Saint Cuthman of Steyning


Another rare privilege of our parish is to have our very own saint; and one whose life is well documented—well documented, that is for a man who was born about 681. For us in the Adur Valley, however, the most important thing is that he was one of us. He looked out on the same Downs as we do, drank the same local water, and walked the same streets (albeit probably a bit more muddy in his day). He built the first Catholic Church in Steyning with his own hands—something illustrated on the front of the altar at Christ the King. And yet what strikes our imaginations most forcibly among all the probable and improbable stories told of him is that picture of him pushing his crippled mother in a barrow all the way to our town of Steyning. In our age when care for the elderly is under threat, we can learn from him about the duty of care to the vulnerable in our society, and also the positive witness we can give to those in the Adur Valley to those who do not share our faith.

One of us

Statue by Penny Reeve

Earlier this week I stayed at my aunt and uncle's house in Steyning, a sleepy little town in West Sussex. Though now about five miles from the coast, this was once a prosperous port with a market and a mint. This thriving centre for trade was known as the Portus Cuthmanni (Cuthman’s Port), named after the local saint, whose picture appears on the town sign. He has a rather bizarre iconographic symbol: St Cuthman is normally shown pushing his mother around in a wooden wheelbarrow. More recently he achieved further fame by becoming the subject of a play by Christopher Fry, The Boy With a Cart (1939). This was performed at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in 1950, directed by John Gielguid and with Richard Burton playing the part of St Cuthman. Who, then, was this Anglo-Saxon saint, who managed to attract the attention of one of our finest modern playwrights and two of our greatest theatrical knights?

The earliest surviving written record of Cuthman’s life is a volume of the Acta Sanctorum, published by the Bollandists at Antwerp in 1658. According to the story, Cuthman was a shepherd who grew up either in the West Country or at Chidham, near Chichester. He was probably born in the late seventh century and may have been baptised by St Wilfrid himself, the ‘Apostle of Sussex.’ Even as a young boy, Cuthman showed signs of his closeness to God. One day, while tending his sheep, he drew a line around them with his staff so that he could get away to collect food. On his return, he found that the flock had not left the invisible boundary. This miracle may have taken place in a field near Chidham, which for centuries was known as ‘St Cuthman’s Field’ or ‘St Cuthman’s Dell.’ It was said that a large stone in the field, ‘on which the holy shepherd was in the habit of sitting,’ held miraculous properties.

A turning point in Cuthman’s life was the death of his father, which left both him and his mother destitute. They decided to leave their home and journey eastwards – in the direction of the rising sun. By this time, Cuthman’s mother was an invalid and so he had to push her in a wheeled wooden cart. A rope that stretched from the handles to the saint’s shoulders helped carry the burden. When the rope snapped, he made a new one out of withies. The local haymakers laughed at Cuthman’s rather pathetic efforts, but Providence soon responded to their merriment by sending a sudden rainstorm, destroying their harvest. Later versions of the story say that, from that moment onwards, it always rained in that field during the haymaking season.

Cuthman decided that once this replacement rope made of withies broke, it would be a sign from God to settle at that place and build a church. This happened at Steyning, which, according to the Acta Sanctorum, was ‘a place lying at the base of a lofty hill, then woody, overgrown with brambles and bushes, but now rendered by agriculture fertile and fruitful, enclosed between two streams springing from the hill above.’ The Bollandist monks have also provided us with Cuthman’s prayer as he reached this blessed spot:

Father Almighty, you have brought my wanderings to an end; now enable me to begin this work. For who am I, Lord, that I should build a house to your Name? If I rely on myself, it will be of no avail, but it is you who will assist me. You have given me the desire to be a builder; make up for my lack of skill, and bring the work of building this holy house to its completion.

And so, this unlikely builder began constructing a worthy sanctuary in honour of the One who had guided him safely along his journey ad orientem. Many of the local inhabitants helped him in this great task and on one occasion, according to the legend, he even received Divine assistance. The builders were having trouble with a roof-beam, when a stranger appeared and provided them with a solution. When asked his name, the newcomer replied: ‘I am He in whose name you are building the church.’

And so he built a wooden chapel in Steyning, probably on the site of the present church of St Andrew’s. This building was certainly well established by 857, when King Ethelwulf (father of Alfred the Great) was buried there.

It seems that pilgrims visited the tomb of St Cuthman and that his intercession led to many cures. During the reign of St Edward the Confessor, the church at Steyning was given to the Abbey of the Holy Trinity at Fécamp, Normandy. This Benedictine house, founded in the seventh century, is famous for its ‘Benedictine’ liqueur, which today is commercially produced in the grounds of the old abbey. It was to this monastery that the Black Monks took the body of St Cuthman and his feast (8th February) was celebrated at many of the religious houses of Normandy. Thus, St Cuthman became well known on the continent – as can be seen in a mid fifteenth century German engraving of the saint by Martin Schongauer and in the writings of the seventeenth century Bollandists.

Meanwhile, the church at Steyning was rebuilt and dedicated to St Andrew. However, St Cuthman was not forgotten in his beloved land. A ‘Guild of St Cuthman’ was in existence at Chidham on the eve of the Reformation and a misericord in Ripon Cathedral supposedly depicts him pushing his mother in a three-wheeled barrow.

The colourful tale of St Cuthman presents us with a charming example of filial piety, prayer, evangelisation and church building in Saxon England. In the words of Christopher Fry:

It is there in the story of Cuthman, the working together

Of man and God like root and sky; the son

Of a Cornish shepherd, Cuthman, the boy with a cart,

The boy we saw trudging the sheep-tracks with his mother

Mile upon mile over five counties; one

Fixed purpose biting his heels and lifting his heart.

We saw him; we saw him with a grass in his mouth, chewing

And travelling. We saw him building at last

A church among whortleberries…

By Fr Nicholas Schofield

The story of St. Cuthman is told in the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists (1658), from an anonymous source. Cuthman mas a shepherd, who after his father died, had to look after his crippled mother. They fell on hard times, and Cuthman was forced to beg from door to door. He set out from his home, perhaps at Chidham near Bosham, going eastwards, pushing his mother in a one-wheeled cart or wheelbarrow which he made. A rope from the handles over his shoulders took part of the weight. The rope broke. and he improvised a new one from withies. Some haymakers who were watching laughed at him, but a heavy rainstorm ruined their hay and taught them a lesson.

Cuthman decided that when the makeshift rope of withies gave way he would take it as a sign from God that he should stop at that place and build a church. It happened at the place we call Steyning His biographer gives us his prayer: "Father Almighty, you have brought my wanderings to an end; now enable me to begin this work. For who am I, Lord, that I should build a house to name? If I rely on myself, it will be of no avail, but it is you who will assist me. You have given me the desire to be a builder; make up for my lack of skill, and bring the work of building this holy house to its completion." After building a hut to accommodate his mother and himself, he set to work to build the church. The local people helped him, and those who did not found themselves in trouble. As the church neared completion, Cuthman had difficulty with a roof-beam. A stranger showed him how to fix it. When Cuthman asked his name, he replied "I am he in whose name you are building this church."

We can picture Cuthman living in Steyning, continuing his work as shepherd and builder, but above all (as his biographer attests) as a man of prayer. He had accomplished his great work for God; the church he built would stand as his memorial.

Cuthman was venerated as a saint before the Norman Conquest. After the conquest his relics were transferred to Fécamp, since the Steyning church had been given to the Abbey there. In charters of William the Conqueror Steyning is sometimes called "St. Cuthman's Port" or "St. Cuthman's Parish". In "lives" which were preserved at Fécamp it is said that he was born about 681 A.D., probably at Chidham, near Bosham, which is about 25 miles from Steyning. If this is so, his parents would have heard the preaching of St Wilfrid, the Apostle of Sussex (680-685), and no doubt became Christian. Did Wilfrid himself baptise the child Cuthman? Some authorities give him a date later than this, but at least it can be said that Cuthman's church was in existence in 857, for we know that King Ethelwulf was buried there in that year.

In Norman times Steyning was a minster church, administered by a college of secular canons. This college was dissolved in 1260 and vicars were appointed by the Abbey of Fécamp. It was at this time that the church was re-dedicated in honour of St. Andrew, which is its dedication today.

However, Cuthman's name and exploits were not forgotten. There is a German engraving of him with his "cart" dated about 1450 and a choir seat carving at Ripon Cathedral dating from a few decades later. And at Chidham, where he was born, there was a Guild of St Cuthman, which was subject to a tax in 1522 under Henry VIII. Finally in 1658 the Bollandists transcribed and printed his Life, giving his feast day as February 8th. Visitors to Steyning to this day will see the representation of "The Boy with a Cart" on the town sign, and Christopher Fry's play of that name continues to keep his memory green.

Taken from The Arundel and Brighton Diocesan Propers

Left: Richard Burton reads a speech of St Cuthman from Christopher Fry’s play, The Boy with a Cart.

The reading itself begins at 2.24

Above: 15th century misericord from Ripon Minster showing St Cuthman pushing his mother