On this day: St. Cuthman of Steyning

On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Cuthman, a Saxon shepherd famous for pulling his mother in a cart from Chidham in West Sussex to Steyning in West Sussex, a distance of nearly thirty miles.

When his father died, around the turn of the eighth century, Cuthman was reduced to begging. He decided to travel east, toward the rising sun. Because his mother was unable to walk, Cuthman built a cart in which to wheel her.

At one point on their journey, the rope by which Cuthman pulled the cart broke, and he devised a new one from withies. Mowers observed this and laughed at the makeshift rope. While they mocked him, it began to rain, and the downpour destroyed their crop. After that, it rained on that meadow every year during the hay harvest.

Cuthman realized he and his mother were under divine protection. He promised to continue wheeling the old lady along until the rope of withies broke. At that place, he would build a church.

The brittle rope broke at Steyning. Cuthman built a hut in which he and his mother could live, and then he set to work building a church. Construction went well with the aid of local people and with a pair of oxen given to Cuthman. But then two men stole the oxen and fenced them in their mother's yard. Cuthman yoked the two men to the cart and made them pull it. When their mother cursed the day of Cuthman's birth, a wind arose that blew her up into the air and then dropped her to the earth where she was swallowed up.

Another time, the main roof beam of the church fell, making it impossible for Cuthman and his workman to complete construction. While they were trying to decide how to solve the problem, a stranger appeared who told them exactly what to do. They did as he said, and the church was finished. Cuthman asked, "Who are you?" The stranger replied, "I am the one in whose name thou buildest this temple."

Or, as the playwright Christopher Fry had him say in The Boy With a Cart, "I was a carpenter."

It was in a 1950 production of The Boy With a Cart, Cuthman, Saint of Sussex: A Play, directed by John Gielgud, that Richard Burton played his first leading role.

"'It was a play with no set,' Gielgud recalled. 'Everything was constructed out of Burton's great talent for miming. He mimed building a cathedral, and it was spell-binding to watch him.'"

--from Richard Burton: Prince of Players, by Michael Munn, Skyhorse Publishing, 2008.

Click http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8mRCQvSkEo>here for a YouTube of Richard Burton reciting a few lines from the play, at 2:29.

The various symbols in the legends surrounding St. Cuthman make it clear that this was a time of transition from the old Saxon religion to the new Roman religion: Steyning (stone people); wheel (the turning seasons); forces of nature that take vengeance on those who cross Cuthman and Mother; the witch; the oxen (favorite sacrifices of Saxons to their gods); and the building of a church on a place of stones (where humans and oxen had been sacrificed).

Click here for a picture of a statue of St. Cuthman with his foot on a representation of an actual stone found at the site of the old church, perhaps used by the Saxons as an altar stone for sacrifices, perhaps incorporated by Cuthman into the church he built.

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