Peel Castle Part 2: Religion and Power

Ruins on St Patrick’s Isle on the west coast of the Isle of Man encapsulate the history of Christianity and of political domination on the island through the medieval period.

By Manx National Heritage

Remains of monastic buildings and a Christian burial ground at Peel Castle date from Man’s early Christian period—roughly 500 AD to 900 AD—which saw the conversion of the Celtic population.

Scandinavian subordination of Man began with Viking raids at the end of the 700s and lasted until 1265. A chapel, church, and cathedral on St Patrick’s Isle all date from this period. In the 1390s and early 1400s, as the English sought to keep the Scots from taking back control of the Isle of Man, the island’s lords turned the cathedral into a fortress.

The Castle Entrance

St Patrick’s Isle lies at the mouth of the River Neb—in the old Norse language, neb means ‘river under the headland’ or ‘headland river’.

For the past 1,000 years, Peel Castle has stood on this rocky 7.5-acre islet, a home to soldiers, priests, prisoners, and the nobility who ruled over them. Its strategic position in the Irish Sea made it a natural base for all who controlled the island.

The Causeway

St. Patrick’s Isle was first fortified by the Norse King Magnus Barelegs in the late 11th century. At that time, a sea channel separated islet and mainland. It was not until the 1700s, in fact, that the causeway was built connecting the islet to Peel. 

Peel Harbour and Town

Peel Harbour (Purt-ny-h-Inshey in Manx Gaelic) was an important asset to the Isle of Man and required protection from seaborne raiders and invaders. The harbour was the catalyst for the development of the town of Peel.

Stairway to the Gatehouse

Stone stairs lead up to the gatehouse, the castle’s fortified entrance. Before the causeway was built, this gate was accessible only by boat. The sea channel was just the first in a series of many defences. 

The Arrival of Christianity

The isolated St Patrick’s Isle was the perfect location for a Celtic monastery and may have attracted followers of the Irish saint Patrick as early as the 7th or 8th century.

Viking traders and settlers likely began arriving and interacting with the religious community (in ways both cooperative and aggressive) in the 9th century. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the earliest monastic buildings were replaced by St Patrick’s Church and the round tower.

The Round Tower

Round towers were a common feature in Ireland 1,000 years ago. They offered a safe refuge from marauding Viking raiders. After the Viking raids ceased, this tower became a look-out, with added battlements for protection. 

St. Patrick’s Church

Originally, St Patrick’s Church had long walls reaching beyond the gables, a form common among Irish churches of the period. The distinctive ‘herringbone’ masonry at certain points in the walls reveals where the original structure was rebuilt. 

St. Patrick’s Chapel

The 11th century chapel (keeill in Manx Gaelic) is older than the church. Older still are nearby stone-lined ‘lintel’ graves and simple crosses used as grave markers.

These artefacts suggest that the Christian community may have been created at the end of the 600s or the start of the 700s.

St German’s Cathedral

St German’s Cathedral is named for St German, a 6th century holy man and missionary. Construction of the cathedral began in the 1220s as recorded in the ‘Chronicles of the Kings of Mann and the Isles’, a medieval manuscript documenting the early history of the Isle of Man. 

St German’s was and is the mother church of the diocese of Sodor, which covered the Isle of Man and the Western Isles of Scotland.

Cathedral Construction

The cathedral was built mostly of local grey stone rubble, but elements that required precision were carved from red sandstone. This sandstone weathered badly, and in the 1870s some was replaced under the direction of the architect Robert Anderson.

The Choir

The choir has three lancet windows in the east end and six on both adjoining walls. The middle window is slightly larger. These windows date to the English period of Gothic architecture and are finished with dressed pale yellow coloured sandstone. 

The Bishop’s Tomb

The inscription on Bishop Samuel’s tomb reads, ‘In this house which I share with my brothers the worms, in the hope of the resurrection to life lie I SAM by divine grace Bishop of this Island. Stay reader, look and laugh at the bishop's palace.

Church vs State

In the 1700s, the military began to take over the cathedral. The curtain wall nearby collapsed, and so soldiers began to patrol through the cathedral rather than around it. The unhappy bishop could not even conduct religious services without interruption.

The Crypt

Located below the chancel, the crypt is the oldest part of the cathedral. Important church treasures were stored here in what was called a reliquary (the treasures were relics).

But in the 17th and 18th centuries, the crypt was used as a prison to punish people for crimes against God, such as breaking the Sabbath and witchcraft. Even the usual maximum sentence of 7 days would have been miserable in this dark dank space.

Barrel-Vaulted Roof

The roof of the crypt is vaulted. A ribbed vault works by transferring the weight on the top of the arches down through the ribs to the walls on either side. Since the walls are buried in the ground, they do not buckle outward. 

Windows and Doors

The openings which let light into the crypt are only a few hundred years old. The darker stairway leads up to the church interior. The stairway with sunlight leads to what was once an exercise yard for prisoners.

The Great Hall

Following the 1660 restoration of the English monarchy, the Earls of Derby were reinstated as Lords of Mann after a 9-year absence. When visiting Peel Castle, they lived comfortably as befitted their wealth and status.

These walls are the remains of the Great Hall, which was originally constructed as a single space with an open central hearth. The Stanleys had the hearth moved to an outer wall, partitioned the ground floor into smaller rooms, and added an upper storey.

Doors and Windows

Unlike the military buildings, the Great Hall was used for entertainment and as a residence. The wide doors and windows contrast with the narrow defensive openings found on most of the other structures in the castle. 

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