The Story of St Helen's Very Old Church
I do love a trip to St Helen’s, and I suppose I’ve always noticed the little ruined church on the seafront and kind of ignored it, just walked past with my children on our way to the rock pooling beach and not thought much of it. But the other day I stopped and had a good look around it and did some research (which started with reading the signs that have been placed on the church).
The church is very old. It was originally built of wood, back in the 12th century during Saxon times, apparently by Hildila, a chaplain of Wilfired, the Bishop of Winchester. Wilfred had been granted land on the Isle of Wight by Caedwalla the Saxon king, who took the Island by force in AD686 and killed the pagan king of the island called King Arwald (interestingly I’ve recently been involved on a project all about Arwald and other historic figures from the Island - find out more here www.iwhiddenheroes.org.uk).
According to records, the original wooden church burnt down by the Danes when they landed on the Island around AD998. Eventually a priory was founded after the Norman Conquest by French Benedictine monks and rebuilt in Norman style. It was dedicated to St Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, from whom the village of St Helen’s later took its name. The tower was added in the 13th century during the reign of Henry III.
The church survived for another 300 years until the monks disbanded in 1414 and the church was given to Eton College who owned it until 1799. Unfortunately they didn’t keep the church in good repair and without any maintenance or love it soon fell into disrepair.
Over the years various owners and locals used stones from the foot of the church for sea defences which further undermined it. Apparently the soft sandstone stones from the church known as 'Holy Stones' were used to ‘holystone the decks’ (or scour and whiten the decks) of war ships anchored off St Helen’s.
Because of this the church became heavily exposed to the elements and the sea until eventually only the tower was left standing. For safety it was bricked up and painted white as seamark used by Navy ships in 1719. And this is what it is still used for today.
According to legend a coven of witches performed ceremonies at the church. The only ceremony performed today is to sit on the sea wall defence under the white tower and eat an ice-cream as you look at the wonderful view out to sea.
5 March 2018