The Bosham Bell

Bosham Magazine online

The Bosham Bell.

Bells attract legends, folklore and other myths. Indeed, bells hold a fascination for the imagination because of their holiness and beauty, their power against evil spirits and the slightly eerie sense of mystery that surrounds them. Particularly memorable are the legends of lost church bells and Sussex has its fair share of these, the most famous being that of the 'Bosham Bell', which first appeared in print in the late nineteenth century but is probably much older. There are some variations of detail but the main outline of the tale is this:

In the days of Alfred the Great Bosham was a flourishing port with a fine church and rich monastery; but in those days the Sussex coast was frequently attacked by bands of Viking raiders. One day a Viking ship was sighted making for Bosham harbour and, at this, not only the farmers and fishermen but even the priests and monks fled inland, taking with them whatever valuables they could carry away and abandoning the rest of their goods to fate. So it happened that when the raiders landed they found the church undefended and were able to carry off the great tenor bell, the finest in the whole peal. They lashed it to the cross-benches of their ship and set sail, delighted with their prize.

Meanwhile, the monks crept back to their plundered church. When they saw the enemy making for the open sea they rang the remaining bells, some say in thanksgiving for their own safety but some say in a backwards peal as a solemn curse on the sacrilegious Danes. The ship was nearing the mouth of the estuary when this peal came ringing across the water and at the sound the stolen bell broke loose from its moorings and replied, in a single loud note; then it crashed through the ship's hull, so that bell and ship and men all vanished beneath the waves. There are some, however, who deny that the ship sank; they say its shattered planking closed again at once and not one drop came in - a miracle that converted the heathen Danes on the spot. But all agreed that the bell itself disappeared into the depths, at the spot that is now known as Bosham Deep but was formerly known as Bell Hole. And all agree that whenever the bells ring from Bosham Church the sunken one still answers from beneath the waves.

Now the men of Bosham grieved for their bell and many times tried to recover it but could never do so. At length, centuries after it had first been lost, a man who was knowledgeable about such matters told them that there was one way to raise it but only one. They must find a team of pure white oxen (some say white horses), harness them to the bell and so draw it up on shore. The team was assembled, after much searching; a rope was fastened to the bell and the oxen began to haul. All went well; the shape of the huge bell could be glimpsed as it was gradually drawn into shallow water; then all at once, when it had almost touched land, the rope snapped and the bell rolled back into the depths - for, though nobody had noticed this, on one of the oxen there was a single black hair.

So the Bosham Bell was lost again, this time for good and only its answering note is ever heard. It has more than once been suggested that the 'answer' is in fact an echo thrown back across the harbour from woods on the opposite shore. The legend is well known locally and there is sometimes added to it a little rhyme, the call of the lost bell: