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History and Research: St Catherine's Oratory

St Catherine’s Oratory, which is situated on St Catherine’s Hill, Isle of Wight, overlooking Chale Bay, is the site of a prehistoric burial mound and a small medieval oratory, or chapel, the west tower of which is thought to have been used as a lighthouse.

St Catherine's Oratory, which commands sweeping views along the coastline of the Isle of Wight

St Catherine's Oratory, which commands sweeping views along the coastline of the Isle of Wight
© English Heritage

History

It is likely that the oratory, completed in 1328, was erected by Walter de Godeton, a local landowner who was condemned by the Church for stealing casks of wine from a shipwreck which had occurred in 1314 off Chale Bay.

The ship was one of a fleet carrying a cargo of white wine for the monastery of Livers in Picardy. The Church threatened de Godeton with excommunication unless he built a lighthouse above the scene of the shipwreck, together with an adjoining oratory.

The oratory was to be endowed to maintain a priest to tend the light and to say masses for souls lost at sea. The duties were apparently carried out until the Reformation in the 16th century.

Description of the 'Pepperpot' Lighthouse

The lighthouse tower, known as the Pepperpot, is a four-storey octagonal structure of greensand stone, with a pitched roof of stone tiles on a domed brick vault. Eight windows on the third floor form a lantern.

The tower’s arched door-heads suggest that it was substantially repaired in the mid-16th century, possibly when anxiety about the threat from the Spanish Armada would have given the building an important role as a lookout tower and beacon site.

The lighthouse, which formed the western tower of St Catherine’s Oratory, is all that still stands of the original building.

The remains of the walls can still be seen, however, as grass-covered banks forming three sides of a square, with the lighthouse on the west side. The banks are approximately 12 metres (39 feet) apart and in places stand to 1 metre (3 feet) in height. An earth bank 0.5 metres (1.5 feet) high, the turf wall of the churchyard, encloses the oratory site on its north, west and south sides.

Bronze Age Barrow

At a distance of 15 metres (49 feet) to the south-east of the tower is a much earlier monument, a Bronze Age bowl barrow, or burial mound, which was constructed on this hilltop site about 4,000 years ago.

Bowl barrows consisted of a mound of turf, soil or rock, covering one or more burials, and usually surrounded by a circular ditch from which the mound material may have been quarried.

This barrow, which is 20 metres (66 feet) in diameter and 2 metres (6 feet) high, was partially excavated in 1925, when human and animal bones and flint tools were discovered.

At some time during the medieval period, possibly during the construction of the oratory, a lime kiln was built into the side of the barrow. To the south are pits and mounds which may have resulted from mining chalk to provide lime for the kiln.

Sources

Hockey, S F 1982. 'Insula Vecta: The Isle of Wight in the Middle Ages', Phillimore: Chichester

Disclaimer

The text and pictures on this page are derived from the 'Heritage Unlocked' series of guidebooks published in 2004. We intend to review, update and enhance the content in the near future as part of the Portico project, whose objective is to provide information on the history, significance, research background and sources for all English Heritage properties.

Portico: Researching English Heritage Sites