Welcome to the Diocese of the South Saxons

This site is dedicated to the ancient Diocese of the South Saxons which was founded in the 7th Century by Saint Wilfrid.

The religious community , at Church Norton (North of the modern day Selsey), included a Cathedral church, dedicated to St Peter and a Benedictine Priory.

There is no trace of the original cathedral, although various stones and artefacts have been found. Some are now inset in the modern church and war memorial.

War Memorial »   •   Saint Peters Church, Selsey »

About the Diocese of the South Saxons

A stave Church

Christianity was introduced to the British Isles during the Roman occupation. The emperor Constantine (306-337AD), in the Edict of Milan in 313 AD had granted official tolerance to Christianity and in the reign of Theodosius "the Great" (378-395AD), Christianity was made the official state religion. When the Romans left Britain in the late 4th century and early 5th century, there was waves of heathen invasions from Northern Europe, these were mainly Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Celtic Christianity was driven, with the Celts, into the remote western parts of the islands. The south of England was settled by Saxons. After the invasions had finished, Roman Missionaries evangelised the South East of England and Celtic Missionaries the rest of the British Isles.

Pope Gregory sent Augustine to convert the English. He arrived in the south east of England to find that King Æthelberht, in Kent was the most powerful local ruler. The king gave Saint Augustine land to build a church. Augustine built the church and founded the see at Canterbury in 597 AD. This is why Canterbury has historically been the seat of the English church and not London.

Despite evidence that there were a few Celtic monks operating in Sussex, for example Bede wrote about a Northumbrian monk called Dicul setting up a Christian congregation in Bosham, the South Saxons remained steadfastly heathen until the arrival of Saint Wilfrid in the 7th Century. Wilfrid built his cathedral church, in Selsey, and dedicated it to Saint Peter. The original structure probably, would have largely been made of wood. It is unclear where the remains of the old catherdral are. Some historians believe that it has long disappeared under the sea due to coastal erosion. Local legends tell of being able to hear the cathedral bell toll during rough weather and the ruins being exposed at very low tides. There is no archaeological basis for this, none of the important Saxon Cathedrals existed after the 12th century as the conquering Normans removed any evidence of the preceding Anglo-Saxon civilisation. So the most likely explanation is that the later church was built on top of the old church, if this is true then the location would be today's St. Wilfrid's chapel, at Church Norton. There is an earth mound at Church Norton that when excavated produced some Roman and late Saxon relics, there were also remains of a tower that is believed to be Norman as the dimensions conform to those of Norman towers built at that time. Some have speculated that it was built as a defence for the old cathedral others that it may have been to prevent any Anglo-Saxon insurgency as the site would have been a potential rallying point. After the See was moved to Chichester in 1075 AD the tower was eventually converted in to the bell tower for the new church and a 15th Century painting supports this. Contemporary reports from the late 16th century tell us that the tower was in a dilapidated state. In the 17th century the bell tower is reported to have fallen down, breaking one of the four bells.

Copy of Painting »

Some stonework discovered in a local garden wall was believed to have come from the palm cross that stood outside the orginal cathedral and are now integrated into the war memorial, that is in the perimiter wall outside church.

A few years after the see had been established the West Saxons conquered the South Saxons and so the Diocese was absorbed into the Wessex Diocese based in Wincester. However in 709 AD the diocese of the South Saxons was revived and lasted nearly 350 years until the see was moved to Chichester under the orders of William the Conqueror.

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Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was a prolific writer and historian. He wrote approximately 150 titles although some are just collections of newspaper essays. He will also be remembered for his travel writings, one of which was 'Hills and the Sea' in 1906(reprinted in 1996) which describes his rambles across France, Spain and North Africa. It also includes some interesting observations on the diocese of the South Saxons.

THE LOOE STREAM

Of the complexity of the sea, and of how it is manifold, and of how it mixes up with a man, and may broaden or perfect him, it would be very tempting to write; but if one once began on this, one would be immeshed and drowned in the metaphysic, which never yet did good to man nor beast. For no one can eat or drink the metaphysic, or take any sustenance out of it, and it has no movement or colour, and it does not give one joy or sorrow; one cannot paint it or hear it, and it is too thin to swim about in. Leaving, then, all these general things, though they haunt me and tempt me, at least I can deal little by little and picture by picture with that sea which is perpetually in my mind, and let those who will draw what philosophies they choose. And the first thing I would like to describe is that of a place called the Looe Stream, through which in a boat only the other day I sailed for the first time, noticing many things. When St. Wilfrid went through those bare heaths and coppices, which were called the forest of Anderida, and which lay all along under the Surrey Downs, and through which there was a long, deserted Roman road, and on this road a number of little brutish farms and settlements (for this was twelve hundred years ago), he came out into the open under the South Downs, and crossed my hills and came to the sea plain, and there he found a kind of Englishman more savage than the rest, though Heaven knows there were none of them particularly refined or gay. From these Englishmen the noble people of Sussex are descended.

Already the rest of England had been Christian a hundred years when St. Wilfrid came down into the sea plain, and found, to his astonishment, this sparse and ignorant tribe. They were living in the ruins of the Roman palaces; they were too stupid to be able to use any one of the Roman things they had destroyed. They had kept, perhaps, some few of the Roman women, certainly all the Roman slaves. They had, therefore, vague memories of how the Romans tilled the land.

But those memories were getting worse and worse, for it was nearly two hundred years since the ships of Aella had sailed into Shoreham (which showed him to be a man of immense determination, for it is a most difficult harbour, and there were then no piers and lights)--it was nearly two hundred years, and there was only the least little glimmering twilight left of the old day. These barbarians were going utterly to pieces, as barbarians ever will when they are cut off from the life and splendour of the south. They had become so cretinous and idiotic, that when St. Wilfrid came wandering among them they did not know how to get food. There was a famine, and as their miserable religion, such as it was (probably it was very like these little twopenny-halfpenny modern heresies of their cousins, the German pessimists)--their religion, I say, not giving them the jolly energy which all decent Western religion gives a man, they being also by the wrath of God deprived of the use of wine (though tuns upon tuns of it were waiting for them over the sea a little way off, but probably they thought their horizon was the end of the world)--their religion, I say, being of this nature, they had determined, under the pressure of that famine which drove them so hard, to put an end to themselves, and St. Wilfrid saw them tying themselves together in bands (which shows that they knew at least how to make rope) and jumping off the cliffs into the sea. This practice he determined to oppose.

He went to their King--who lived in Chichester, I suppose, or possibly at Bramber--and asked him why the people were going on in this fashion, who said to him: "It is because of the famine."

St. Wilfrid, shrugging his shoulders, said: "Why do they not eat fish?"

"Because," said the King, "fish, swimming about in the water, are almost impossible to catch. We have tried it in our hunger a hundred times, but even when we had the good luck to grasp one of them, the slippery thing would glide from our fingers."

St. Wilfrid then in some contempt said again:

"Why do you not make nets?"

And he explained the use of nets to the whole Court, preaching, as it were, a sermon upon nets to them, and craftily introducing St. Peter and that great net which they hang outside his tomb in Rome upon his feast day--which is the 29th of June. The King and his Court made a net and threw it into the sea, and brought out a great mass of fish. They were so pleased that they told St. Wilfrid they would do anything he asked. He baptised them and they made him their first bishop; and he took up his residence in Selsey, and since then the people of Sussex have gone steadily forward, increasing in every good thing, until they are now by far the first and most noble of all the people in the world.

There is I know not what in history, or in the way in which it is taught, which makes people imagine that it is something separate from the life they are living, and because of this modern error, you may very well be wondering what on earth this true story of the foundation of our country has to do with the Looe Stream. It has everything to do with it. The sea, being governed by a pagan god, made war at once, and began eating up all those fields which had specially been consecrated to the Church, civilisation, common sense, and human happiness. It is still doing so, and I know an old man who can remember a forty-acre field all along by Clymping having been eaten up by the sea; and out along past Rustington there is, about a quarter of a mile from the shore, a rock, called the Church Rock, the remains of a church which quite a little time ago people used for all the ordinary purposes of a church.

The sea then began to eat up Selsey. Before the Conquest--though I cannot remember exactly when--the whole town had gone, and they had to remove the cathedral to Chichester. In Henry VIII's time there was still a park left out of the old estates, a park with trees in it; but this also the sea has eaten up; and here it is that I come to the Looe Stream. The Looe Stream is a little dell that used to run through the park, and which to-day,--right out at sea, furnishes the only gate by which ships can pass through the great maze of banks and rocks which go right out to sea from Selsey Bill, miles and miles, and are called the Owers.

On the chart that district is still called "The Park," and at very low tides stumps of the old trees can be seen; and for myself I believe, though I don't think it can be proved, that in among the masses of sand and shingle which go together to make the confused dangers of the Owers, you would find the walls of Roman palaces, and heads of bronze and marble, and fragments of mosaic and coins of gold.

The tide coming up from the Channel finds, rising straight out of the bottom of the sea, the shelf of this old land, and it has no avenue by which to pour through save this Looe Stream, which therefore bubbles and runs like a mill-race, though it is in the middle of the sea.

If you did not know what was underneath you, you could not understand why this river should run separate from the sea all round, but when you have noticed the depths on the chart, you see a kind of picture in your mind: the wall of that old mass of land standing feet above the floor of the Channel, and the top of what was once its fields and its villas, and its great church almost awash at low tides, and through it a cleft, which was, I say, a dell in the old park, but is now that Looe Stream buoyed up on either side, and making a river by itself running in the sea.

Sailing over it, and remembering all these things at evening, I got out of the boil and tumble into deep water. It got darker, and the light on the Nab ship showed clearly a long way off, and purple against the west stood the solemn height of the island. I set a course for this light, being alone at the tiller, while my two companions slept down below. When the night was full the little variable air freshened into a breeze from the south-east; it grew stronger and stronger, and lifted little hearty following seas, and blowing on my quarter drove me quickly to the west, whither I was bound. The night was very warm and very silent, although little patches of foam murmured perpetually, and though the wind could be heard lightly in the weather shrouds.

The star Jupiter shone brightly just above my wake, and over Selsey Bill, through a flat band of mist, the red moon rose slowly, enormous.

From 'Hills and the Sea ' Hilaire Belloc, 1870-1953

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Holiday Cottage in Selsey

This holiday cottage is located in a quiet road approximately 100 metres from the beach on the very point of Selsey Bill. It is available on a weekly basis all year round.  Read More »