Most people of a medieval bent (and there are plenty of bent medieval people) who’ve been there will list St Patrick’s chapel, Heysham, Lancashire, as a spectacular and striking coastal medieval ecclesiastical site. Following on from my recent post about Llanbadrag, Anglesey, let’s introduce those unfamiliar to this amazing place and its surviving archaeological traces.
With dramatic views over Morecombe Bay to the Cumbrian fells, this scheduled Ancient Monument (1020535) is a rare survival in terms of standing ruins of an early medieval chapel. Rarer still, there is excavated remains of an associated cemetery with graves of the 10th/11th centuries, and the still-more-awesomely-fascinating rock-cut graves. Close by at St Peter’s church, there are further traces of an early medieval significance to this location, including a hogback stone and other sculptural fragments (see Bailey 2010).
The chapel structure includes two phases. The earliest phase is a narrow trapezoidal structure dated to the 8th century, later enlarged at either end at a later date. The south doorway survives of the first structure, which was 4m by 2.2m at the west end, increasing to 2.4m by the east. The excavated evidence tells us the original chapel was rendered with decorated plaster inside and out, including hints of painted letters. Excavators suggest it was originally a building of ‘some pretension, however small’.
The lintel for the south doorway, Bailey’s (2010) Heysham 16, might date to the 8th century.
To the west was an intriguing platform. It projected c. 1.25m from the western wall and extended to the width of the chapel. Excavators suggested it might have been a buttress but conclude it hints at the former presence of a western doorway to the building here.
While later medieval burials were found inside the chapel, excavations in 1977-78 also revealed multiple phases of cemetery, beginning in the early medieval period outside the building. The cemetery was divided into three separate areas by the underlying geology. Many were disturbed by later activity, but 88 groups of bones were found. 3 radiocarbon dates put these graves broadly in the 10th/11th centuries AD.
First of all, there were 13 graves – a mix of men, women and children, found west of the chapel in a natural hollow. Some were stone-lined or cut into crevices in the rock with two clear examples of superimposition.
To the south of the cemetery were c. 52 individuals in a natural gully. There was evidence of stone-linings to two graves and two beneath stone slabs. Some nails indicate coffin-burials. One adult female burial wrapped in a shroud in the southern cemetery was accompanied by a distinctive Viking-period ‘hogbacked’ single-sided antler comb. This is a rare example of a ‘grave-good’ from a later Anglo-Saxon Christian-period cemetery, but need not on its own denote anything regarding the ‘Viking’ or ‘pagan’ adherence of the site or grave, given such artefacts are known from elsewhere at ecclesiastical sites in northern Britain, notably at Ripon (N. Yorks).
A key feature, rare in early medieval cemeteries, is evidence of a wall enclosing these graves of at least two phases.
The third burial area (the eastern cemetery) was set in a declivity. It contained 13 burials, 5 lined and covered with stones. A distinctive find was a bird-headed sculpture reused in one of these graves containing an adult aged 35-45 and an infant. The stone, Bailey’s (2010) Heysham 12, possibly dates to the late 7th/early 8th century and might be the finial of a high-backed chair like those depicted on Pictish sculpture and with a close parallel from Minnigall, Kirkcudbright, which Derek Craig has proposed might have been from a reading desk (the bird as an Evangelist symbol).
Variations in orientation are readily explained by the underlying rock, but most were broadly west-east aligned.
A flight of four steps from the south door was a further distinctive feature thought to be early in date.
Listed by Bailey (2010) as Heysham 6 and 7, these are located south of St Patrick’s chapel in the area of the cemetery. Heysham 6 bears a full relief cross and might be 9th century in date, although Bailey cannot identify a precise parallel. Heysham 7 with a relief cross might be 11th century. These are rare instances of possible early medieval grave-covers still exposed outside for visitors to see. I worry about their conservation in this situation.
Regarding the millstone grit-cut graves, there are six to the west and two to the south-east. Potter and Andrew regard there being ‘little doubt of the general contemporaneity’ of the two groups. Five of those to the west have sockets for crosses to mark the graves and the two to the south-east deviate from true W-E alignment, although the implications for dates are unclear. So these are of uncertain date and they lack parallels, but have been generally thought to be pre-Conquest in origin, although once carved, such in situ features might readily be subject to multiple reuses for interments in later centuries. The parallel with a possible cross-shaft socket under the east wall of the phase 2 extension to the chapel, supports this view that these rock-cut features are early, but it is far from certain (this is Bailey 2010’s Heysham 11).
They are a unique environment to witness exposed and on display early medieval graves in the British landscape. They survive because of the distinctive and restrictve topography of the site, and the grave-markers would have once prominently projected the presence and perhaps aspects of the social identities of those interred within the cemetery topography but also projected them over the seaward hinterland of the chapel from the top of a distinctive rock outcrop. A high-status dimension to this burial group is therefore proposed, despite their relative distance from the chapel.
The small size of some of the grave-cuts makes it impossible to consider them used for adult graves. Potter and Andrew (1994), and subsequently others (Nash 2010), postulate that these might have been used to contain the remains of disarticulated bones in the first instance: some form of focus for the cult of saints. While this might be so, it is important to highlight increasing evidence from another coastal chapel site, as discussed in this blog for Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire, of infant and child burial with elaborate funerary treatments. In this light, perhaps the smaller rock-cut graves might be readily comprehended in this context as further evidence of ‘high-status’ or ‘special’ treatment of specific infant and child burials at key maritime ecclesiastical locales.
Whether this was a monastic site, or another form of ecclesiastical site linked to an elite residence close by, remains unclear. The excavators postulated the site declined in use during the late 11th/early 12th centuries. It is also important to note that the provenance of the stone sculpture at St Peter’s is unclear, and much of these might derive from either there or St Patrick’s chapel: Bailey’s (2010) corpus does not distinguish between the two sites in listing the fragments on these very grounds. The possibility of an early focus on the rock-cut graves as contains for relics of saints, is difficult to parallel precisely and therefore we remain unclear as to whether St Patrick’s was succeeded by St Peter’s or they persisted for many centuries as contemporaneous elements of the same ecclesiastical landscape.
Nash (2010) suggests that both St Patrick’s and St Peter’s were elements of a single ecclesiastical focus, and therefore elements of a ‘fossilised early medieval landscape’, although his precise attributions of St Peter’s as a ‘monastic centre’ and St Patrick’s as a ‘cemetery chapel’, drawing on Rachel Newman’s work, remain questionable. Nash rightly emphasises the importance of the backdrop of striking landscape features in creating the environment for an evolving mortuary and commemorative landscape and goes further to consider how the different elements – architecture and burial – were elements of a technology of remembrance accruing through the Early Middle Ages.
Now worn and dated, the heritage display board is remarkably clear and coherent, including a burial plan of the cemetery (how rare is that!) and depictions of Heysham 12 and the elevation of the south wall showing the Anglo-Saxon finial Heysham 16.
St Patrick’s is a truly remarkable site, but understanding its origins, development and relationship with St Peter’s remain hazy. While sitting at the edge of a present-day conurbation restricts the potential of future archaeological research, the stone sculpture, architecture and burials from St Patrick’s make this an important focus for conservation, management and future targeted investigations.
Bailey, R. 2010. Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture Volume IX: Cheshire and Lancashire, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Nash, G. 2010. Death and memorial in an early medieval ecclesiastical landscape in north-wes tEngland: an appraisal of St Patrick’s chapel and St Peter’s church, Heysham, Lanceshire, in A. George, D. Hawley, G. Nash, J. Swann and L. White (eds) Early Medieval Enquiries 299-317, Bristol: Proceedings of the Clifton Antiquarian Club, 9.
Potter, T.W. and Andrews, R.D. 1994. Excavation and survey at St Patrick’s chapel and St Peter’s church, Heysham, Lancashire, 1977-8, Antiquaries Journal 74: 55-134.