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The story of four crucifixes associated with Our Lady of England Priory Storrington West Sussex

May 2008 2

A cross is such a common sight that it hardly calls for notice. The sheer number and variety of them, on buildings, as jewellery around necks, in designs, makes us almost indifferent to their presence. Despite this there are particular crosses that stand out and have some particular significance that causes them to be noticed and, perhaps, give us pause for thought. The crosses of Tancremont, for example (perhaps the oldest to be found in Northern Europe); the cross lambarum of Constantine which in a vision presaged the coming of the Christian Empire; the San Damiano cross of Assisi, which inspired St Francis. Some of these are more than mere crosses – they are crucifixes; they direct our minds beyond the particular device to the One upon it and the meaning of that Presence. At Our Lady of England Priory in Storrington there are several rather special crucifixes. They have become special because of the stories attached to them. One now hangs in the refectory, one in our cemetery and two in the cloister.

THE REFECTORY CRUCIFIX The crucifix hanging in the refectory was a gift from a parishioner to whom it had been bequeathed. It was carved shortly after the Norbertines had settled in Storrington as refugees from Provenḉe. It was blessed by the then Parish Priest, Fr Francis Fouvier.

3 The refectory crucifix

THE CLOISTER CRUCIFIX More noticeable and imposing is one of the crucifixes which now stands in the corner of the cloister. Originally it stood outside in the grounds, but on the very day Fr Francis returned from the blessing of the previous cross it was found to have been chopped down: In the village at that time was an army crammer college. For some reason – probably because of drunkenness – some of the men cut down this crucifix. After this happened the crucifix was taken into the Priory cloister and it remains there to this day. In its original setting the striking figure on the cross had attracted the attention of the poet Francis Thompson and inspired him to write his famous poem Ode to the Setting Sun. It is one of the few works to have come from Storrington that can be said to have a claim to national and international reputation and fame. The radiant sunsets that often characterise the evenings of this secluded part of West Sussex are in themselves sufficient inspiration for any poet, particularly when seen from our vineyard and cemetery’s hill. From here you can see one of the finest views in Sussex: the sweep of the Downs culminating in Chanctonbury Ring and the crests of the Weald. All this goes to provide the ‘field’ in which Thompson sites the cross. In the culmination of the poet’s reflections, a particular feature of the figure on the The cloister crucifix


cross is noted – a ‘radiant finger’ pointing heavenwards. The finger points beyond the present to eternal life. As part of the Prelude to the Ode to the Setting Sun states: O setting Sun, that as in reverent days Sinkest in music to thy smooth-ed sleep, Discrowned of homage, though yet crowned with rays, Hymned not at harvest more, though reapers reap: For thee this music wakes not. O deceived, If thou hear in these thoughtless harmonies A pious phantom of adorings reaved, And echo of fair ancient flatteries! Yet, in this field where the Cross planted reigns, I know not what strange passion bows my head To thee, whose great command upon my veins Proves thee a god for me not dead, not dead! For worship it is too incredulous, For doubt--oh, too believing-passionate! What wild divinity makes my heart thus A fount of most baptismal tears?--Thy straight Long beam lies steady on the Cross. Ah me! What secret would thy radiant finger show? Of thy bright mastership is this the key? Is THIS thy secret, then? And is it woe? After the years passed it was here, in this ‘field’ in another part of the Priory’s grounds that the brothers and priests of the Norbertine Order were buried, along with the parishioners of Our Lady of England: This area had now turned into a ‘field of crosses’.


THE CEMETERY CRUCIFIX Many years later the young cadets who had previously cut down the cross returned to Storrington. They were now mature officers who had been through the war. Tradition has it that they felt they needed to make some sort of reparation for the misdemeanours of their youth and they asked the then Prior what they could do. He asked for a crucifix for the cemetery; a crucifix that would dominate all the smaller crosses that were the headstones of the graves. Tradition again has it that the crucifix was carved in France, in imitation of the one that was felled. This field, sheltered by pine trees, was to continue to grow until 16 – 17 October 1987 when one night, what is now known as the ‘great storm’, wrought terrible destruction across the whole of Sussex, leaving devastation in its wake. The forests and trees that had been the county’s glory were decimated and in that ‘field of crosses’ only unearthly desecrations remained. The uprooted pines had fallen like a great pyre, thereby burying the crucifix in splinters beneath. The cemetery crucifix


But the secret of the cross lies not in failure but in the hope it gives in the face of failure. Two years later, as a living testament to the miraculous power of regeneration that the cross is a witness to, the splinters of that cross had been patiently pieced together, ready to be ‘raised up’ again in glory. This was due to one man’s dedication. The day after the Great Storm, Dennis Anscombe gathered the remains of the cross together and also removed the figure of Christ. Dennis, who was born in Storrington, was the son of a stonemason and grandson of the miller of the village. He allowed the ‘remains’ to dry out for six months, wondering whether he was up to the task of recreating the crucifix. However, he started the work of restoration in a workshop in his garden. For weeks he did nothing but dig out the dry rot and very gradually a new loin cloth began to take shape; new shoulders; arms; legs; a new crown of thorns. The head and face had been split in two – this had to be joined by an insertion and recarved to fit and was clamped together for several days. The days turned into months and the weather became so hot that the workshop became unbearable to work in, so a canopy had to be made to enable Dennis to continue his restoration work outside. Hundreds of hours later – hours of unseen work, skill and devotion – these pieces of the fragmented figure of Christ were put back together again, to complete a figure as splendid as the original. Dennis then set to work on the new beam for the cross; this was the shaven heart of an entire oak, which was itself felled by the Great Storm in Parham Park; a beam 15 feet high and over 3 hundredweight heavy. Still working in a makeshift workshop in the garden of his house, the cross was so heavy that it had to have levers made to turn it. The months went by and two years later the cross was again in place, dominating the smaller crosses in the cemetery. Due to the loss of the trees, the cross could now be seen at an even greater advantage than before.


THE DREAM OF THE ROOD This painting by John Armstrong is on permanent loan to Our Lady of England Priory and can be seen in the cloister. The subject is taken from an 8th Century Anglo-Saxon Christian poem called The Dream of the Rood. It has two historical sources: the Vercelli Manuscript c. AD1000 and the Ruthwell Cross, Dunfries, Scotland ca. AD700 on which some of the poem is carved in runes. The poem is divided into three sections. Section one concerns the dreamer's vision of the cross. Section two is the cross speaking to the dreamer about the crucifixion of Christ. In section three the cross commands the dreamer to go out and spread the message of Christ's suffering and redemption. On the next page we see how the poet dreamed of a wonderful cross transfigured in gold and light and all bejewelled. Through this precious adornment, the dreamer saw Our Lord on the Cross and wood stained with blood. The wood began to speak about its experiences from its felling to its present moment now bearing Christ, the ‘young hero’.

John Armstrong 7' x 3' 4" Oil on board


THE DREAM OF THE ROOD The Cross Speaks Then best wood spoke these words: "It was long since--I yet remember it-that I was hewn at holt's end, moved from my stem. Strong fiends seized me there, worked me for spectacle; cursèd ones lifted me. On shoulders men bore me there, then fixed me on hill; fiends enough fastened me. Then saw I mankind's Lord come with great courage when he would mount on me. Then dared I not against the Lord's word bend or break, when I saw earth's fields shake. All fiends I could have felled, but I stood fast. The young hero stripped himself--he, God Almighty-strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows, bold before many, when he would loose mankind. I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth, fall to earth's fields, but had to stand fast. Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King, Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend. With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen, open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone. They mocked us both, we two together. All wet with blood I was, poured out from that Man's side, after ghost he gave up. Much have I born on that hill of fierce fate. I saw the God of hosts harshly stretched out.


Written, published & produced by The Norbertine Community in Storrington

Canons Regular of PrĂŠmontrĂŠ Our Lady of England Priory School Lane Storrington West Sussex RH20 4LN UK


The Field of the Cross  
The Field of the Cross  

The Story of Four Crosses Associated with Our Lady of England Priory