There was a time when any schoolchild could have named the five Christian saints of Sussex, writes Graham Chainey. Most of us, even if Sussex born and bred, would nowadays struggle to name more than one.
The earliest appears to have been St Lewinna (aka Leofwynn), who is also the obscurest. She lived at a time when there were as yet few Christians in the land of the barbarous South Saxons, being martyred for her faith in about 670.
What is recorded is that at Easter 1058 a Flemish monk called Balgar landed near Seaford and stole her bones from a nearby monastery, possibly at Bishopstone or Alfriston, where she was venerated, and where miracles had daily occurred in her name. Balgar took them back to his abbey near Dunkirk, which apparently had quite a collection of such purloined relics.
St Wilfrid (Wilfred, or Wilfrith), known as the Apostle of Sussex, was a nobleman’s son, a cultivated cosmopolitan who became Bishop of York, only to be banished when he fell out with his superiors.
In 681 he came south to convert the South Saxons and first won the confidence of the people of Selsey, at a time of famine, by teaching them how to fish in the sea. He stayed five years in Selsey, establishing there a monastery and cathedral which were to flourish for some 400 years – there were 24 bishops of Selsey – before the sea swallowed the see.
St Cuthman may have come from Chidham, near Chichester (some say he came from Cornwall), in which case he may have been converted by Wilfrid.
There are various legends about him. That, working as a shepherd, he once drew a circle around his flock, bidding them not to stray outside it while he went to have dinner. That he journeyed to Steyning, conveying his aged mother with him in some kind of handcart (the wheelbarrow is his saintly emblem).
That he built the first church at Steyning, and when a beam shifted from position, and Cuthman thought he would have to rebuild, a stranger appeared who instructed him how the structure might be saved. This stranger turned out to be Jesus Christ.
Cuthman is the subject of Christopher Fry’s one-act play The Boy With a Cart (1939).
St Dunstan was one of the great ecclesiastical figures of the tenth century, founder of many monasteries. He became Archbishop of Canterbury in 959. His Sussex connection comes from the fact the archbishops in those days had a bolthole or country retreat at Mayfield, eight miles south of Tunbridge Wells. Among his many skills, Dunstan was a keen metalworker or goldsmith, and according to legend he was one day making a chalice or horseshoe in his forge at Mayfield when the devil appeared. Dunstan immediately seized the devil’s nose with his redhot tongs, causing the devil to leap the eight miles to cool his proboscis in the Tunbridge spring, thus lending the water its celebrated chalybeate qualities. The very tongs are preserved at the convent, and a pair of tongs is Dunstan’s emblem.
Finally, St Richard of Chichester, patron saint of Sussex (his saint’s day, June 16, is also Sussex Day), was appointed bishop in 1245, but for two years was unable to take up his throne as Henry III had installed another. Instead, dependent on alms, he wandered Sussex, ministering to his flock, often staying at Tarring, where he reputedly grew figs.
Finally installed, he proved a stern enemy of corruption, a man of simple habits and limitless generosity, selling his silver to feed the poor. For centuries his tomb in the cathedral was a place of pilgrimage, before its destruction by Henry VIII. An altar in his honour was restored in 1930, “the gift of a Brighton parish”. His popular prayer has been set to music.
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