A SUSSEX HERMIT
IN the number for March, 1928, when dealing with the will of the Rev. Sir Henry Bull, of Tortington, I promised to tell readers something of another Sussex priest who, I believe, belonged to the same family. At any rate I have collected all I can find about him. According to the Rev. Henry Barber, the name Bull was originally spelt Bolle—Bul—Bolli, and it certainly occurs in Domesday Book, where a certain Saxon named Bolle, in the days of Edward the Confessor, had half a hide of land at Gritnam, a small estate a mile and a half beyond Lyndhurst Church on the road through the New Forest to Bournemouth.
The family, through the centuries, gradually spread eastwards through Sussex, their favourite places being the villages that nestle behind the South Downs, like Albourne, Shermanbury, Cowfold, Bolney, Twineham, Wivelsfield and so on to Lewes.
The Rev. William Bolle was appointed to the Rectory of St. Leonards, at Aldryngton, near Hove, as it was then called, some time before 1397, when Bishop Rede's valuable Lists of Advowsons to Livings begins.
It helps one, I think, better to realise the period by saying this was in the reign of the unfortunate Richard II, the son of the Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III. We do not know how long before 1397 the Rector was appointed, but it is believed that he was there for some years.
He was evidently a man of piety and learning. He was a chaplain and possibly a chantry priest attached to Chichester Cathedral before he became rector, and was addressed as Dominus or " Sir."
You can imagine, then, the surprise of the countryside when he suddenly announced that he had decided to give up his comfortable living and in future live the life of an anchorite.
An anchorite is a recluse or hermit—one who seeks to live in solitude, meditation and prayer and with as little intercourse as possible with his fellow men. The term is specifically applied to the Christian ascetics of the third century. who established themselves in caves and lonely places in Egypt and in the adjacent deserts. St. Anthony was perhaps the most illustrious. However, to return to our anchorite.
The Rector set about making this tremendous change in his life by petitioning the Bishop for leave to resign his living. Here follows a rough translation of the two deeds recording the trans-action in tolerable Latin written five hundred and twenty-seven years ago. What strikes one first, is how modern it sounds. Secondly, you do not often find an authentic contemporary ac-count of a reclusion such as his, where he was to be interned for the term of his natural life in his own churchyard. All the records show an extreme reluctance on the part of the Bishop to grant his request which was made twice.
He gave up the title deeds of the dwelling therein that had been formerly
granted him by the Dean and Chapter of the house that was built for his own use
and received fresh title deeds from the Lord (Bishop) of the building made for
his seclusion to the end of his life
This having been drawn up elsewhere, and exhibited by the drawer to the Bishop, the Bishop admitted forthwith; it declares that he (Bolle) had acted voluntarily and without fear or compulsion. The tenor of the title deed conceded to him by the Dean and Chapter and (formally) revoked by the Lord (Bishop) is as follows : —
The wonderful part of the story is that the anchorite's cell, which was comparatively roomy, was constructed or carved out of the churchyard and adjoined the church, and here he lived for a great number of years, and apparently acquired fame as a holy and devout man.
We learn from Bishop Rede's register that there was a ceremony on the 20th December, 1403, when the rector took his vows at Chichester Cathedral before the Bishop as a recluse, and his successor—one Richard Lumbard by John Blownham his proctor—was admitted in his place at Aldryngton on 30th January. Richard Lumbard is described as clericus—here apparently one who has studied at a university. The patron of the living was the noble Lord Thomas la Warre Clerk (sic) Lord la Warre. He was installed by the Archdeacon of Lewes, but apparently not in person, for the register adds, to induct the said proctor Richard Fervour as his substitute.
It must have been curious for the villagers to have obtained occasional
glimpses of their old rector immured in his cell, living on the plainest
And yet we have a hint that Bolle still looked after his old church. On 3rd October, 1405, the new incumbent, the Rev. Richard Lumbard, resigned and Lord de la Warr appointed the Rev. William Yerdeburgh (by Richard Ferrs, or Fervour, proctor) in his place,
On 26th March, 1406, the new vicar obtained the Bishop's leave or licence to be absent for two years from his church of Aldryngton " for the purposes of study," and Prebendary Deedes shrewdly conjectured that the anchorite continued to say the daily Mass in the church while he was away.
Mr. Gordon P. G. Hills, son of the late Gordon M, Hills, a well-known member of the Sussex Archaeological Society, has thrown some doubt on our rector remaining at Aldryngton, and that later he was " included " in a cell attached to the north side of the Cathedral Church of Chichester.
This is probably due to the fact that he is described in Bishop Rede's
Register, vol. I, xx, as " a recluse in the Church of Chichester."
Then again the extremely lonely situation of Aldryngton might have been held sufficient reason for the Bishop and Dean and Chapter, who were all evidently very fond of Bolle, approving of a change of cell, as sufficient alms could have been hardly obtainable from the former, whilst the attraction of St. Richard's shrine must have brought multitudes to the Cathedral who would naturally give to the hermit in his cell.
The Bishop also may have found the recluse's presence valuable for the spiritual bettering of the close and its occupants who, by the general evidence of the Register, needed it rather badly in those days.
Swetappall, the public notary mentioned above, lived in the close, and was with others ` quarrelsome and pugnacious." The poor recluse, if he moved there, must have found it different from his quiet cell by the sea at Aldryngton. He must have heard from his cell at Chichester "sounds of revelry by night " unless they mended their ways after 1403. An easy-going Dean seems to have allowed rather lax ways in the Cathedral body, especially among the lay clerks and minor officials attached to a great cathedral.
The " Ingoldsby Legends " are historically correct in many details.
The rector, in any case, lived for many years after his resignation, for we find in 1415 good Bishop Rede left a bequest in his will to seven priests, and one was his old friend William Bolle.
That is all we know of William Bolle, but we catch glimpses of members of the same family through the centuries. In the same year on the 25th October, John Bolle fought as a man-at-arms under Sir Thomas Hoo, and was killed at Agincourt.
Thomas Bolle, of Ashburnham, was among those pardoned after Jack Cade's rising, and a John Bolle was a churchwarden of Cowfold in 1470, where the family were yeomen at Brook Farm and Homelands Farm for over 300 years, and as I have already described, Henry Bull was a " curate " at Tortington in 1545.
Aldrington is now part of Hove and Brighton, and St. Leonard's is a populous parish, but for some centuries after our hermit passed away the parish went steadily downhill. Repeated encroachments by the sea lessened the inhabitants to less than 200 in 1700; and in 1703 the great storm swept away nearly all the cottages on the shore. In 1831, according to the Census, the population was reduced to two—the old man who kept the toll house on the high road and his wife. The man had lost a leg, and shortly after lost his wife, so accounting for the physical deficiency the actual population at that time was three quarters of an inhabitant.
The accompanying woodcut is by Nibbs, and shows the ruins of the church as
they appeared to him in 1859. I picked up the earlier print by Sparrow.
From Sussex County Magazine Volume 3 1929
The Story of Aldrington
HAS Aldrington a story ? Historians are silent and other writers have passed her by with never a word. Certainly, she is not promising material. In the modern built-up mass of greater Hove, she is not easily to he identified and few can say where Hove properly ends and Aldrington begins. Thousands dwell unaware within the hounds of the ancient parish and only those who live hard by the old church can suspect that a village once flourished here as a separate community. For as Aldrington declined till nought remained save the crumbling church by the ever encroaching waves, so Hove waxed fat and prosperous and grew mightily, finally to devour her stricken neighbour, history, name and all.
It was the sarsens, lying in the north-west corner of the churchyard, that first caused me to wonder. Such boulders are common enough among the Downland valleys hereabouts and their presence at this spot, perhaps, held no particular significance. Yet, some-how, these had not the rounded appearance of other sarsens and some seemed to me to have been roughly squared, though much weathered since; some, even, appeared red-dened as by long exposure to fire.
As I gazed upon them, I allowed myself to indulge in extravagant thought. I saw them set within a Druid circle on the wind-swept flat between Down and sea; or hewn from the far-off, long submerged quarries at Bracklesham and built, long-and-short, into the quoins of a Saxon church; enclosing the tiny cell of some medieval anchorite or resting in the foundation of a long-forgotten rectory building. Alas! my speculation was brutally shattered by one who has spent a long life working in and about this churchyard and who proferred the unromantic explanation that the sarsens had been brought here, within his memory, from the fields that once lay north of the church, where they had presented some hindrance to the progress of agriculture. Well, there it was; and I reflected, sadly, that even the fire that had left its mark upon them might well have been no more spectacular than that used to dispose of the churchyard refuse.
Still, there must be a story somewhere; and there were other ancient stones, built into the church walls, that were at once an encouragement and a challenge. How should one set about its discovery ? I pondered the matter and it seemed a good idea to begin by establishing, if possible, the ancient bounds of the place.
So, having first consulted an old map, I duly set out upon my errand, and was surprised to dis-cover that Aldrington's boundary is still quite well defined. West-ward from Westbourne Place it skirts the sea then, turning north-ward at Boundary Road—an ancient way--it follows the base of the Knoll and so reaches the long hedge; the latter, which climbs Dyke-wards for some miles, defines the limits of several parishes and, defying modern development, still runs snake-like at the rear of Elm Drive from a point, deep inside the town, where the County School field begins. Following the southern edge of this field, the boundary finally crosses the Old Shoreham Road and turns southward along a low spur of the Downs that is now visible only as a succession of small humps in the tar-macadamed surface of lateral streets, reaching Westbourne Place once again, where it is marked by an old flint wall.
Here, then, was a foundation. What could one build upon it ? Well, to begin with, the small area of the parish tended to confirm the tradition that a great part of it, together with the village, had long since succumbed to the turbulent waters of the Channel. Looking at the matter chronologically, I remembered that I had seen displayed in the Brighton museum some fine polished stone axe-heads that had been dug from the soil of the parish and had read of a Bronze Age find, at its eastern extremity, near Aldrington House. I remembered, too, reading a vague reference to the discovery of Roman remains which, if not well authenticated, is at least probable, since the Old Shoreham Road is generally accepted as having been a Roman road, with possibly older origins. The old myth that Aldrington was the great "Portus Adurni" of the Romans has now been satisfactorily exploded.
So much, then, for the Romans. What of the Saxons who wrested the land from the Romanised Britons ? Nothing very tangible perhaps, though a few yards west of Boundary Road, a Saxon cemetery, containing, it is thought, both heathen and Christian burials, has been discovered. Yet, as the English Place Name Society's admirable work on Sussex tells us, the very name of Aldrington—"the farm of Ealdhere's people"—is good Anglo-Saxon; so, too, are the other two place-names of the parish: Knoll ("cnoll"—"a round hill") and 'Wish ("wisc"—"a meadow")—relic of the Wish Meadow where fairs and circuses were held in the days of our youth.
At this point, I thought, it would be well to consult the Domesday Book in Relation to the County of Sussex, a rare and splendid tome, published in the last century by the Sussex Archaeological Society of which I am fortunate to possess a copy. I was quickly rewarded with the information that, in Saxon times, Aldrington gave name to a Hundred, of which the eastern half comprised the parishes of Aldrington, Hangleton and Portslade; and I found it a sobering thought that this very entity still exists as the eastern of the two present half-hundreds of Fishersgate.
The Domesday reference to Aldrington was brief and to the point: "IN THE HALF HUNDRED OF ELDRETUNE. Godfrey holds Eldretune of William. It lies in Beddings, a manor of King Edward, and William de Braoise now holds it in his rape. Godfrey holds 7 hides and half a rod. There is land for seven ploughs. It does not pay geld. Villeins held it in the time of King Edward. There are 41 villeins and 10 bordars with 7 ploughs. In the time of King Edward, and afterwards, it was worth 4. Now 6." Then follow details of a parcel of land belonging to the manor and also held by Godfrey, but situated in Broadwater, together with a note that in the two lands there was only one hall; the latter, in all probability, stood at Aldrington, hard by the church.
The entry conjures up visions of a busy agricultural community. The hide was an ancient Saxon land division and represented sufficient land for cultivation by one plough.
Villeins were little better than serfs, the chattels of the lord of the manor. Bordars were cottagers. Godfrey, no doubt, was a Norman. The "geld" mentioned was the defunct Saxon "Danegeld" tax, which the Conqueror had promptly revived. The fact that no geld was paid by this manor suggests that its lord performed some service for the King.
Here was Aldrington's first record ; but what of the turbulent centuries that followed; had anything of note ever occurred in this obscure village and, if so, had the incident been recorded ? If so, again, had the records survived ? It was clear that I must next visit the little library of the Sussex Archaeological Society at Lewes, where is assembled the most comprehensive collection of information relating to our county. Deeds and maps, records and references, county histories and village histories, guides, geologies and geographies; each in its appointed place in that quaint and quiet Tudor room. An hour or two of browsing in the silence produced results.
I reflected that, for the survival of almost all this information, we are indebted to the Church which, rock-like through centuries of change and clamour, has preserved for us, in parchment and stone, so much of the past. Even her humble building at Aldrington, though ruined, had survived when all else had been lost forever and so preserved an age-long continuity. For the first church here, almost certainly, was a Saxon one of wood, provided by the lord of the manor who had inherited the duty, from pagan times, of providing his followers with a temple in which they might worship. Perhaps in the eleventh century, a stone edifice succeeded it, or its successor, for some of the materials seem to have been used in the thirteenth-century building. Portions of the latter are embodied in the modern church—notably in the tower base and in the east wall of the old nave where two original lancets may be seen. The un-accountable mullions and column sections in the churchyard wall and rockeries seem to point to an original chancel of which traces of the foundations have been found.
The earliest reference that I could find concerned this very building. For an Assize Roll of 1262 related that sanctuary had been obtained within its walls. At that time, it was not unusual for fugitives from justice to take refuge in churches, where they were allowed sanctuary from the law.
Then, in 1324, Henry de Wayvill was "Parson of the church of Aldryngton, diocese of Chichester"—a reminder that the ancestors of our own great field-marshal were land-owners here. A Subsidy Roll of about the same time gives the family names then prevailing in Aldrington, many of which are still to be found in the district: Slyghbody, Thom, Cony, le Scras, le Mutel, Russel, Heryng, \Vodeland, Carter, le 'For, de Hangleton, in the Hale, Burry, de Sadelescombe, Spendloue.
The character of the parish as a thriving agricultural community probably remained unchanged until the fourteenth century, and in 1334 Aldrington contributed £3 3s. 4d. to the King's Tax, compared with the £3 3s. of Portslade ; but already the sea was beginning to take toll of the fertile lands, and the Nonae Rolls of 1340 alleged that, since the taxation of Pope Nicholas, forty-eight years earlier, Aldrington had lost forty acres to the sea.
The monks of the great Cluniac Priory of St. Pancras, Lewes, seem to have possessed property in the parish "at Estfield juxta Aldrington" where they had "a portion of the tithes of lambs, wool and cheese." Perhaps the same field is referred to in the Chartulary of the Priory, when one, John le Foghe of Aldrington, gave them 14d. yearly rent for an acre of land "to the west of la Leme by the road which is called Bergheweye beside the hillock in the field of Aldrington." What was "la Leme ?" Could it have been a hostelry ? As for the Berghweye, the name surely means either "the road to the burh" or "the road to the barrow." Since one would expect to find either on high ground, my guess is that the Berghweye was a north-south thoroughfare, perhaps the present Boundary Road which leads ultimately to the old earth defences on the Dyke Hill.
Here and there, the records gave a glimpse of the character and time of some of the Rectors who, to judge by their actions, possessed a somewhat different outlook on life from their modern counterparts. There was, for example, "Henry, parson of the church of Aldryngton" who, in 1316, complained "of John Cook on a plea of trasspass. And he says the said John took away William Firet his servant, out of his service etc, to his damage 20s etc." Then, in 1402, one of his successors, Thomas Bolle, obtained permission to become an anchorite and took up his abode in a cell "on the north side of the churchyard." The churchyard, apparently, was not that of Aldrington, but one at Chichester. While, in 1408, the following strange entry appears in Bishop Rede's Register: "The Bishop gave to Dns. William Gaynesburgh, R. of Aldryngton, leave of non-residence for two years and of letting his Church to farm. He had letters testimonial."
Sometime during this period, the mouth of the Adur driven further and further east-ward from Shoreham by the shingle drift from the south-west—found itself at Aldrington where—if old maps may he trusted--it remained until the seventeenth century. That this had not previously been the case, is suggested by the parish boundary, which crosses straight over Aldrington Basin—the old river-bed—and disappears into the sea; for, where they may, parish boundaries almost invariably follow large water courses and often unimportant streams.
The advent of the river may have given the village a certain maritime importance, and a general movement of its population toward the waterside might reconcile the statement of Parson English in 1603 that he had only 8 or 9 parishioners with the fact that the village is said to have possessed 200 inhabitants living close to the sea in 1670; and may account for the West Aldrington that appears in the records for the first time early in the seventeenth century, when "Robert March of West Aldrington, joyner & Elizabeth Fowler of same, widow" were wed at "East Aldrington" (i.e. the old church).
The reduced state of the parish is reflected in the following extract from a
Liber Detectorum of 1586: "ALDRINGTON. The church is not paved, nor whited nor
beautified. Or churchyarde sufficiently fensed. The chancell is not paved."
True, in 1596, the Rector, Henry English, "placed a newe font in the usuall
place in ye church," but he seems to have had some difficulty in making ends
meet, if one may judge by certain remarkable entries in the Act Books of the
Archdeaconry of Lewes:
December 1. Henfield. Office of Judge against Richard Hen and Edward Mitchell, of Henfield, and Edward Lag of Woodmancote. The respondents alleged that "Sir Thomas Bishoppe Knt, in the first yeere of the King's Majestie's raigne that now is, or thereabouts, in the behalf of the parishioners of Henfield procured to be bought from Sr Barnard Whetstone Knt, Edward Bellingham, Esqre., from the parson of East Aldrington from the churchwardens and other parishoners there by and with theire mutuall consente, And did receave 650 pounds weight of Bell metall at fifty shillings the hundred to make a bell for the parish church of Hendfield with which 650 pounds together with other metall they made a Bell and placed it in the steeple of the parish church of Hendfield and have and doe use it at this present. And doe offer themselves ready to paye the sum of money agreed appon to the use of the Church of Aldrington aforesayd, vizt. sixteene pounds and five shillings of lawful English money, whereof fourteene pounds bath bin in the hands of one Richard Awsten, to them that have right to receave the same so that they or other parishioners of Hendfield may be suffiticntly dischardged from further payment thereof."
The Book of John Rowe (1597-1622) who was Steward of the Estates of the Lords Bergavenny, mentions that the Lord of the Manor of Portslade was entitled to all wrecks "between the west hedge of Aldrington and the ditch of Hove" (i.e. the Aldrington foreshore) and one hopes that this right was not an encouragement to his worthy retainers to indulge in the profitable pastime of wrecking so often imputed to the coastwise folk of Sussex. Smugglers there were, no doubt, and a "smugglers cave" is said to have existed near the upper part of the Hove boundary within living memory.
In 1670, said one authority, the village still possessed a population of two hundred, inhabiting a row of houses perilously close to the advancing waters. By 1738, according to "Magna Britannia" few of these buildings remained, most of them having succumbed to the great storms of 1703 and 1705; while another authority claimed that, in 1724, the parsonage was the only house remaining.
If the tempests brought ruin to Brighton and Hove, they sounded Aldrington's death-knell, for she soon sank into complete oblivion. By 1821, I read, her population had dwindled to two only, who were the toll-gate keeper and his wife. The old toll-gate, on the coast road, was pulled down about 1863 and all that remained of the village was the sad ruin of her church, lying forlorn among the brickfields.
At the end of the century, the parish included three fields belonging to Hangleton Manor, called Fern Closes, Breaches and The Gibbetts. The latter name reminds us of the survival, until recent years, of Gibbet Farm, where now the easternmost houses of Elm Drive stand. At this spot formerly stood the high gibbet from which, it seems, was hanged that unfortunate youth, James Rook, for having robbed the King's Mail nearby. The story of the efforts of his distracted mother to collect his bones and bury them decently by Old Shoreham Churchyard is well known, through Tennyson's "Rizpah."
So, Aldrington's story passed into the times of my own memory. I recalled how she had grown again and how, as she had prospered, her ancient church had been enlarged and embellished and the roads developed to a spacious scheme. How, in the recent war, history repeated itself and Aldrington, again suffering at the hands of the enemy, yet played her part in repelling him, as the illustration on page 167 suggests.
To-day, in tribute to her resurgence, the small ships of many nations berth
in Aldrington Basin and seem to symbolise her ultimate victory in the age-long
struggle with the sea.
From Sussex County Magazine Volume 26 1952
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