digging for St Helena

trench 6Photo from https://malhamchapeldig.wordpress.com/blog/

Malham Chapel Dig, 2017

The site of the former St Helen’s Chapel in Malham is on the hill as one enters the village: the showgrounds.  Behind it are the rising hills of the dales leading to the wide moors that stretch to Settle, and seemingly to the infamous Pendle hill.  These moors are sparsely populated by Highland Cattle, at the moment with their young.  The field across from the site is separated by a dry-stone walled lane.  It is maintained by a group of Banded Galloways, four mothers and three calves; the fourth gone, its mourning mother reminding us of her loss with infrequent, eerie bellows.  Over the road is the Malham Beck, which will soon catch up with the Aire Beck to become the River Aire, and the Dale will change from Malhamdale to Airdale.  In the distance is Malham Cove, and before us rise hills divided into small fields by stone walls.  These fields look close enough to touch, such is the angle of the hills and the clarity of the fresh air.  To the right of these fields, but not within site, is Gordale Scar and its waterfalls that have many of their own tales to share.

As we trowel back the soil from both older and more recent times, we reveal a mix of the ancient and the modern: small finds from worked flint to cow’s teeth, medieval to Victorian to nineteenth century pottery, medieval window glass, dull yet exciting because of its rarity, to twenty-first century beer bottle glass, extremely sharp, extremely thin.

Interesting as these small finds are, however, it is the features that reveal the most for our purpose.  In the trenches we uncover the worked stones that represent the corners of the foundations of one end of the building, and beside them, mysterious sets of rocks that start to take on a uniform shape.  They are buttresses, designed to bolster a failing wall.  Or to lend strength to extensions. 

Our buttresses are of a style that tells us they were added at some time between the 1300s and the 1500s.  They are not integrated into the chapel structure itself.  We know so little of the chapel, its birth, its patronage and its decor.  Few documents relating to it remain, whether they were lost in the Dissolution and other events, or never existed.  Now, however, we know more about our chapel.  Two equal buttresses suggest an extension, not failing walls, and the extension would of course be in height.  This reveals an increase in wealth and status of the chapel during its lifetime.

The fall of St Helen’s Chapel is documented indirectly.  There are records of the sale of its valuable lead from the roof, and the letter of appeal by the Malham residents to Queen Mary for its restitution.  Before this could take place, however, Elizabeth assumed the throne.

St Helen’s chapel was destroyed illegally by the local landowner, who sold off its contents and building materials for personal gain.  These are the questions I would like answered:

When was the chapel initially constructed?

Did it supersede a previous religious site?

Did the residents object at the time of its destruction?  And if so, how did they do this, and what were the ramifications for them?

St Helena (Helen, Elena) was a popular saint in the Middle Ages.  While the many legends told about her life may not have been true, her contribution to the institutionalisation of Christianity was.  My first excavation, many years ago, was located on St Helena Island, in Moreton Bay,  Australia.  I found not one memory of St Helena there.  And we found no remembrance to her on this site in Malham.

That leaves me with my final question: where is St Helena now?


Further reading: Victoria Spence, ‘The Ancient Chapel of St Helen, Malham in Craven: Dissolution and Discovery’, Northern History, 52 (2015), 52-67. Find the article here