A SUSSEX HERMIT
By Sir WILLIAM BULL, Bt., F.S.A.
From Sussex County Magazine Volume 3
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.
MINUTE OR RECORD.
"Likewise on the 20th day of the month of December, in the
Cathedral Church of Chichester. the Lord (Bishop) secluded
Master William Bolle, his Chaplain, rector of the Parochial
Church of Aldrington in his Diocese into a certain dwelling
place in the cemetery to the north of the said church; to
exercise and live therein the life of an anchorite to the
end of his life."
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
the tenor of which documents is described below. He also wrote a
formal resignation from his own church under the seal of a
public notary, one Richard Swetappall (of whom more anon).
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 : —
" John Maydenhithe, Dean of the Chapter of the Cathedral
Church of Chichester, to our beloved in the Lord Christ,
William Bolle, priest greeting in Him who is the true
salvation of all. Thy devotion which experience has
commended unto us and its persistence for which we give God
thanks have induced us to grant the prayers which we believe
the most high God has inspired in thee, we being thy helpers
and moved by favour and affectation for thee as far as with
God's help we may. Being therefore favourably inclined to
thy petitions in this matter we concede unto thee by these
presents the space of that area which is in the cemetery of
the said church on the northern side thereof, containing in
itself twenty-six feet near a certain empty corner spot for
the purpose of building a dwelling in which having left
behind all secular cares, they desirest the life of a
solitary and an anchorite together with egress and ingress
to the Chapel of the Blessed Mary near to the same place
that thou mayest celebrate the divine mysteries therein to
the end of thy life being purposed to fight perfectly for
God inspired by God and charity. In witness whereof our
common seal was affixed in our Caoitular House the second
day of the month of June in the year of our Lord 1402,"
being the 3rd year of the reign of Henry IV, i.e., from 30th
September 1401 to 29 September 1402.
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.
Here is an extract from a conveyance : —
" We have given conceded and concede, and by these presents
have confirmed to Mr. William Bolle aforesaid a place in the
cemetery near the north part of the church aforesaid,
twenty-four feet wide and twenty-nine feet long to hold, to
build and maintain the said place with its appurtenances
after the building of the same at his own charges and
expense, to dwell therein and live and exercise in the same
the life of an anchorite and recluse to the end of his life
in the place and in the abode to be built there by himself.
Moreover, after the retirement or decease of the said
William Bolle the said place is to revert with the
dwelling-place and its appurtenances to our disposal or that
of our successors wholly and freely."
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
food and dressed in the simplest clothing
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
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
Now "Church " here may be used to mean diocese, in which case it
would include the cell at Aldryngton, but Prebendary Deedes
thought that rendering would be unusual.
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
The " Ingoldsby Legends " are historically correct in many
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
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.
Sussex Archaeological Collections, vol. xii, pp. 117,
139; xxviii, p. 53; xxix, pp. 33, 34; xxxiii, p. 265;
Compend, Hist. Sussex, vol. i, p. 5;
Sussex Record Society, vol. xi;
Bishop Rede's Register, vol. ii, pp. 19, 267, 277, 282, 287,
edited by Prebendary Cecil Deedes, M.A., to whom I am indebted
for much information in this article and for other kindnesses.
From Sussex County Magazine Volume 3