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Legends of St Cuthman

We cannot be sure exactly where Cuthman’s life began except that the story, handed down over generations, says he walked from West to East with his mother in a wheeled bed like a wheelbarrow. He is remembered at Chidham in Chichester Harbour where the Parish Church of St Mary also has stained glass in his memory – where he is depicted alongside St Wilfrid, the first bishop of our diocese (appointed 681) who baptized many, perhaps including Cuthman’s family. There is a field not far from the church there, once known as ‘St Cuthman’s Field’ or ‘St Cuthman’s Dell’, with a large stone where, it is said, Cuthman liked to sit. One day, it is said, he drew a line around his sheep with his staff so that he could go to collect food. On his return, he found that the flock had not left the invisible boundary.

Cuthman’s eleventh century ‘Life’ (as set down in the seventeenth century Acta Sanctorum, 1658) tells his story as follows:

St Cuthman, as has come down to us from the reliable report of old men, was born in Sussex of Christian parents. He was put in charge of his father’s sheep, who would obey him when told to stay in a circle. His father died, and when Cuthman and his mother ran out of money and she became disabled he made a wooden bed with a wheel at the front and laid her on it, pushing it before him with the help of a rope from his shoulders. He went eastwards, vowing never to rest until the elder rope broke and there he would build a church. He went on his way supporting himself and his mother by begging.

Eventually he came to Steyning where the rope broke and the bed fell – his mother was not harmed … People rarely came there then – there was little noise or traffic, and inhabitants were very few. It was a sheltered place at the foot of a steep-sloping down, then overgrown with thorns and trees, now transformed into fertile and fruitful farmland, fittingly enclosed by the streams of two springs descending from the downs. He built a hut for his mother, and started to build his church. While he worked he used to hang his gloves on a sunbeam. One day he found that a wooden beam was useless. A pilgrim from foreign parts came up and said ‘what are you all lamenting?’ The pilgrim miraculously solved the problem and Cuthman fell at his feet, saying ‘Show me, Lord, who you are’. ‘I am Andrew’ he said, in whose name you built this temple; but you will be a sharer of perpetual memory and glory in it’ and at once he vanished.

The Cuthman Chapel Window
The Cuthman Chapel Window

To the north of Steyning churchyard and to the east of the grounds of the adjacent former vicarage are two freshwater streams, similar to those mentioned in the above account of Cuthman’s life. A stained-glass window in our south aisle by a leading member of the Arts and Crafts movement depicts the miraculous building of his church.

The anonymous biography attributes this prayer to Cuthman, offered before building the first church on this site:

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.

A new English translation by Roger Pearse of the 1658 Life, together with the Latin original, can be read in full at his website here

A play about Cuthman’s place in the history of Sussex, The Boy with a Cart: Cuthman, Saint of Sussex, was written by Christopher Fry (1907-2005) in 1938. John Gielgud (1904-2000) directed a production of the play starring Richard Burton (1925-1984) at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in 1950. A later recording of Burton reading the part of Cuthman (two minutes) may be heard here.

The Feast of St Cuthman falls on 8 February each year. Suggested readings and prayers for a celebration may be found here

You can read about the subsequent history of our church here.