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Strange Tales of Old Sussex: Silly Sussex

In days gone by, mocking persons used to refer to the denizens of our county as “Silly Sussex”. This was quite unjustified, as the word was actually “selig”, a Saxon word meaning “holy”. And to prove the point, Sussex has produced a goodly number of saints, some of them quite muscular in their applied Christianity.

Chichester cathedral Sussex

St Wilfrid

Take St Wilfrid. He came from Northumberland to the Selsey peninsular where, Sussex being a tad resistant to change, “us heaved a stone at’ee”. St Wilfrid persevered and came in a time of drought and famine when he taught the starving natives how to fish – for which they showered him with praise (and probably fish). Indeed, maybe this is why six of the seven, “Good things of Sussex are fishy. St Wilfrid went on to found a cathedral at Selsey but unfortunately, it’s now well under the sea.

St Lewinna

Probably about the same time (say 660-80AD ) came our earliest female saint St Lewinna. All we know of her was that she was martyred for her faith, and her relics found repose and veneration at Alfriston. Although a crafty monk called Balgerus from the low countries (whence she had come) stole up the Cuckmere to steal her relics, he was “thwarted in part in his fell deeds” and so some of the relics still remain within our shores.

St Richard et al.

Our own special saint was St Richard of Chichester, a bishop who was a thoroughly good egg, so much so that his grave became a shrine and all our pilgrim routes in Sussex (and the hostelries that served them) went from Canterbury to Chichester and vice versa. One of the stopping places on the pilgrim’s route was Mayfield, where St Dustan was the prevailing saint and blacksmith. Finding one day a lady in his forge, he recognised that her comely ankle culminated in a cloven hoof and took his hot tongs from the forge and seized the diabolical temptress by the nose, causing her to bound across the hills to Tunbridge Wells (then in Sussex) and plunge the offended organ into a cooling spring – thereby creating the Chalybeate Waters that were the making of that place.

Sussex doesn’t have a strong association with St Thomas a Becket (apart from a tenuous association with fig growing in Tarring near Worthing) but we do claim evidence of rejection of his murder, because the knights responsible for the foul deed paused at Malling Priory near Lewes and abandoned their bloodied arms on the table, and that worthy piece of Sussex furniture allegedly, “threw them off”.

St Cuthman and St Leonard

Bosham, West Sussex

This still leaves us with some truly Silly Sussex saints. St Cuthman started with not very much at Bosham and should be the patron saint of invalid transport, pushing his aged mother in a sort of wheelbarrow round Sussex and finishing up founding his church at Steyning. And we in Sussex should not be backward about coming forward in support of our own champion dragon-slaying saint. Whilst many may champion our national saint, St George, whose emblem forms the flag of England, but for my money, the “victor ludorum” must go to our own St Leonard. There are at least six saints of that name to be found in Butler’s Lives of Saints but ours is probably St Leonard of Noblac who came from Normandy and had a holiday home in a little cell on a bridge, which was probably what became Hammerpond in the forest that now bears his name. From here he sallied forth smiting dragons and having the occasional near-miss, but wherever the saint’s blood was spilt, Lilies of the Valley sprang up and are to be found in the forest to this day.

And lest it be thought that saintliness only lies in the past, the churches, particularly the Roman Catholic, are elevating the worthy to this day. Cardinal Newman, before he translated to Rome, was an Anglican vicar at Barlavington near Petworth and has recently been elevated. Likewise, Cardinal Manning, was also an Anglican curate in West Sussex before he went over to Rome. And there are and will be more whose saintly footsteps we may follow through Sussex.

Contributed by Peter Benner 

If you liked Silly Sussex, you may also like:

Strange Tales of Old Sussex: Place Names

Strange Tales of Old Sussex – The Sussex Dialect

Strange Tales of Old Sussex – Turkeys and Tennyson

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