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Steyning

Dedication : St Andrew           Simon Jenkins: ***                                              Principal Features : Exquisite Norman Nave. Sanctuary ring.

After visiting Steyning (pron “Stenning”) I was moved to a quip about “Stunning Steyning”.

As you approach it the clue to the magnificence that lies within is given by the Norman clerestory and corbel table. Just as well, because the stumpy c16 tower badly out of proportion with the rest of the church and the aisles, especially the north, have the usual rather motley collection of gothic windows. The almost wilfilly  ugly buttresses further mar the external apperance.

Inside, however, is a truly glorious Norman nave, complete with the most beautifully harmonious decorations and carvings.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves because Steyning has history that pre-dates the Conquest. St Cuthman, a Celtic saint from c8 or c9, is alleged to have arrived here pulling his sick mother in a cart. When the tow rope broke he naturally assumed that this was a sign from God that here in Steyning is where he should stay. They were rather apt to jump to conclusions in those days it seems....

Whatever, he stuck around, built a wooden church and administered to the needs of his adopted flock. After his death, the church became a place of pilgrimage. The sea was much closer by in those days and so a port of

St Cuthman was built on the River Adur nearby. The church at Steyning was part of a monastery and together they became part of the lands of the Kings of Wessex. King Ethelwulf (d.853), father of Alfred the Great no less, was buried in the church and in the porch of today’s church is a coffin lid, adorned with the royal symbol of two crosses, that is believed to have been his. Steyning became rich on its religious and royal connections and in the c11 the Abbey of Fecamp in Normandy managed to scrounge or possibly extort the lands from King Edward the Confessor as a reward for sheltering him during his exile from England that was ended only when his mother had the good sense to marry King Cnut! Whether Edward was in any position to refuse is anybody’s guess. Harold Godwinson deprived Fecamp of this revenue and this was one of William the Bastard’s many excuses to invade England. Upon his victory, he restored the church and monastery to Fecamp.

The monks set about replacing the Saxon church between and it seems that they spared little expense on what was the richest foreign-owned church in England. Stone was brought up the River Adur from Caen in Normandy. The dedication was changed to St Andrew. It is supposed that a shrine to St Cuthman existed in an undercroft to the east of the present chancel - and that this, indeed, has caused some subsidence problems, hence presumably the horrid external buttresses..

Of that original Norman church we have only the chancel arch that would have been part of a crossing supporting a crossing surmounted by a Norman tower. It dates from around 1100. The tower and chancel were lost during extensive re-building at around the time of the Reformation as has an eastern section of the church and both transepts. This was not an act of vandalism: the ownership of the church has passed to the monastic house of Syon Abbey. When it was dissolved payments for the upkeep of Steyning stopped of course and the whole church began to decay badly.

The nave was built in around 1150 and is truly magnificent. The decoration around the arcade is deeply-cut and beautifully executed. There are no irregular zig zags in these mouldings! There is horizontal string course below the clerestory and there are unusual pilaster strips (courses of raised masonry) linking the window arches and dropping vertically to the string course below. The whole effect is to give a lovely geometry to the nave and we must wonder that it has not suffered from subsidence or architectural tinkering down the centuries. The clerestory really is one of the finest you will see anywhere.

Ethelwulf’s coffin lid, along with another Saxon one are in the porch (1600). The font is c12 (the base much later) and very unusual. The doorway is ancient (but not Norman) and has a sanctuary ring. Norman carvings abound. There is a corbel table to both south and north. It is somewhat mediocre and I have some doubt as to whether it is Norman.

Looking east. The Norman arcades stretch to left and right. The massive Norman chancel arch soars upwards to support a tower that no longer exists.

South aisle arcade looking west....

Each arch has its own distinctive mouldings, usually variations on the zig zag (above). There is a course of roundels above each arch. There are also heads

The chancel dates only from around 1600. Round headed arches to both side chapels and an east window in Early English triple lancet style, however, fit harmoniously with the nave. Note that the chancel is conspicuously shallow in depth.

...and the north arcade looking east.

at the intersections of the arches (right). There are few better Norman arcades in the country.

The arcade capitals show considerable variation too. One the left is a beautiful arrangement of water leaves surmounted by a cable decoration - note that no less than three variations of leaf design can be seen in this picture alone. One the (right), however is a much more geometric (and, it must be said, a much less satisfying) design.

The chancel arch is adorned by this splendid capital with two lions back to back is a superb example of Celtic influence in Norman art. On the right is a wonderful “label stop” at the end of an arch in the form of a monster’s head - an unusually benign-looking monster at that!

Despite the fine lions capital the rest of the capitals in this church are variations on foliage designs (left) and scallops (right).

The two aisles both have the original Norman doorways through to the side chapels beyond . This is the one on the north side looking towards the west.

This carving of two men intertwined with foliage, found on one of the chancel arch piers, is perhaps the finest feature of the whole church.

The rebuilt chancel has these nicely-proportioned arches through to the side chapels on either side. Round-headed they may be, but they are not Norman, sadly!

Note in this picture the beautiful Norman clerestory. Many Norman clerestories are narrow and with small windows, but the lofty proportions and the height of the windows at Steyning are evidence of its monastic background. Note the string course below the window line and the unusual pilasters linking the windows.

The Norman font on its incongruous Gothic-style base.

The door is not Norman. Note, however, two iron rings. The one above is the door pull and the one below is a “sanctuary ring”.

The Norman arch leading to the south chapel. It is much simpler than its counterpart on the north side.

One of the beautiful and elaborate clerestory windows and surrounding decoration.

The tower of about 1600. If you strip away the buttresses it is actually a quite decent structure. I am rather intrigued about why both the two lower windows clearly had rounded predecessors.

King Ethelwulf’s stone. I regret that the photograph resisted all of my efforts to reveal the two crosses that give it its royal provenance.

The corbel table at Steyning is not as stunning as its other features. One might even question whether it is an original Norman corbel table at all, given that there have been quite a lot of alterations over the years. The left hand carving in the lower picture is, however, conclusive in my view. With its fish-like eyes that is an unmistakably Norman form.

Close to the church but outside its precincts is this modern statue of St Cuthman. he looks quite pensive. Perhaps he is wating to hear if his sainthood has been accepted?

Above: The south aspect. Note the Norman clerestory and corbel table.

Left: This carved head is mounted on the wall of the south side of the church. I am not sure from whence it came, but is very clearly of Norman - or earlier - origin.