Christianity Arrives

Saxon Churches in Sussex

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Sussex Becomes Christian

It is generally accepted that 'Saxon' Christianity arrives in the land of the South Saxons - Sussex, rather later than in the rest of  England, with Wilfred in 681AD. 

There would have been Christians with their Churches in the late Roman occupation period, it had been made the State Religion in  the 4th century, displacing the numerous Roman Gods and the Romanised British ones.

Christian religious buildings functioned differently to pagan one, which were temples where offerings were made to the gods, Christians required a meeting place for the members to gather, quite different to the old ways. 

It is thought that there were a small number of Celtic monastic centres of Christianity in Sussex, most likely on the coastal plain and around the Manhood peninsula. 

Wilfred arrived and converted the king which lead to the kingdom adopting Christianity as the sole religion, ousting the various Pagan rites and practices. He was granted land at Selsey for his clerics.

Early ecclesiastical administration was by a few monks and clerics. The See - Diocese - was at Selsey - possibly at or near Church Norton, where there is an enigmatic bank system. From this developed the Parochia and Minster system, of a head church; usually attached to a Royal Ville, sending out priests to minister in the local pockets of population. At this time the population was based on spread out single family or small groups of (often related) families.

Later still, land was further granted to laymen in return for supporting the king or nobleman. They established estates or manors, this lead to the beginnings of the parish system with each manor or estate building its church and having it's own priest or priests. Often these smaller units were tied to the Minster as they were not permitted to perform certain rites, Baptism, Burial etc. Bodies would be taken to the authorised location for burial or a fee would be paid for this to be done locally. Vestiges of these links continued well into the late middle ages and beyond in a few cases.

Churches are designed for use as a functional building, the early liturgy was performed in the middle of the people, so the single cell rectangular building suited this, it was later that an element of secrecy was introduced which had the table moved to one end, the priest standing with his back to the congregation. This led to the advent of the Chancel to house the sanctuary, the people were to become mere observers of the holy 'mystery' from the nave.

The earliest churches built by the Saxons would have been wooden, as were all the other buildings in Saxon England. There may possibly have been a few stone buildings surviving from the Roman times, and where these had had a religious function, they were often taken over and converted to Christian use, probably as much to prevent their use for the 'old ways' as their being useful structures.

Later Church buildings were in stone, generally reused from Roman ruins. There are no known wooden Saxon churches surviving in Sussex, most likely they were simply replaced - upgraded - with the stone buildings many of  which do still exist in varying degrees today. Many Ancient churches have a few or more features which have been identified as Saxon. A few survive with a substantial part considered Saxon, these are mostly thought to be those where the village they served declined or disappeared, unlike most other buildings which were continually modified to suit the varying demands on them,  A chancel added and/or enlarged for liturgical changes, side aisles for more space, side chapels, towers for bells. the additions/enlargements might be removed later when no longer required. Some churches were neglected in the 17th / 18th centuries resulting in Victorian 'restorations' most often losing many 'old fashioned' features to suit the critical eye.

Recent work has identified much which is now accepted as being Saxon period or post-conquest (1066) but still essentially Saxon in character.




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All presented material is for Private Study Only
Copyright 2002-2010 Martin B Snow. All rights reserved.
Revised: February 20, 2010 .