St Patrick's early Christian chapel and associated cemetery, Lower Heysham


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of St Patrick's early Christian chapel and associated cemetery, Lower Heysham
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Lancaster (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SD 40984 61655

Reasons for Designation

An early Christian chapel is a purpose-built structure, usually rectangular and often comprising a single undivided room, which contained a range of furnishings and fittings appropriate for Christian worship in the early medieval period (c.AD 400-1100). Until the seventh century, such chapels were mostly constructed of wood, often being replaced in stone at a later date. The Venerable Bede (c.673-735) provides an account of the transition from wooden to stone building in Northumbria, and there are references in the saints' vitae and in early Irish sources to the various building traditions. They are mainly restricted to the northern and western parts of England. A number of early Christian chapels have been found to be located at earlier burial sites, the grave of a saint or ecclesiastical founder providing the focal point. Chapels of this early period are sometimes referred to as oratories. In all cases, however, the chapels would have served as a place of prayer for a religious community, in some cases located within an early monastic site and set with other buildings in an enclosure called a vallum monasterii. Early Christian chapels of this type and function should be distinguished from the later parochial chapels of the medieval period which served a secular community, and were mostly designed for larger congregational worship. Certain of the early chapels which became identified with particular saints became places of veneration for medieval pilgrims, and, such was the desire to be buried close to the relics of the saint, that the burial tradition often continued in proximity to the chapel. Many early chapels, with their strong associations with saints, will have been subsumed within later and grander religious structures, and their survival in anything like their original form is therefore rare. The remains of early Christian chapels, where they can be positively identified, will contain important archaeological information relating to the development of Christianity, and all examples with significant surviving archaeological remains are considered to be of national importance.

Early Christian cemeteries range in date from the fifth to the tenth centuries during which time Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlement predominated. Anglo-Saxon cemeteries are dated to the early Anglo-Saxon period, from the fifth to the seventh centuries, with Viking cemeteries common from the eighth century onwards. With the conversion to Christianity during the late sixth and seventh centuries many of the pagan cemeteries were abandoned in favour of new sites, some of which have continued in use up to the present day. Burial practices include both inhumation and cremation. The pagan practice of placing personal belongings in the grave declined after the conversion to Christianity but did not cease in its entirety. Early Christian cemeteries represent one of the principal sources of archaeological evidence for the period between the abandonment of Britain by the Romans and the Norman Conquest, providing information on population, social structure and ideology.

St Patrick's early Christian chapel and its associated cemetery and rock-cut graves, Lower Heysham, survives well and remains one of the best examples in north west England of an early Christian chapel and cemetery. It will contribute to any further study of the development and spread of early Christianity in the region.


The monument includes the upstanding and buried remains of St Patrick's early Christian chapel together with its associated cemetery and rock-cut graves. It is located on the exposed headland above the village of Heysham and the chapel, together with the adjacent church of St Peter, represents a Christian centre possibly founded here as early as the eighth century. Local tradition states that St Patrick was shipwrecked off the coast sometime in the fifth century and subsequently established a small chapel here. The upstanding remains of the chapel consist of a two-phase structure; to the west are six rock-cut graves while the main cemetery lies to the south and south west of the chapel with two more rock-cut graves to the south east of the chapel.

St Patrick's Chapel is constructed of sandstone rubble with consolidation work carried out in 1903 using stone tiles. The upstanding remains are largely those of the chapel's second phase of construction. It is trapezoidal in plan with internal dimensions of 7.1m east-west by 2.2m at the west end increasing to 2.75m at the east end. The east wall stands to gable height of about 5.5m and was built over a squarish hole cut into the rock which is interpreted as a socket hole for an earlier cross. The north wall of the chapel survives best at the north east corner where it stands 3.45m above the foundations which here extend to a depth of almost 1m to give support where the ground falls sharply away. The west wall has gone completely; all that survives are the footings of the first phase of construction. The south wall survives only in its central part and stands up to 3.4m high. An arched doorway built with through stones in long and short work is typical of Anglo-Saxon style with both the internal and external faces of the arch being formed by single decorated stones, the external with three cusped ridges, the internal with a single hollow moulding. To the east of the door there is a straight joint indicating the possible position of a window last documented as partially remaining in 1957.

A group of six rock-cut graves have been cut into an eminence of millstone grit to the west of the chapel. Five of the graves have sockets for cross shafts and a primary date for them on the site appears likely given the sealing of another cross shaft socket beneath the east wall of the phase two chapel. The graves are orientated west-east but are cut sufficiently shallow and narrow as to render difficult the internment of a normal corpse and may thus have held disarticulated bones. Traces of the foundations for a wall depicted on 19th century drawings on the north and west sides of these graves are still visible. To the south east of the chapel are a further two rock-cut graves on a small eminence of bedrock. They deviate slightly from a west-east orientation, which may hint at an early date.

Excavations undertaken in 1977-78 found the remains of an earlier stone-built chapel beneath the present structure. Its internal dimensions are 4m long by 2.2m at the west end increasing to 2.4m at the east end. A stone platform the width of the chapel survives outside the west end of the building suggesting to the excavators that a doorway existed in the west wall. There was considerable evidence that the early chapel had been rendered internally and externally with decorated plaster. Excavation also revealed that the cemetery contained the remains of about 80 men, women and children located predominantly in three areas where the bedrock was sufficiently deep enough to allow a shallow covering of soil. The west cemetery is contained in a small hollow measuring about 8m by 2m. Thirteen burials were found, with two phases; the majority belonging to the first phase. Some lay in stone-lined tombs while others were intered within crevices in the bedrock. The central cemetery lay in a natural hollow in the bedrock about 4m wide extending southwards from the chapel. Fifty two burials were located, many fragmentary. The most notable was a female thought to have been wrapped in a shroud with whom was placed a bone comb of Anglo-Scandinavian type with parallels from 10th/11th century contexts found elsewhere. Two graves were stone-lined and two others lay beneath stone slabs. A few nails from some burials may imply the use of coffins. Excavations also located evidence of a wall of two phases enclosing the central cemetery. Its north wall ran between the central and western cemeteries and is aligned with the platform of the phase one chapel suggesting contemporaneity. The wall had a door or gateway with a small central posthole. Other fragmentary traces suggest the wall enclosed a burial ground with maximum dimensions of about 12m north-south by 6m east-west. A flight of four steps running parallel to the chapel's south wall and leading from the south door and down to the east cemetery are also considered to belong to an early phase. The cemetery wall was later wholly or partly rebuilt predominantly on the same alignment as the earlier wall, however, the south wall of the second phase shortened the cemetery by 2m. The east cemetery is located in a hollow measuring about 5.5m by 2.5m. It contained 13 burials mostly in two distinct stratified layers. A series of five graves were lined and covered with stones. One of these five included a stone with a magnificently carved bird's head which had been reused by being placed face down and used as the head of a grave. The carving has been tentatively dated as belonging to the late 7th/early 8th centuries. Another of the graves was covered with a large stone slab. Overall the elaborate stone-built graves are comparatively late in the history of the site and must have been prominent visible features. Ten burials were also located within the chapel, all belonging to phase two or later. Of these two were located in stone-lined graves. Three of the burials from St Patrick's were radiocarbon dated and gave calibrated dates ranging from between AD 970-1185 (one sigma). It is not known precisely when the chapel and cemetery fell into desuetude. The radiocarbon dates suggest abandonment by the 12th century, and possibly prior to the Norman Conquest, and the excavators suggest a link between the decline of St Patrick's with the expansion of neighbouring St Peter's in the post-Conquest period.

St Patrick's Chapel, the six rock-cut graves to the west and the two rock-cut graves to the south east are all Listed Buildings Grade I All 19th century walls are excluded from the scheduling although the ground beneath them is included. However, the 19th century foundation strengthening of the north wall of the chapel is included in the scheduling.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Potter, T W, Andrews, R D, 'Antiquaries Journal' in Excavation and Survey at St Patrick's Chapel and St Peter's Church, , Vol. 74, (1994), 55-134
Potter, T W, Andrews, R D, 'Antiquaries Journal' in Excavation and Survey at St Patrick's Chapel and St Peter's Church, , Vol. 74, (1994), 55-134
Potter, T W, Andrews, R D, 'Antiquaries Journal' in Excavation and Survey at St Patrick's Chapel and St Peter's Church, , Vol. 74, (1994), 55-134
DOE, List of Buildings of Historic & Architectural Interest,
DOE, List of Buildings of Historic & Architectural Interest,
DOE, List of Buildings of Historic & Architectural Interest,


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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