The legendary foundation of Sussex was derived, from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, a series of 9th century manuscripts commissioned during the reign of Alfred the Great.

The South Saxon kingdom, with it's capital at Selsey, was founded after the final collapse of the Romano-British defence of the Civitas Regnensis (Chichester) in AD491 when the Saxon Shore fort of Anderitum (Pevensey Castle) fell and it's garrison was slaughtered. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the campaign of conquest led by Ælle had begun in AD477 when he landed with his sons off Selsey Bill, at a place called Cymenshore (thought to be the modern day Owers rocks) and slew the local Celtic defenders and drove the remainder into the Sussex and Kent Weald. (Note: The version described by the chronicle is largely rejected by most modern historians as there has been no evidence to support it).

The dynasty continued until 825 when King Ethalwald was slain and his kingdom ravaged by the exiled West Saxon prince Caedwalla. The latter was eventually expelled by two princes named Berhthun and Andhun, who assumed the government of the kingdom. In 686 the South Saxons intervened in a civil war in Kent, in support of a Prince Eadric, but soon afterwards King Berhthun was killed and the kingdom subjugated for a time by Caedwalla, who had by now become king of Wessex.

In 692 a grant is made by a king called Nothelm of the South Saxons to his sister, which is witnessed by two other "kings" called Nunna and Wattus.

In 722AD the South Saxons are at war with King Ine of Wessex in a rival claim to his throne.

Following the Mercian King Offa's death in 796, Mercian power collapsed and the South Saxons re-emerged as an independent political entity. But this was to be short lived as the West Saxons were in the ascendant. Sussex was to become the first kingdom to be annexed by Wessex in a process which was to bring about the foundation of a united England. Sussex was annexed by King Egbert of Wessex in 825 and from this time onwards they remained subject to the West Saxon dynasty.

It is thought that the South Saxon royal house continued to govern Sussex as Earls under West Saxon sovereignty until the Norman Conquest in 1066.

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Conversion of the South Saxons

Saxon Helmet

According to Bede, organised Christianity was established in the kingdom of the South Saxons by Saint Wilfrid, the exiled Bishop of York, c.680-81. During his stay (c.680-86) Wilfrid founded a monastery at Selsey, a former royal estate given to him by King Ethalwald, probably at Church Norton, by the entrance to Pagham Harbour. After Cædwalla conquered the South Saxons c.685, the area became part of the diocese of the West Saxons (Wessex), with its seat in Winchester, but a bishopric of Sussex was established c.705, and Wilfrid's monastery was taken over as the episcopal seat. The bishopric does not seem to have been particularly strong, and by 1066 the Archbishops of Canterbury owned slightly more land in Sussex than did the Bishop of Selsey, which was one of the poorest bishoprics in England. In 1075, the see was transferred to Chichester. The site where Wilfrid had his monastic church, was retained and a new parish church was built in the 13th century, where it remained until 1864-66, when all but the chancel was removed to the centre of population in town, it was orientated North rather than East. What remains at Church Norton was dedicated to St Wilfrid in 1917 and is known as St Wilfrid's Chapel. The current parish church, complete with a new chancel, was consecrated on 12 April 1866.

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Saint Wilfrid

Saint Wilfrid was born in 634, the Anglo-Saxon son of a Northumbrian thegn (Warrior Lord). Historically Ireland, Scotland and England North of Essex followed the tradition and usages of the Celtic church, whereas the South and East of England had been evangelised by Roman missionaries thus followed the Roman usages. Wilfrid had become an enthusiastic supporter of the Roman tradition after visits to Canterbury and Rome.

The principle differences between the Celtic and Roman traditions were:

  • The method of calculating the date of Easter

  • The method of tonsuring a monk (i.e. which areas of the head ought to be shaved.

According to the Venerable Bede:

About this time there arose a great and recurrent controversy on the observance of Easter, those trained in kent and Gaul maintaining that the Irish observance was contrary to that of the universal church…. Eventually the matter came to the notice of King Oswy and his son Alchfrid. Oswy thought nothing could be better than the irish teaching…..but Alchfrid who had been instructed in the faith by Wilfred who had gone to Rome to study the doctrine of the church ….knew that Wilfred's doctrine was in fact preferable to all the traditions of the Irish. ….”

There was a movement to standardise on one tradition and in 664 King Oswy called a conference at the monastery of St. Hilda in Whitby (The Whitby Synod)by to settle the matter. Bishop Colman and his Irish clergy supported the Celtic view whilst the Roman tradition was advocated by Wilfrid and his supporters.

The monks from Iona had been committed to the simple life and in their ministry had treated both rich and poor the same, but they had very little structure. The hermitmonks lived as much as possible withdrawn from daily life but conducting frequent missions among the people. Whereas the Roman clergy were seen as being a lot more worldly however their church and it's infrastructure was much better organised.

At the counference Wilfrid, with the venerable deacon James and Agilbert, the Frankish bishop of Wessex, convinced the council that the Roman way was better. Wilfrid concluded that Rome's authority came from St. Peter , to whom the Lord had entrusted with the keys of heaven. Oswy asked Colman, the Scottish bishop of Lindisfarne, whether this were true. "It is true, King." " Did the Lord give the same authority also to Columba?" "No." "Then," said Oswy," I will not decide against the doorkeeper, lest when I come before the gates of heaven he who holds the keys should not open to me." This won the day for Wilfrid. The north of England, from then on, accepted the customs and rites observed by Rome. Colman and his monks withdrew to lona and were replaced by a bishop and abbots trained in Roman ways.

Although there was initial pockets of resistance particularly in the North of England, Scotland and Ireland, the remainder of the British Isles eventually adopted the Roman ways.

After the Synod Wilfrid was appointed Archbishop of York in Colmans place. However rather than let the northern Bishop's, of the Celtic tradition, consecrate him he went to Compiègne in France, instead. On his journey back home, in c.666, he was shipwrecked in the Kingdom of the South Saxons where he was nearly killed by the heathen inhabitants.

Stained Glass Image of St Wilfrid

On his eventual return to the North, he found that he had been replaced during his prolonged absence, by St.Chad who was working as Archbishop at the newly restored See of York. In 669 Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury visited Northumbria, where he found St Chad, as Archbishop of York and at his instigation, St. Chad withdrew and Wilfrid once more became Bishop of York.

Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury decided to split Wilfrid's great Diocese of York into four smaller Diocese's and appoint new Bishops for three of the smaller Diocese's leaving Wilfrid in charge of the fourth, Wilfrid's diocese did not include the City of York.

Wilfrid went on a journey to Rome to appeal against Theodores action. Rome found in Wilfrid's favour, however when he returned to Northumbria the old King had died, his son had taken over (who did not like Wilfrid), the new King ignored the papal ruling and imprisoned Wilfrid at Bamburgh. Then after a period of time, the imprisonment was converted to exile.

The banished Wilfrid went again to the Kingdom of the South Saxons and in 681 he preached as a missionary at Selsey. On his arrival he found the local population suffering from drought and famine. The locals were only able to catch eels near the shore. Wilfrid and his companions took some nets out to sea and at the first outing caught a full load of fish. The locals learnt from Wilfrid how to use the nets and were keen to hear his teachings. They were so impressed that they agreed to be converted en-masse to Christianity. On the day of the baptisms, the rain came down, the drought ended. And so began the Christian tradition of Selsey.

Wilfrid persuaded the local leader, King Ethalwald of the South Saxons, to provide land to build a monastery. According to the Venerable Bede:

“(the king) gave to the most revered prelate, the land of eighty-seven families to maintain his company which were in banishment, which place is called Selsea, that is the island of the Sea-Calf...”

In 683 King Cædwalla, of the West Saxons (who had conquered the land of the South Saxons), confirmed the grant, of land at Selsey, for Wilfrid to build a monastery.

The painting is the work of Lambert Barnard (1485 - 1567), a local early Tudor painter, who created Chichester Cathedral's Tudor paintings by command of Robert Sherborne Bishop of Chichester in 1519. They are believed to be the largest surviving paintings of their kind, the two huge painted panels (14ft x 32ft) are on display in the transepts of the Cathedral, from which this copy, an engraving by T.King Drawing Master Chichester October 1807, was taken. Note Selsey's Church and tower in the top left of the picture, then situated at Church Norton. The tower was believed to be part of the Norman fortification, which was converted into the bell tower. The bell tower fell down in the 17th Century. The remains of the mound that the tower stood on is still at Church Norton.

Cædwall grants Wilfrid land at Selsey.CC License. Scanned with permission from 19th Century Print


The INTERVIEW  between St. WILFRIDE the expelled Archbishop of York, the founder of Christianity among the South Saxons & CÆDWALL king of the West Saxons A * D 681 when upon the conquest of the former Kingdom, he constituted St Wilfrid the first Bishop of Selsey and built a Monastry in the Island of that name which he made the Episcopal See: in which place it continued till the time of Bishop Stigano who first removed the See to Chichester A*D 1070.
Wilfride is here in the act of presenting to the Saxon Monarch a Scroll written in Latin, the translation of which is thus: "Give to thy servants" "Oh give them a dwelling place for God's sake" Ceadwall replies "Let it be as thou desirest"

After working in Selsey for five years Wilfrid was reconciled with Theodore and returned to the restored See at York. He worked in York for a further five years before being deposed again and was then moved to the Diocese of Hexham.

He died on 12th October 709 and is buried in Ripon Cathedral.

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Plague and Pestillence

In 681, while Eappa was Abbot at the Monastery, the country was ravaged by a plague. As the monastery was also badly afflicted by this disease the monks set appart three days of fasting and prayer to try and placate the Divine Wrath.

A young boy, in his prayers, appealed to Saint Oswald. Then Saint Peter and Saint Paul were said to have appeared to the boy, at Oswalds request. They told him that all in the Monastery would be cured of the plague appart from the boy.

According to Bede:

In the monastery at this time lived a Saxon boy, who had recently been converted to the Faith; this child had caught the disease, and for a long time had been confined to bed. About the second hour on the second day of prayer and fasting, he was alone in the place where he lay sick, when, under divine providence, the most blessed Princes of the Apostles deigned to appear to him; for he was a boy of innocent and gentle disposition, who sincerely believed the truths of the Faith that had been accepted. The Apostles greeted him very lovingly, and said: 'Son, put aside the fear of death that is troubling you; for today we are going to take you with us to the kingdom of heaven. But first of all you must wait until the Masses are said, and you have received the Viaticum of the Body and Blood of our Lord. Then you shall be set free from sickness and death, and carried up to the endless joys of heaven. So call the priest Eappa and tell him that our Lord has heard the prayers of the brethren and regarded their fasting and devotion with favour. No one else in this monastery and its possessions is to die of this disease, and all who are now suffering from it will recover and be restored to their former health. You alone are to be set free by death today, and shall be taken to heaven to see the Lord Christ whom you have served so faithfully. God in his mercy has granted you this favour at the intercession of the devout King Oswald, so beloved by God, who once ruled the people of the Northumbrians ....

After Oswald's intercession his feast day on August 5th, was commerated each year by the monks at the Monastery in Selsey. And many places elsewhere.

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The Parish Church of Saint Peter

The church is mainly 13th century and was originally situated at the location of St Wilfrid's first monastery and cathedral at Church Norton, some 2 miles from the present centre of population.

Plan of church in 1864

The church is partly constructed of rocks from the Mixon. The Mixon is a drowned Roman stone quarry that is now part of the Owers shoals off Selsey Bill. The earliest work existing in 1864 consisted of two arcades of three bays each between the nave and aisles, of the late-12th century; hardly was this finished when it was decided to lengthen the church by one bay westward. The present chancel is of slightly later date, early-13th-century. The date when the tower was begun is unknown. A sacristy or flanking chapel on the north of the chancel had disappeared before the 19th century.

The church today

The chancel (at Church Norton) has clasping buttresses at each east corner, a small buttress (apparently modern) near the west end of the north wall, and buttresses (the remains of the east walls of the aisles) to north and south of the west wall. The east window is of three trefoil-headed lights with Perpendicular tracery, perhaps late-14th century; the rear-arch may be that of a former lancet triplet. In the south wall are two pointed-headed niches with chamfered arrises, the eastern is now a credence, the western a piscina; though the style of these suggests a later date than the 13th century the original moulded string-course which runs round the south, east, and north sides of the chancel rises to clear them. Next are two 13th-century lancets with segmental rear-arches, and a priest's doorway with plain pointed exterior arch, 13th-century but much repaired with cement, and segmental rear-arch; this is now blocked externally, and its recess serves as a cupboard. Next is a two-light window without tracery, the lights having semicircular heads, perhaps a 17th-century enlargement to light a reading-desk, the inner part of the splay and the rear-arch being those of a 13th-century lancet. In the north wall are two lancets like those in the south; perhaps a third, now blocked, exists west of them. On the outside of this wall there is a weather-mould where the roof of a building adjoined it on the north.

In 1864-66 the church was dismantled stone by stone and re-erected in its present positon, only the chancel remaining at the old site. This is now styled, St Wilfrid's Chapel.

Relic from the old cathedral

A new Victorian chancel was added to the re-erected mediaeval nave.

In the porch are two stones with Saxon carvings and there are more set in the war memorial in the perimeter wall of the church.

Medallion from Grace Church,Manchester, NH

In the South Window, nearest the door, is a small star of glass. This is a sample of work of the firm Conick, Massachusetts, USA. (Now part of Art Glass of America). This glass medallion was brought from Manchester, New Hampshire, and together with an explanatory bronze tablet, commemerates an exchange of Rectors, Canon George Handisyde and the Reverand Lorin Bradford Young, from August 1947 to August 1948. Grace Church, Manchester USA, displays a complementary tablet carved from old oak, sent from Chichester Cathedral.

The font The church has an ancient arcaded font with some dispute over it's age. Ian Nairn dated the font as being around 1100 AD. However other historians suggest that this is possibly rather too early, The font is of a type which seems to have been produced in large numbers throughout the 12th century and early 13th century. It has been suggested that the Anglo-Saxon cathedral was demolished soon after the transfer of the see, and replaced by a new aisleless church. A new font would have been provided at the same time. Aisles would have been added in the late 12th century, and the chancel rebuilt in the 13th century.

The church also has a chalice dating from Elizabethan times .

Francis Mee, reporting in the 1980's, cites the church as flourishing and playing an active role in the community, having a Sunday School, Church youth club, mothers union and mother and toddler group.

There was approximately 300 people on the electoral role and an average of 150 people at the 10am Communion service each Sunday.

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The War Memorial

The War Memorial The Bewcastle Cross

When Wilfrid built his church at Selsey there was a Saxon Palm Cross in the churchyard. The cross was destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII.

The erection of a war memorial was first proposed in 1919. It was suggested that a restoration of the old Palm Cross should be the most suitable design. This suggestion was adopted in January 1920 by the parishioners. It is believed that Wilfrid would have been responsible for the Bewcastle Cross and so the cross outside his church in Selsey would have been very similar. Thus it was decided to base the design of the War Memorial on the Bewcastle cross.

Mr F. Forbes Glennie (Architect and Surveyor) designed the war memorial as its stands now, drawing on the design of Bewcastle Cross. Five of the original fragments, believed to be from the original Selsey Cross, are in the square block from which it rises.

The eighteen foot (5.5 metres) Memorial was unveiled on 15th May 1921 by the Duke of Richmond. It has inscribed on it fifty seven men from the Great War forty from World War II and one from the Korean war.


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