Chapel of St Aldhelm

Religious Sites at St Alban’s Head

At Aldhelm's Chapel - Front View


The casual visitor often fails to notice that earthen mounds surround the chapel. Experts believe that the Norman chapel building occupies the centre of a pre-Conquest Christian enclosure and that the Chapel itself probably rests on an earlier timber building. Early Christian enclosures are characterised by earthworks and mounds that are roughly circular in plan. These sites are nearly always located in remote or isolated areas and served small religious communities or “cells”. Many early Christian enclosures are associated with a chapel building and/or cemetery.

Early Christian enclosures are a rare class of monument nationally. Interestingly a comparable early Christian enclosure has been identified lying beneath Sherborne Old Castle in North Dorset, thus strengthening the Chapel’s links with the 7th century first Bishop of Sherborne, St Aldhelm.

There seems to be little doubt that the Chapel occupies part of an ancient Christian site. Christian faith, worship and practice that began in the first millennium of the Christian era and continue to this day have hallowed the ground on which you stand,


The puzzle of the shape and design of the Chapel always exercises the minds of visitors. It is thought that St Aldhelm’s Chapel was built not only to meet the spiritual needs of a small Christian community or cell that had been in existence here for long before the 12th century, but also to provide an important defensive capability for Corfe Castle on what was the vulnerable “blind” southern side of the Castle channel approach. The reason for this link is due to the fact that certain unusual construction details within the walls of the Chapel are replicated at Corfe Castle.


This isolated chapel, dedicated to St. Aldhelm, first Bishop of Sherborne, stands on cliffs 108 metres above sea level on St. Aldhelm’s Head in the parish of Worth Matravers, near Swanage, Dorset. Two points immediately strike the visitor as being most unusual. First, the angles of the building are pointing to the to the cardinal points of the compass, not the walls as is customary. Secondly, the 7.77 metre square shape is most unusual for an ecclesiastical building. These two features the square shape and the orientation have caused people to speculate that the chapel did not, in the first instance, have a religious origin. However the beautiful vaulting of the 12th century roof and the existence of mediaeval graves outside near the walls, together with its position within a circular earthwork, suggest that it was a religious building from the beginning.

Very few facts about its early history are known, although legends and rumours abound. The first mention occurs in the reign of Henry III (1216-1272) when, according to the Dorset historian Hutchins, the chapel of St. Mary in Corfe Castle and the chapel of St. Aldhelm in Purbeck were each served by a chaplain, paid fifty shillings per annum by the Crown through the Sheriff of the County. (Apparently, this was the usual stipend of a royal chaplain.) Hutchins gleaned this information from the Pipe Rolls. We next hear of it in 1291, during the reign of Edward I, when it was rated at twenty shillings and then, again in 1428 in the Aid Roll when the parish of the chapel of St. Aldhelm was still taxed at twenty shillings, but a note says “there were no inhabitants”. One other mention of the chapel is in 1557 or 1558, when John Aylworth sold the Manor of Renscombe, with the advowson of the chapel of Renscombe, to Bernard Gould. Was this chapel the one on the headland? A map of 1737 shows the headland as still belonging to Renscombe, with the chapel clearly indicated.

It was believed that the chapel was originally a chantry, where a priest would celebrate mass for the safety of sailors; and it might well have been used for rest and prayer by kings, who often hunted in Purbeck. King John is supposed to have been a constant visitor to Purbeck and may well have visited it frequently. The fact that chantries were suppressed during the reign of Edward VI in 1547 supports the theory that the chapel was a chantry, because in 1625, only 78 years after the suppression, we hear from the historian Coker that “it now serves as a sea-marke, belonging to the familie of Welles in Hampshire”. It would seem probable that local people still continued to visit it for a little time after the ending of services there, but it was by then no longer in use as a chapel.

Dating proves the door way was built in Saxon times.

There is one other local legend. It is said that in 1140 a bride and groom were sailing round the headland, watched by the bride’s father. A storm suddenly arose, the boat capsized and both were drowned. The desolate father is said to have built the chapel to their memory; and a light was always to be kept burning to warn other sailors. Maybe the father began the building and the Church took it over and completed it? We cannot know definitely.


Hutchins tells us that a square hole with human bones was found near the chapel. In 1957 another important discovery was made. While ploughing a field 402 metres NNE of the chapel, Mr Ted Miller struck a heavy piece of stone which was revealed to be part of a monumental slab of Purbeck stone. (The slab now rests inside the porch of St. Nicholas’s Church, Worth Matravers.) Originally about 2 metres in length, ¾ metre wide at the head, it has an ornamental “Celtic style” cross carved in relief upon it. (A similar motif is to be seen on a small coffin lid set in the floor by the altar of St. Nicholas Church, Worth Matravers.) later more excavations were carried out at the spot and a grave was discovered below the slab containing the skeleton of a woman aged between 30 and 40 years. Her arms were folded across her chest and a row of upright stones was round the body. Eight pieces of rusty iron were found in the grave, with traces of wood adhering to them. Perhaps a wooden board had been used as a cover, with the pieces forming a cross. Maybe the stones were the remains of her cell, as the foundations of a building two metres square were found near the grave. (This information is taken from an article by J B Calkin, recorded in the minutes of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society.) We do not know who she was. We do know she must have lived here in the late 13th century at the time when there was a royal chaplain, and that she was given a Christian burial. It has been suggested that she may have been an anchoress leading a holy life near the chapel. A local legend of doubtful origin tells of a colony of lepers nearby. Could she have been looking after them?


There is now a modern cross on top of the chapel. What was there originally? Maybe a cresset with a beacon fire to warn passing sailors. Some have suggested a bell! However, recent repairs to the roof have produced evidence to support the existence of a beacon.


If we consider the 17th century we find that the chapel was failing into disrepair and fast becoming derelict. It appears that the chapel was still visited because cut in the central column are dates and initials from that period. It was at some time used as a wishing chapel. Young girls would drop a pin, perhaps a hairpin, into a hole in the central pillar and wish, possibly for the husband of their choice. Mrs Dora Wallace recalls being taken by her mother to drop a pin into the hole and wish. Perhaps this is the remains of a very old custom of making an offering to the priest for prayer for the safety of friends at sea.


During the 18th century the chapel became ruinous. In an old map of Renscombe dated 1737, the chapel is marked as “St Abbon’s Chapel” but in an account of a tour in Dorset made in 1797 W G Maton says, according to Hutchins, that “Some part of the roof has fallen in”. Apparently, it was at this time that the chapel was in danger of becoming derelict. The owner of Encombe in 1800, William Morton Pitt, became interested, and although the chapel was not on his land at the time, he decided to start repairs. Nothing of any importance seems to have been done, however, until Lord Chancellor Eldon (John Scott, first earl of Eldon 1751-1838) purchased Renscombe in 1811. He had already bought Encombe from Pitt in 1807. (Encombe House is situated in the neighbouring ecclesiastical parish of Kingston. The Scott family still resides there to the present day. The estate stretches across a number of Purbeck parishes.) We have a description of the chapel at this time from an article read to the Purbeck Society in 1858 by the Revd John Austen. He quotes Sir Henry Engelfield, who died in 1823, “the roof was so ruined and overgrown with grass that it could not be traced with certainty. Parts of the groin had fallen in, but Lord Eldon had directed it to be repaired.” Although no extensive repairs seem to have been done until the latter half of the 19th century, Mr Austen tells us that “on Whit Thursday annually, the villagers of Worth proceed with music to the Head, dress the chapel with flags, and dance within it, when many an offering is doubtless made accompanied by many a whispered wish.” Obviously, there was not much room for dancing maybe they danced round outside. Further corroboration of these feast days comes in an article by H J Moule in the proceedings of the Dorset Archaeological Society written in 1893. He tells us that “On Whit Thursday, Worth Fair Day and club day, the people went with music to St. Aldhelm’s, decked the grey sombre interior with flowers and danced there.” He also said it contained coastguards’ stores. Encombe had meanwhile continued with repairs (apparently old hairpins were found in the central column) and in 1873 the cross was erected on the turret. On 18th July 1874 “after ages of desecration” a service was held to mark the re-opening of the chapel. On this occasion Alfred Gibson, the son of the chief boatman who lived in a neighbouring coastguard cottage, was baptised. According to the minutes of Worth Vestry Meeting, the third Earl of Eldon bore all the expenses of reconstruction and presented the font.


In the last twenty years or so of the 19th century services were held regularly at the chapel on Sunday evenings, but by 1935 there was only the occasional service. Dora Wallace recalls that services were held once a fortnight and always at Rogation-tide. (The Rogation-tide service with procession was revived on Rogation Sunday 1994.) In the 1930’s the families of the coastguards at the Head all attended worship and an organ was carried in for every service and removed again at the end because of the dreadful damp. Cows had been getting in, so a gate and fence were installed outside the door to keep them out. This was removed in July 1963 as it was no longer necessary.

During the Second World War the chapel was used for worship very occasionally. During those dark days, near the chapel appeared the buildings, aerials and apparatus of the Air Ministry’s Telecommunications Research Establishment that was centred at Renscombe Farm. Some visible evidence of that period still remains. The little chapel witnessed war at sea and in the air and yet emerged unscathed. After the war it was the discovery of the anchoress grave in 1957 that stimulated interest once again.

In November 1965 the Encombe Estate gifted the chapel to Worth Matravers Parochial Church Council. Once again much restoration work was urgently required, and so, with the generous financial help of well wishers from near and far, repairs were carried out.

Today the chapel is used regularly for Christian worship. These occasions are very popular with locals and visitors alike. Details of these services are given below.

Throughout the year, in fair weather or foul, St. Aldhelm’s Chapel attracts pilgrims and visitors from near and far. They come to seek shelter, rest and spiritual refreshment.

(Reproduced with the kind permission of Rev Judith Malins. Full copies of Chapel of St Aldhelm on St Aldhelm’s Head Guide may be purchased from the Chapel or St Nicholas Church, Worth Matravers).

At Aldhelm's Chapel - Front View


To confirm dates and times, you are advised to check the Chapel notice board or telephone Rev Gaynor Burrell on (tba)