St Helen’s Chapel in Malham was an ancient religious foundation mentioned in monastic charters as early as the twelfth century. In Malhamdale, like much of Craven with a monastic legacy, support for the religious reformations of Henry VIII and Edward IV was reluctant and slow. There had been widespread support in the region for the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1538. However, in 1549, despite being a chapel of ease, rather than a chantry chapel, St Helen’s 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; both were also landowners in Malhamdale.
Five years after the chapel’s destruction, during the time of the Catholic Counter-Reformation of Mary and Phillip, the inhabitants of Malham petitioned for the chapel to be rebuilt, which, they argued, had been illegally destroyed as it was a chapel of ease. Mass had been celebrated there three times a week, as well as on Sundays, and the Malham community had funded the priest. Mary died in 1558 after reigning for only five years and the chapel was not rebuilt. In 1559, under Elizabeth 1, the Elizabethan Settlement was introduced and the Protestant Church of England was established. Malham Chapel became a ruin and its location faded from people’s memories.[i]
Using evidence from documentary research and aerial photography, potential sites as to where the ancient chapel and cemetery might be located were investigated. Once identified, geophysical and fluxgate gradiometer and topographical surveys were carried out in 2014. They appeared to reveal a two-cell building which resembled known profiles of early churches.[ii] A dig was organised for summer 2015 to determine if the structure was the ancient chapel dedicated to St Helen.
This shaky drone footage below from January 2014, using afternoon winter sunshine (on a very windy day) to exaggerate indistinct ground features, helped to identify the potential site of the old Malham chapel.
[i] For further information see Victoria Spence, ‘The Ancient Chapel of St Helen, Malham in Craven: Dissolution and Discovery’, Northern History, 52 (2015), 52-67.
[ii] John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford, 2005).