Church Norton is the name given to an isolated cluster of buildings outside of the hamlet of Norton in the northwest corner of Selsey parish, at the mouth of Pagham Harbour Selsey parish occupies the entirety of Selsey island, which was a true island until the early 20th century (Ballard, 1910). The village of Selsey represents the majority of settlement in the parish, though the parish is dotted by farms and a caravan park occupies a spot of high ground on the western shore of the Selsey Bill. Although the majority of the parish is arable farmland, the land around Church Norton is simply unimproved grassland. The implication of this is that archaeological features surrounding the impressive earthwork atop which the Chapel of St. Wilfrid sits, may lie undisturbed. The Chapel itself is in fact the 13th century nave of the Norman church. The building was moved completely to serve as the Parish church of Selsey in 1865. Four fragments of Anglo-Saxon carved stone may also have been reincorporated from the Saxon church into the parish church of Selsey when it was moved from the site and may attest to the antiquity of the structure at Church Norton (Aldsworth, 1979, 104-105).
The exact location of Wilfrid’s monastery of Selsey at Church Norton is equivocal. The land on which Saint Wilfrid is though to have built his monastery/cathedral is thought to be at Church Norton at the mouth of Pagham Harbour. Excavations were undertaken at “the Mound” in 1911 by Claude Bishop and Edward Heron-Allen (Salzmann, 1912, 57)[Fig. 5]. The excavations found little pottery that was suggested to be pre-Roman Iron Age. Other pieces of antiquarian interest have been found in the vicinity of the mound, including a piece each of “scroll” and “basket” style stone carving, possibly from the seventh century cross of the cathedral (Heron-Allen, 1911, 102). Two Romanesque friezes depicting the miracle of Lazarus are also said to have been moved from Selsey to Chichester when it was translated in 1075 (ibid.).
The 1911 excavations found substantial foundations, including those of what is thought to be a free-standing tower of unknown age or function. Salzmann interprets it as an armada beacon built in 1587 (ibid., 67), though Roman tile, the Saxon pottery and belt tab, potential architectural pieces of dressed Caen stone, and proximity to the Norman church and priory make such a dismissive interpretation unlikely. Indeed, Aldsworth (1979) suggests other interpretations such as the foundation not being a beacon but a gatehouse of late Saxon or early Norman date (104). Pieces of dressed stone architectural fittings uncovered from the 1911 trenches are probably residual material not from the Saxon cathedral but from the Norman church that was translated to the village of Selsey from Church Norton (Heron-Allen, 1911, 106). Locating and elucidating the site of Wilfrid’s monastery and the cathedral of the South Saxon bishops would both be of immense local importance but also situate Pagham harbour and the surrounding area into a wider context as well as allow for exploration of a focus where varying levels of social identities would have been negotiated.
Wilfrid was a man with earthly concerns and would not have located himself too far from either peoples of influence, or a means of communication (Sawyer, 1883). He was a Northumbrian noble and and exile of the See of that kingdom. He also had several contacts on the continent, not least in Rome- it is doubtful that Wilfrid would have resolved to a hermits life (ibid.). To that end it would make sense to locate the fountainhead of his Sussex mission near a port of some capacity. It would not make sense, however, to establish a monastery that would be immediately under threat from erosion. The 1911 excavations had established that “The Mound” at Church Norton was natural shingle. With such a site, above the tide but in view of harbour traffic, would have been ideal. That the 1911 excavations did not locate any [i]in situ[/i] early medieval remains is unsurprising, considering the advancement of scientific excavation methods even within the last 50 years. Either the excavation was located incorrectly to discover the structure, or the evidence was of such a type that eluded the previous investigators.
Evidence of a Roman station guarding the mouth to Pagham harbour, was argued as the source for building material of Wilfrid’s monastery. Indeed, It has not been suggested anywhere in the literature the possibility of the structure to be a Roman lighthouse – the proximity of church to such a feature being not unprecedented, as at Dover. Further work is necessary to determine the nature and relationship of this structure to the church, and subsurface survey of the churchyard itself would be well situated to determining early medieval antecedents to the Norman structure. The lack of any definitive structure on the mound has led archaeologists of the early 20th century to assume that the sea had claimed the original site of the monastery. Modern survey and excavation methods may well change that verdict.
Aldsworth, F. (1979). “The Mound” at Church Norton, Selsey, and the site of St. Wilfrid’s Church.
Sussex Archaeological Collections, 117, 103–107.
Aldsworth, F., & Freke, D. (1976). Historic Towns in Sussex: An Archaeological Survey . Portslade: Sussex Archaeological Unit.
Ballard, A. (1910). The Sussex Coastline. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 53, 7–25.
Colgrave, B. (1927). The Life of St. Wilfrid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heron-Allen, E. (1911). Selsey Bill: Historic and Prehistoric. London: Duckworth.
Salzmann, L. F. (1912). Excavations at Selsey, 1911. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 57, 56–62.
Sawyer, F. E. (1883). St. Wilfrith’s Life in Sussex. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 33, 101–128.