Isle of Man

St Patrick's Isle - Peel Castle and the Old Cathedral


One of the most important historic and religious sites on the island


Until the building of a causeway in the C18th, St Patrick’s Isle was separated from the mainland by a narrow channel of water. It has been both a religious site and a fortress during its long history.

St Patrick's Isle, Isle of Man

It has been inhabited for at least 7000 years. Flint tools have been found from Neolithic hunter gatherers, attracted by the abundant fish and fresh water. There is evidence of Iron Age timber dwellings from 600BC.

St Patrick’s Isle began as a religious settlement when Irish monks arrived here around 500AD and founded a Monastery. It has been a burial site since the C7th. The first buildings would have been made of wood but were later replaced by stone. Round Towers were common in Ireland and were used as a refuge by the local population in times of trouble.

The earliest remains on the Isle are the Round Tower and St Patrick’s Church, with its herring bone masonry, which date from the C10th.  Another chapel to the north of St Patrick’s Church may be a similar date. These formed the core of a Christian community from 950-1050. (The building with the two gable walls by the round tower is C17th.)

St Patrick's Isle, Isle of Man
 
St Patrick's Isle, Isle of Man

The Vikings arrived around 900, firstly as raiders, but later settled and married Celtic women. Seven pagan Viking graves have been found On St Patrick’s Isle, including that of the ‘Pagan Lady’ which was one of the richest female graves found outside Scandinavia.

The Norwegian King, Magnus Barelegs, built the first recorded fortifications on the Isle. He arrived in Peel in 1098 and realising its strategic importance, built a fort here. This was probably a wooden tower on a mound surrounded by a timber palisade. A small trading establishment grew up at the mouth of the River Neb, under the protection of the fort.

When Castle Rushen was completed in 1242, it became the main seat of the Kings of Mann. St Patrick’s Isle was no longer needed as a fortress and Magnus II gave it to the church in 1257.

Bishop Simon began to build the red sandstone St German’s cathedral in 1240, probably on the site of an earlier church. The chancel was built first, followed by transepts around 1300. The short nave was eventually completed in 1400. Bishop Simon is buried in the chancel, along with several other bishops.

Old Cathedral, Peel

Old Cathedral, Peel

Old Cathedral, Peel

Domestic buildings, including a hall, living accommodation and kitchens were built to the north of the cathedral. This was the seat of the Bishop of Sodor and Man, although he used Bishopscourt as his residence from the C13th. 

At the end of the Viking rule in 1266, the Isle of Man changed hands several times between Scotland and England, until finally coming under English control in 1346. St Patrick’s Isle was a strategic site for the movement of troops and provisions. The church buildings were requisitioned by the military and used as a fortress and to house a garrison during this time. Parts of defences of Magnus Barelegs were rebuilt and the rampart overlooking Peel was strengthened by the addition of an earthen bank on top of the old wall.

A gateway entrance and tower were built around 1350, at the weakest point on the island, along with a short stretch of curtain wall on either side and another tower overlooking what is now Fenella beach.

The gateway tower was reached up a steep flight of steps and had guard rooms on the ground floor. On the two floors above were the living quarters used by the King.

Peel Castle, Isle of Man

Peel Castle, Isle of Man

Three other towers were built round the perimeter of the Isle to give extra accommodation. 

Peel Castle, Isle of Man

Rest of the curtain wall as completed in the late C15th, possibly as a response to a Scottish attack in 1456. Battlements were added to the top of the Round Tower. An earth bank round the inside of the wall was a response to the increasing damage of artillery power, as earth could absorb the destructive energy of cannon fire.

Peel Castle, Isle of Man
 
A new battery was built at the westernmost point of castle to defend mouth of river, and this was provided with a wide ramp for a cannon. St Patrick’s Isle was by now a virtually impregnable fortress.

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the C16th, the domestic buildings to the north of the cathedral were taken over by the Earls of Derby as more comfortable living accommodation.

Peel Castle, Isle of Man

During the C16th, cannons were increasingly being used for defence. A three gun battery was built outside the northernmost point of the castle and a large round two gun battery in the centre on an earthen mound to absorb the shock of cannon fire.

Peel Castle, Isle of Man

A small armoury built to store weapons, ammunition and gunpowder. A large garrison hall was built just south of the Round Tower, with sleeping quarters on top floor. 

Peel Castle, Isle of Man

After the Civil war, the cathedral was in ruins, with the crypt crypt serving as an ecclesiastical prison. This was used to house everyone from fishermen going out on a Sunday to those convicted of witchcraft.

The chancel was repaired ‘at great expense’ in 1692-7 and the roof replaced, except for the tower. By 1710, the nave was unusable. An Act of Tynwald authorised the removal of lead from the roof to pay for for a new parish church for Patrick. By 1725, the cathedral was in a dilapidated state and unfit for divine service. Permission to repair it for use in services was denied as St Patrick’s Isle was still being used as a military base. The last bishop to be enthroned there was in 1784. 

In 1785, the Duke of Atholl ordered that the castle, apart from the armoury and storehouses, be demolished. A causeway was built to connect it to the mainland. The Atholls paid off their soldiers and stripped the castle of its guns and sheep grazed in the castle.

During the American War of Independence, the Commodore of the US Navy, John Paul Jones attacked British vessels in the Irish Sea, and Peel Castle was once again occupied an important military position. A battery of four pounder guns was installed in Peel castle in 1781.The defences were further strengthened in response to the threat of the Napoleonic Wars. Additional gun batteries were built using stone robbed from the cathedral.

Peel Castle, Isle of Man

A magazine was built.

Peel Castle, Isle of Man

By the late 1840s, the curtain wall was in a perilous state and in danger of collapse between the gatehouse and cathedral. The castle was no longer needed for defensive purposes and abandoned.

In 1870, Bishop Rowley Hill wanted to restore the ruins of the cathedral and began to raise money. It was eventually decided that the task was too great and the money could be put to better use to build a new cathedral in Peel.

With growing reputation as a holiday destination in the C19th, Governor Loch decided to develop St Patrick’s Isle as a tourist attraction. Fallen rubble was cleared and walls repaired. A custodian was appointed to show visitors round for a small fee. The site is now in the care of Manx National Trust.

The outer curtain wall still stands, surrounding the Isle, but the buildings are ruined. On a sunny day it is an idyllic spot.

Peel Castle, Isle of Man

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