Plunder and punishment
In 1313, a ship (the St Mary of Bayonne) was blown off-course and ran aground on the treacherous Atherfield Ledge in Chale Bay. Its cargo of white wine, destined for a French monastery, was sold illegally by the sailors to local people. Many barrels found their way into the cellars of Walter de Godeton, Lord of the Manor of Chale.
The ship came from Gascony, part of King Edward II’s kingdom. The incident was brought to his notice and Walter de Godeton appeared before an ecclesiastical court and was heavily fined.
Penitent and priest
Unfortunately for de Godeton, the Pope heard of the incident and, to avoid excommunication, de Godeton was ordered to build an oratory and beacon on Chale Down (now St Catherine’s Hill) as penance.
A priest would tend the light to guide ships and say prayers for the souls of the drowned – at de Godeton’s expense. However, there is a record of repairs needed to a chapel in 1312, before the shipwreck. So it may be that de Godeton was simply ordered to provide a more substantial endowment for the existing chapel.
Bell tower or beacon?
St Catherine’s Oratory is often referred to as the finest surviving example of a medieval lighthouse in Britain. In reality, it's more likely to have been a bell tower with a beacon alongside. It fell into disrepair in the 16th century following the dissolution of the monasteries and was abandoned. The octagonal tower survived because of its importance as a seamark.
In 1785, a lighthouse was started but never completed because the Hill is so often shrouded in mist. Known as the ‘Salt Pot’, its round stone base can be seen by the large aerials near the Oratory.
The modern lighthouse at St Catherine’s Point was built in 1837 and is managed by Trinity House.