The only female Sussex Saint

Last week I visited the Church of St Candida in the isolated Dorset village of Whitchurch Canonicorum.   It is the only parish church in England to contain the relic of a saint.  Saint Wite.  The Latin name for Wite is Candida, hence the name of the church.

The shrine of the saint contains three holes so that pilgrims could (and still can) reach in to get closer to the holy relics.  Today these openings are filled with papers begging the saint to intercede in a variety of problems and ailments.  Today, in the 21st Century, faithful people still hope that an Anglo-Saxon woman can help them with their modern day woes.

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The Shrine of St Wite at Whitchurch Canonicorum

I was minded of the story of the only female Sussex Saint, St Lewinna and I wondered if her tomb at Bishopstone Church was like the one I was looking at.    One person who would have known the answer was a monk called Bulgarus who actually saw the tomb of the Sussex saint.  He however had not come to venerate her, but to steal her!

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Bulgarus 

The monk had set off from Flanders in April 1058 to cross the channel to Dover but prevailing winds pushed the ship westwards along the coast for nearly two days. The ship contained valuable cargo and because of this the sailors tried to find a suitable port in which to dock. They decided against Winchelsea but  the captain knew of another safer port and on 19th April they landed at the port of ‘Seavordt’.   On disembarking, Bulgarus noticed a nearby church and set of towards it, Whilst on route he stopped to talk to an old Seafordian who told him that the church was dedicated to St Andrew and that it contained the holy relics of Lewinna. “the virgin and martyr whose heavenly merits are daily shown”  It is now widely accepted that this is the church at Bishopstone, a building that dates from Saxon times.

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On arrival at the church Bulgarus celebrated mass and had a good look around. He noticed that the walls of the church were covered in parchments telling of the great deeds done when people prayed to Lewinna. These included cures of the blind, crippled and those whose limbs and muscles had contracted. The papers were written in English and she was obviously a very popular local saint.

Lewinna had been killed for her Christian belief in the year 675 just five years after St Wilfrid arrived in Sussex. Who knows, the young girl may even met the great man as he travelled across Sussex trying to convert us heathen South Saxons.  Her name is recorded as Lewinna, Lewenna, Lewyne, Leoffwyn, or Lheurine but whatever the spelling she is the first names woman in Sussex.

How she died is not known, however a depiction of the saint is said to have been carved on the Easter Sepulchre to the left of the altar of St Andrew’s Church, Alfriston.  This shows a cleave down the centre of her forehead possibly caused by an axe which may indicate the cause of her death. She was only a teenager and maybe even as young as 11 when she was killed. It seems that shortly after her death miracles were attributed to her so years later the Bishop of Chichester, Eadhelm (who served between 950 and 980), arranged for her remains to be exhumed from the churchyard and, in the presence of a large crowd placed within the church.  Many people believe that her tomb was within what is now the church porch. 

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The Porch at Bishopstone – Shrine of St Lewinna?

Our Belgium monk, having learnt all about Lewinna, cheekily asked the priest in charge if he could buy her relics. He must have got a short and curt answer so decided on an audacious plan to steal her relics and take them back to his monastery. He asked the local priest to pray overnight at the tomb and during the night managed to push the lid of the tomb aside and tried to reach inside to take her bones.  Try as me might he could not reach them and in the early hours fell asleep. Whilst asleep he claimed that Lewinna came to him in a dream telling him to try again (as if she wanted to be stolen!) and he finally managed to reach and remove her at about 10am the next morning.

Our thieving monk, (even his chronicler, Drogo, calls him a “faithful thief and a good robber)  wrapped the remains up in a linen cloth but, on three occasions, small pieces of bone fell out of the bundle.  Bulgarus took this of a sign that some small bones should be left in the church and he duly replaced them.

Bulgarus returned back to his inn near the port of Seaford (the Plough?!)  and then – in order to allay suspicion should the theft be noticed – returned to the Church to pray.   In the mean time a storm had started to brew. When Bulgarus returned to the ship and told the crew of the contents of his bag they were horrified. They thought that if they were caught with the stolen goods on board they would all be put to death by the local people, indeed they thought that the storm was an indication that God was not happy with the theft.  One sailor even suggested throwing the bones into the sea to calm the storm.  The following day the seas were calmer and the ship set off – without Bulgarus who had been sent ashore to buy some food. (I get the impression the crew did not really like Bulgarus!)

The ship eventually returned to port in Flanders and the captain took the bag containing St Lewinna’s remains back home where he put them in a cupboard. Bulgarus managed to find another ship to take him across the channel and eventually found the Captain and recovered his ill-gotten gains.

Seaford had lost her only Saint, although maybe one or two small bones still remain somewhere under the church floor at Bishopstone.  Over in Flanders, poor Lewinna was placed in the library of a monastery in the town of Bergues, near Dunkirk.  In order to boast of their new acquisition the holy fathers decided to show her off by taking her on a tour around the surrounding area. At the first stop (near modern day Loos) a man called Bodera was suddenly cured of his kidney disease.  In order to thank her he bought his local church a candle which was measured to his own height and agreed to accompany the saint on her travels.

The holy progress was not always welcomed. At Leffinge (near Ostend)  the villagers said they had never heard of Lewinna but when her relics were placed on the altar a nearby crucifix began to sweat. A local cripple was carried into the church and when he saw the casket containing her bones he began to quake and gnash his teeth and then was immediately cured. He was so thankful that he hugged the casket containing Lewinna and then later bought twelve sheep to the church as an offering for his cure.  Drogo, the local chronicler reports that the following day the sceptical parishioners flocked to the church to worship.

Another stop during the saintly progress was a village called Oudenburg near Bruges. This was the home of a peasant girl. She could scarcely speak, and ate and slept little. She constantly shivered and was obviously very ill.  One Saturday whilst gathering vegetables for supper she fell into a coma but luckily the bones of the Seaford Saint arrived shortly afterwards and as soon as she touched them she was instantly cured.  At the seaside town of Blankenberge a 12 year old crippled boy was cured and Lewinna even travelled as far as Zeeland in Holland where she cured a deaf man called Rembold.  It was was in Holland that the strangest miracle occurred. A very sick woman was bought before her bones and asked for a cure or death. She returned home where prayers were said and she promptly died. This was seen by local people as a miracle as she had been cured of her illness!

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Saint Lewinna

When the procession returned to Bergues a large crowd arrived to watch. As she entered the church, two large candles which had been blown out in the wind were miraculously re-lit.  Other miracles are recalled and it appears that just the thought of our Seaford Saint was enough to do the trick.  Some people claimed they had been cured by praying to St Lewinna or even praying whilst facing the general direction of her new resting place.   One lady called Cilia was cured after our saint appeared at her bedside.

A few months after she arrived in Flanders, some local dignitaries went on pilgrimage in Rome. During their stay, the wife of one of them witnessed St Lewinna at the end of her bed complaining that although she was happy that her bones had been removed from England, she would prefer a better casket to be stored in.  As a result on her return, she was put in a grander casket.

On 16th June 1224 a grand new shrine was built for St Lewinna but in 1383, when Flanders was invaded by the French she was hidden away in a wall safe only being removed ten years later.   St Lewinna remained at Bergues until another French invasion in 1558, when the monastery was sacked and burnt down, Apart from a small piece of rib-bone, nothing of our Saint survived.  Her cult waned but her feast day (24th July) continued to be remembered for many years.

I can’t help but think about St Lewinna and how different things would have been if she had been left in Bishopstone Church near Seaford where she was stolen from.

It is likely that in medieval times Bishopstone would have become a place of pilgrimage along with Chichester,  where pilgrims flocked to see the tomb of St Richard.  The port of Seaford would have been busy with pilgrims, maybe some travelling from Europe

Today however this poor but miraculous Sussex girl is hardly known.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Lesley says:

    Fascinating as usual! Thank you

    Like

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