Beach and the ruined Abbey below.

St Catherine's Chapel, Abbotsbury with the Coastline of Chesil Beach

Who, however, was St Catherine? I knew that Catherine Wheels were named after her and that her name meant pure, but pull any piece of historical string and a story will unravel.  It turns out Catherine is likely a derivative of the Pagan Goddess Hecate - Αἰκατερίνη (Aikaterínē)  Ἑκατερίνη Hekaterínē/ hekatos - which has been translated as one who works from afar or both - worshipped in various forms by Bronze Age Anatolian Carians and Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.  The Goddess of Moon, Magic, the Underworld and all things Mysterious, she presided over crossroads, often shown with the triple-bodied ability to look in all directions, accompanied by baying hounds.  The Greeks honoured her with Deipnon, a meal held at the dark end of the lunar month when alms were given to the poor.  A far feistier Goddess then, than the later Christian spin of Catherine as καθαρόc/ katharós - “pure.”

St Catherine's Chapel, Abbotsbury

Turning the wheel through some centuries, we find Catherine of Alexandria (287-305AD) a feisty Egyptian mystic-scholar, daughter of Sabinella and Constus, Governor of Alexander, who, inspired by a vision of the Virgin and Christ Child, was a fervent converter of souls by age 14.  When she turned up at the palace of Emperor Maxentius (who ruled Italy and North Africa 306-312) to denounce idol worship and protest the persecution of Christians, she was made to debate with fifty leading Pagan orators and won, so was tortured - without yielding. 200 people visited her in prison, converted to Christianity and were subsequently martyred including the Emperor’s wife Valeria Maximillia.  When, after twelve days, she emerged defiantly radiant and turned down the Emperor’s marriage proposal, he condemned her to death-by-wheel. After the wheel shattered - either at her touch or by angelic intervention - he ordered her beheading. Undefeated, even in death, she commanded the executioner’s blow and milk not blood flowed from her neck.

Catherine’s body was said to have been flown by angels to the heights of Mount Sinai, where Emperor Justinian I established St Catherine’s Monastery in 548-565, believed to house her relics which includes St Helena’s Chapel, at the site of the burning bush determined by his Empress-Mother Helena and the Well of Moses where Moses met his wife. It houses one of the oldest known libraries and one of the longest-serving monasteries. One part was converted into a mosque and it remains a pilgrimage site for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Icon of St Catherine, St Catherine's Monastery, 
Via Wikipedia Public Domain



St Catherine has inspired numerous buildings, miracle plays, biographies and paintings worldwide.  As a skilled orator, she was the patron saint of lawyers, scholars, intellectuals and philosophers and St Catherine’s College in Cambridge bears her name. Her Catherine’s Wheel, immortalised in fireworks, made her the chosen guardian of potters, spinners and wheelmakers. She was also the patron saint of virgins, particularly those in search of husbands, and women came to pray at the Abbotsbury Chapel placing their hands and knees in niches. 


A traditional prayer being:
A husband, St Catherine,
A handsome one, St Catherine,
A rich one, St Catherine,
A nice one, St Catherine,
And soon, St Catherine.

St Catherine's Chapel, Abbotsbury



Another turn of the wheel and we find St Catherine appearing in visions to two feisty females -  St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) and Joan d’Arc (1412-1431) whom she guided to find a sword hidden in the chapel Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierboi.  Born Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa, this second St Catherine fasted and cut her hair off to resist arranged marriage, entered the Dominican mantellates of unmarried women and experienced a mystical marriage with Christ aged 21.  She dedicated herself to helping the poor and assisting at the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, rising to influence Pope Gregory XI’s move from Avignon to Rome, and negotiating peace with Florence in 1378.  She died whilst on hunger strike protesting the Great Schism of the West, leaving her prayers and a treatise.





St Catherine’s Saints Day is celebrated on 24th/25th November, close to Hecate’s Night 16th-17th November.  Malta holds the World Record for the largest Catherine Wheel created in 2011 as part of the annual week-long festival where statues of St Catherine are paraded. In France, French Canada and French New Orleans, Catherinettes - unmarried women over 25 - wear hats and dress in green for wisdom and yellow for faith, and it’s an important day for Parisian fashion houses.  In Estonia, on Kadripäev, women are relieved of their duties and go from door to door on the night before kadrisants, singing and offering blessings in return for alms.  This custom was known as katterning in the English Middle Ages and katterners gathered together to bake and share cattern cake - bread spiced with caraway seeds - recipe here or here.

Cattern’ and Clemen’ be here, here, here, *
Give us your apples and give us your beer,
One for Peter, Two for Paul,
Three for him who made us all ;
Clemen’ was a good man,
Cattern’ was his mother;
Give us your best, And not your worst,
And God will give your soul good rest.

* St Clements Feast Day was 23rd November
Catterning Song recorded by  Rev. W. D. PARISH, Vicar of Selmeston, Sussex in 1875 

Image: Giovanni di Paolo, St. Catherine of Siena, c. 1475, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, via Wikipedia



A further historical layer was added when the day also became associated with a legend that Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife, whilst imprisoned in Ampthill 1531-33, introduced lacemaking to Bedfordshire.   So St Catherine also became the patron saint of lacemakers and a figure of Queen Catherine was paraded at Catherine's Day fairs which continued until the turn of the 20th century. It was also called Candle-Day as the darker winter season meant that lacemaking had to be done by candlelight. A song from a 1905 event shows how the Saint and Queen had become merged.

Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), miniature by Lucas Horenbout, Wikipedia, Public Doman

Queen Katherine loved to deck with lace
The royal robes she wore;
But though she loved to wear her lace,
She loved the lace-folk more.
So now for good Queen Katherine’s sake
Put bones and sticks away,
And keep the yearly festival
And sing on ‘Kattern Day

Songs to St Catherine can still be found across Europe - a recording of a French chant to St Catherine sung by 70-year-old lacemaker Virginie Granouillet, from Roche-en-Régnier (Haute-Loire) accompanied by bobbins can be heard here.

So there we have it, a tale of not just one but three Catherines, with mystical roots to threefold Hecate.  Interestingly, due to the ‘fantastical elements’ of her story, the Papacy removed St Catherine’s Saints Day from the official calendar in 1967 - (as if other Christian myths were not also fantastical!?)  - but it seems unlikely that this will deny this feisty saint her festivities - I feel inspired to hold my own singing Catherine Party in her honour this year.

The wheel of my time in Dorset has turned - and I return now to London, invigorated by the strength of my ancestors and inspired by the example of iconic women who turned the tide.  Who knows where the wheel of fate will spin me next?


Hecate - Ancient Roman antiquities in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden
Image via Sailko