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Taking A Look At Some Hidden Religious History

Published on: 24 Jan, 2021
Updated on: 26 Jan, 2021

Grace Eakin is an undergraduate studying for a degree in philosophy at the University of Reading. The Guildford Dragon NEWS is pleased to give her the opportunity of writing some articles on local history.

She says: “The course is rapidly increasing my enthusiasm for argument and debate as well as writing and investigation. As a result, local journalism has piqued my interest. Although I am originally from Herefordshire, I have lived in Guildford for the past two years and in that time developed an interest in this town’s history. It is a truly wonderful town to write about.”

Here, Grace gives her impression on St Catherine’s Hill and its ruined chapel, and the site of what may have been a Jewish synagogue beneath a building in today’s High Street.

To look at Guildford’s quaint High Street with its granite setts you may well guess it is a town of historical significance.

With its town centre boasting St Mary’s Church, built in the 10th century, you may further suppose that there is a rich religious history here. But Guildford’s religious heritage does not end with what can be seen on the High Street. Nor even are its most fascinating sites even visible from street level. There are hidden places scattered all over this borough. When discovered and explored, they paint a picture of not just Christian, but Pagan and Jewish cult practice throughout the centuries.

Picture postcard view from the 1930s of St Catherine’s ruined chapel. David Rose collection.

It is said St Catherine’s Hill overlooking the River Wey was once named Drake-Hill, meaning hill of the dragon. This could have been derived from an old pagan myth that a dragon guarded the area.

This theory gains credibility with the discovery that Drake-Hill has been known to seep oil and gas. It is not impossible that centuries ago fires would break out on this hill as a result. For bystanders at the time, this may have appeared to be completely spontaneous. Hence the conclusion of a residential dragon.

Later, as with so many pagan landmarks, the hill became a Christian place of veneration. The chapel that sits on top of the hill is built in honour of St Catherine of Alexandria, a saint who had one of the largest cult-followings in the English middle-ages.

This 1900s picture postcard view takes a peek inside the ruined St Catherine’s chapel. David Rose collection.

Considered to be one of the most powerful intercessors for Christians on earth, even Joan of Arc claimed to have beheld her in a vision and received counsel from her during her imprisonment.

Shrines to St Catherine began to spring up rapidly across England around 800 AD, as this was when her burial site was allegedly discovered on Mount Sinai.

Writings from the time indicate that even though it had been 500 years since her death, her hair still grew, and an oil seeped from her neck.

Unsurprisingly, reports of such a miracle were cause for great excitement and mobilisation among Christians. A religious order of brothers was set up on Mount Sinai, with the intention of living a life of prayer and devotion to St Catherine. These brothers sold the oil with the belief it cured leprosy and skin conditions. A vial of the oil can even be found today in Westminster Abbey, brought back by Edward the Confessor.

Given these mystical stories of visions and healings, it is no wonder that she inspired so much veneration throughout medieval England. It may be that the presence of the oil seep on Drake-Hill that made it a prime spot for her chapel here in Guildford. In fact, the Bishop Winchester at the time, John de Stratford, wrote of miracles occurring on the site of St Catherine’s, but gives us no more detail than this.

What is left of the cave following the construction of the railway tunnel in the 19th century and recent regrading work. Picture: Network Rail.

The history of St Catherine’s Chapel became even more mysterious in April of 2020. While work was being done to stabilise the railway tunnel that runs through part of the hill, workers discovered the remains of a cave.

Evidence suggests this cave was once a hermitage. Carved into the wall can be seen a calvary cross, (a cross atop a hill in reverence to Jesus’ death on calvary). To the right of the cross is a perplexing looking niche, inscribed with something that could be initials.

The discovery of the potential hermitage really raises more questions than it answers. We cannot even say if the carvings are definitely from the medieval period. Still, it is an intriguing piece of the religious heritage of this town.

Ongoing work to stabilise St Catherine’s Hill above the railway tunnel in July 2020. Picture: David Rose.

If this cave was a place someone once chose to live an ascetic, prayerful life of devotion, it suggests the cult around St Catherine’s went much further than a surface level religious practice. We sit in hope that more historical evidence might come to light and add to the picture of the goings-on and the people of this historical site.

It would be wrong to suppose that the religious history of Guildford was limited to Christian shrines. To tell a more complete story we must look at the lives of the medieval Jewish community in Guildford.

It is not a pleasant picture. Jews during this time in history were considered legal property of the king and were frequently banished altogether from various towns across England. In fact, Calendar rolls from the time indicate that Guildford Jews specifically were banned in 1275.

Even in the midst of persecution we find evidence that the Jews who lived in Guildford persevered in their faith.

Mary Alexander and John Boas, then of Guildford Museum, at the excavation of the chamber in 1996 that may have been a synagogue. Picture from the book Guildford Our Town by David Rose.

Below today’s building that is currently a Waterstones bookshop is chamber dating back to the 12th century. The archaeologists that discovered it in 1996 believe it could well have been a synagogue. If so, it is one of the oldest remains of a synagogue in Europe, and certainly the oldest in Britain. A plaque on the front of the shop gives details of the chamber.

Drawing by Mary Alexander of the chamber that may have been a synagogue. Picture from the book Guildford Our Town by David Rose.

The chamber was accessible down a stone stairway. It was deliberately built to be a hidden place, where Jews could practise privately. This stands in stark contrast to our medieval churches around Guildford.

St Martha’s Church near Chilworth. Picture by Dan James from Great War Towns Guildford Remembering 1914-18 by David Rose

St Catherine’s and St Martha’s both stand proudly on top of hills. St Mary’s is in plain view near to the town centre.

Religion was a massively important factor in the lives of people in the medieval centuries, and so it is easy to forget that not all religious practice was approached with the reverence Christianity was. Some faced extreme stigma to practise what they believed in.

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Responses to Taking A Look At Some Hidden Religious History

  1. Hannah Eiseman Reply

    January 24, 2021 at 9:42 pm

    Fascinating read- Guildford’s mysterious history is articulated brilliantly here!

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