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Excavations at St Helen's Chapel, Malham

Thursday 3 August, 2017, by Hannah Kingsbury

Dr David Johnson led an archaeological dig at Malham during the first two weeks of July. This was carried out by a number of volunteers, which included members of the Ingleborough Archaeology Group, as well as others from around the UK and from as far afield as Germany, America and Australia.

Copyright – Malham Chapel Dig 2017

The site in Malham contains St Helen’s Chapel, and has been excavated over the last three years. The site is of great historical and archaeological interest. This Chapel was an ancient religious foundation, first mentioned in monastic charters in the 12th Century. Kirkby Malhamdale was an extensive Pennine parish, with Malham being one of seven townships within this parish. Chapels of Ease, like St Helen’s, were essential for outlying districts and hamlets, as access to the parish church could often be difficult as it required such a long distance to travel. Surviving documentary evidence suggests that there were such chapels in Hanlith, Airton and Malham, however, to date, only the location of Malham chapel has been discovered.
The first documentary evidence for Malham is contained in the Domesday Book. In the 12th Century major landholdings were given to Fountains Abbey and Bolton Priory, both monastic houses. After the upheaval of the dissolution of the monasteries, during the reign of Henry VIII, all monastic land in Malham was surrendered to the Crown, then sold and resold. By the late sixteenth century the Lamberts of Calton were the major landowners. Traditional religion came further under attack during the reign of Edward VI. In 1549, St Helen’s Chapel (despite being a chapel of ease, rather than a chantry chapel) was demolished and its contents and lead roof removed at the instigation of John Lambert of Calton and William Clapham of Beamsley, Chantry Commissioners for the West Riding, but both also landowners in Malhamdale.
In much of Craven, including Malhamdale, support for the religious reformations of Henry VIII and Edward VI was reluctant and slow. In fact, there had been widespread support in the region for the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1538. [The Pilgrimage of Grace was a popular rising in Yorkshire chiefly against Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, as well as other religious and political grievances.] During the time of the Catholic Counter-Reformation of Mary and Phillip, the inhabitants of Malham petitioned for St Helen’s Chapel to be rebuilt. However Mary died in 1558 and the Protestant Church of England was consolidated under Elizabeth I. This resulted in the chapel becoming a ruin and its location fading from people’s memories.
Potential sites of the chapel were investigated using a combination of documentary research and aerial photography. Once identified, surveys were carried out, which appeared to reveal a two-cell building which resembled known profiles of early churches. A dig was organised for summer 2015 to determine if the structure was the ancient chapel dedicated to St Helen.

Copyright – Malham Chapel Dig 2017

The previous excavations in 2015 and 2016 were undertaken by Mark Roberts and undergraduates from University College London. These excavations confirmed the location of St Helen’s Chapel. They also corroborated documentary evidence as to how the chapel was destroyed by the Edwardian chantry commissioners in 1549: tumble was found caused by the lead roofs and timbers having been removed; no dressed stone was recovered suggesting that it had all been taken from the site for recycling; two pits showing evidence of burning was discovered in the nave and excavated. [These pits had been used to melt the lead from the roof and windows to make it easier to transport from the site.]
The dig taking place this July was organised to address some remaining questions about the site, and they have found some interesting discoveries. This has included buttresses at the south-western and north-western corners. From the construction they have been dated to the 1300s, which means it is not contemporary with the building of the chapel. The fact that they were found at both corners suggests that the nave had possibly been heightened. They found a section of dressed stone, which means that not all of them had been taken to be used elsewhere. A burnt out area has also been found which has raised many questions about its use as it was not a lead melting pit.

Copyright – Malham Chapel Dig 2017

Children from Kirkby Malham Primary School visited the site on the morning of the last Thursday. They were able to take part in many activities organised by the YDNPA to stimulate their interest in archaeology. They were instructed in excavation practice and got to have a go at excavating for themselves. They also took part in activities that taught them about finds identification. Two members of the Harrogate 3D Archaeological Society also came, dressed in 16th and 17th Century costumes, and showed the children Tudor food and artefacts.

Copyright – Malham Chapel Dig 2017

In the afternoon, the site was opened up to the public. Small groups of visitors were given guided tours around the site, which enabled them to observe the dig in action, as well as seeing a small exhibition of finds on display.

You can find out more about the dig at this website:
A blog has been done of each day of the dig, which can be viewed here:

Picture of Hannah Kingsbury

Hannah Kingsbury

Hannah is the Cultural Heritage Officer for the Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership scheme


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