The Devil In Sussex

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Before we consider the role of the Devil in Sussex folklore, we must first look at the origins of Christianity in Sussex. Sussex was the last Saxon county to be converted to Christianity, mostly due to it's inacessability with the forests of the Weald to the north and marshes either side. Travel was difficult, Sussex being noted for the muddyness of it's roads. Nevertheless, around 680AD, St. Wilfrid, bishop of York, landed at Selsey after being driven from his homeland and proceeded to convert the county. Old pagan sites became the sites of the new churches that the followers of St. Wilfrid put up in villages throughout Sussex and some of those that weren't converted and still held on to the Pagan past in the minds of the populace perhaps became associated with the Devil, knowledge of which is preserved in folklore. Christianity wasn't popular in Sussex to begin with but eventually went on to becoming one of the most fervently Christian counties in the country, much to the annoyance of the Devil of course.

The folklore of the Devil is the folklore of Distance and connections between places. He moves churches, throws lumps of earth vast distances and jumps about the county like a spring lamb. He is also a great victim. It is rare story which credits the Devil with a win. Even the most simple of peasants can best him!

Devil's Dyke

In fact the Devil got so annoyed at all the churches springing up in the weald that he decided that he was going to dig a channel through the South Downs to let in the sea water and drown the population of the Weald. So one night he started digging near Poynings, throwing clumps of earth around that landed and became such features as Chanctonbury Ring, Cissbury Ring, Rackham Hill, Mount Caburn. Fortunately for Sussex, an old woman saw the Devil in his work and held up a candle behind a sieve and knocked a cockerel off his perch. The Devil hearing the cockerel crowing and seeing the light which he mistook for the sun rising, fled the scene, the job half done. The ditch he managed to dig in the downs, just south of the village of Poynings, in now known as the Devil's Dyke and has an associated farm and road. Two ancient earthworks at the northern entrance to the dyke, most probably ox stalls like those found north of Mount Caburn, are known by folklore as the Devil's Grave and the Devil's wife's Grave, some say that the Devil was buried there when the fake light caused him to perish. If you run around the Devil's Grave 7 times holding your breath, the Devil will appear. The earthworks are also known as Giants graves.

Some say that the Isle of Wight was actually a clod of earth fallen from the Devil's hoof as he fled over the channel from the coming daylight, some say he bounded away into Surrey and landed just over the border where the force of his landing created the Devil's Punch Bowl. It is also said of this bowl that the Devil burnt his lips drinking boiling hot punch from his bowl and flung aside his spoon which formed Torberry Hill in West Sussex, the Iron Age fort on top of which is in the shape of the profile of a spoon.

Other variations on the Devil's Dyke story include the saving of the weald by a saint rather than by an old woman. One such story says the weald was saved by St. Cuthman and a nun called Ursula de Braose who used the candle trick and gave the Devil cramps by means of prayer. This story also suggests the GoldStone in Hove was thrown there by the Devil after it landed on his foot during the excavation of the Dyke. Another story gives the credit to St. Dunstan who made the Devil finish the work in one night and by means of prayer, made all the cocks in the Weald crow early, stopping the Devil's work.

The Devil And St. Dunstan

St. Dunstan, who lived until 988CE, is also noted for other encounters with the Devil, the first in Mayfield where he worked as a blacksmith though at the time he was the Archbishop of Canterbury. One day when he was working in his smithy, making either a horseshoe or a piece of metalwork for a church, the devil came to him disguised as a beautiful girl who began talking about spiritual matters but then fell to flirting. St. Dunstan seeing a cloven hoof under the girl's skirt, picked up his red hot tongs and clamped them round the Devil's nose who shrieked and changed shape through various hidious monsters before turning back into his real form as the Devil at which point St. Dunstan released him and he fled to Tunbridge Wells to cool his nose in the waters there, giving the iron rich waters their characteristic red colour and making it notably warmer in the process. One version of the story says that St. Dunstan landed on a bridge, which still bears his name and walked to Tunbridge Wells where he cooled his tongs in the water to produce its red colouring. The tongs still reside in Mayfield, hanging on the wall above his anvil and hammer. One writer considered only the hammer to be of any freat antiquity.

St. Dunstan's Tools
St. Dunstan's Tools

Other claims for the place where the Devil cooled his nose include Roaring Spring near Mayfield itself and Tongdean near Brighton (or Patcham) where he removed the tongs which were still attached to his nose. It is thought by some that this tale occured at Glastonbury, but Sussex people firmly believe this to be not the case. The story is further remembered in this short verse :

"Saynt Dunstan (as the story goes),
Caught old Sathanas by ye nose.
He tugged soe hard and made hym roar,
That he was heard three miles and more.

The second legend regarding the Devil and St. Dunstan also occured in Mayfield when the convent there had just been built. The Devil appeared to St. Dunstan and said that he was going to knock down all the houses in the village. St. Dunstan bargained with the Devil and got him to agree to leave standing any house with a horseshoe on the outside. At that time, the custom of nailing horseshoes to dooe for luck wasn't well known so the Devil agreed but St. Dunstan managed to nail a horseshoe to all the houses in the village before the Devil could get to them so the village was saved.

The Devil managed to get some measure of revenge against St. Dunstan but repeatedly setting Mayfield church, then built of wood, off it's normal East-West axis, leaving St. Dunstan to repeatedly correct it. He then proceeded to hinder the building of the new stone church.

Another church is involved with yet another St. Dunstan story. This time is is the steeple of the church in the village of Brookland, just over the border into Kent. The Devil took the steeple and was chased by St. Dunstan who caused the Devil to drop the steeple near Hastings by application of the tongs mentioned in the Mayfield story. St. Dunstan then cooled his tongs in a spring in the Silverhill region of Hastings, which became chalybeate. The Devil And Churches

As has been noted above, the Devil doesn't like churches, according to one legend regarding Hollington Church near Hastings, he was powerless to stop it being built so he moved it a distance away into some woodland to make it difficult for people to find it. Another version tells us that priests were summoned to banish the Devil after he had undid the work of the workmen when they were building the church. The Devil agreed to desist if the church was erected at a spot he chose, the priests agreed and the church was built, after which a thick woodland sprung up around it.

At St. Nicholas church, Brighton, the Devil tried other more subtle means to destroy the church. St. Nicholas was trying to root out the worship of Diana in the area so the Devil disguised himself as a pious woman an gave pilgrims who came by a vase of oil with which to annoint the church. The liquit the vases contained would actually burn stone walls. The bishop however met with the pilgrims and thwarted the Devil's plan.

Elliot Curwen, who did a talk on the Devil in Sussex says that he also tried to prevent the building of Waldron church, there being a Church Field 2 miles away, and the legend regarding the building of Alfriston Church has also been ascribed to the work of the Devil.

Yet another church moving tale doesn't mention the Devil but is included here for completeness. When the church at Udimore was being built, the days work was spoilt by the stones being carried to another place whilst a voice shreiked "O'er the mere". This episode is credited as giving the village of Udimore its name.

Churches in out of the way places may be an indication that they are built on old Pagan sites, the struggle actually being between the existing pagans and the Christians who want to build. Certainly the sites of some churches boggles the practical mind and legends such as these may be a means to explain their location.

Devil's Doors

One particular place related to the Devil in most ancient churches is the north door, otherwise known as the Devil's Door. Several legends, not limited to any particular part of the county, account for this connection. Some people say that the north door was where the Pagan population entered the church to worship at the old Pagan site that the churches had taken over. The use of the north door was either one of deliberate segregation by the Christian population or a way for the Pagans to secretly let eachother know of their bias by the use of the Door. The connection with the Devil in this case is the connection that the Christian population made between the Devil and the old religions. The secret entrance legend has also been applied to the Templars who were forced underground after being persecuted and outlawed. Sompting, one of their churches has a blocked north door. Another legend relates that when a baby was baptised and the spirit of the Devil exorcised, the north door was briefly opened to let the spirit of the Devil depart before being quickly closed to stop him re-entering the church and the baby. In general, the north door of the church was kept closed at all times, apart from certain ceremonies such as Christenings, Baptisms and Communion. Some Sussex people believed the Devil waited outside the north door for anyone foolish enough to use it. The Victoria County History of Sussex lists some of the north doors it describes as "Priests Doors", though this seems to only apply to a relatively modern door cut into the original building of the Chancel. Examples of this occur at Hamsey, Chithurst and Appledram.

Whatever the original connection between the north door and the Devil, most of the ancient north doors are now blocked up, for reasons unknown to this author. Despite the quantity of churches with doors blocked up in this manner, the author knows of only a few churches with a definate connection between their north door and the Devil. The first is Worth church, an ancient Saxon church which has connected with it the legend of the baptism mentioned above. A similar story is told of the north door of St. Giles in Horsted Keynes. The doorway is Saxon but was removed from the nave in 1885 and put into the North Aisle. The door is not blocked but is known as the "Devil's Door" because, like at Worth, the Devil escapes through this door during baptism.

Another is Jevington church which has a Saxon tower. There is a record in the manor rolls for 1576 which which tells us that some mortgage money was repaid "At the North Door of Jevington Church" which was blocked up and then replaced with a window in a later restoration. This door was known as the Devil's Door according to a local guide. Bosham church, a pre-conquest church with a 13th century north aisle which had an open north door known as the Devil's Door which was not to be used under any circumstances. The door was removed and replaced quite recently. The church at Birdham which has a blocked up north door in the north of its 14th century nave. The Victoria County History of Sussex tells us : "... the ancient north door, now blocked, of the same design as the south door, but narrower, and so much lower that it can hardly have had any but a ritual use for the exit of the Devil." and provides a reference to a manuscript dated 1602 which says : "The north door is clene dammed".

Some texts refer to a blocked north door in a sense that all north doors go by that name rather than it being a local name for that particular door. Two examples are a guide to Folkington calls the north door to that church a Devil's Door and a description of the north door at Pevensey which has some crosses inscribed on it states "...the three crosses, each of a different type, on the north (or Devil's) door at Pevensey are curious". Perhaps the three crosses are protection to stop the Devil getting in through that entrance. Just to buck the trend, Lindfield church has a blocked door facing west which is known as a Devil's Door.

Interpretation of the information available can be confusing as so much is lost as old parts of a church are destroyed or another building added to the north side, such as a transcept, ailse or vestry, may obliterate any evidence of blocked north door or stop the need for blocking in the first place. Some north doors are replaced by a window, such as at West Itchenor and Guestling. North doors which seem to have been built after the first phase of the building of a church may be a replacment for an older north door which has since been demolished. Such is the case in the Chancel at Ditchling, which also had a blocked north door in the Nave, before the whole lot was replaced in the 1863 restoration. This may blur the data concerning when these doors were first built. Even more confusing is when original doors are moved to a newly built section of building such as in Patcham where the 12th century north door is moved and replaced in the relatively modern north Aisle before being blocked up, though this is still known as a Devil's Door. In Hamsey church, the original north door in the nave is still open but there is a blocked up north door in the chancel, called a "Priests Door" by the Victoria County History, built in the 15th century and blocked in the 16th. The blocking of some doors can be accounted for, such as at Etchingham, where a north door to a chapel was blocked when that chapel was destroyed. At Ford, a blocked north door was unblocked to allow access to a new vestry on the north side of the building. As to their bricking up, excavations at Lullington Church may provide a clue. Lullington Church has been mostly destroyed giving the opportunity for archaeological excavation which hay throw more light on the matter than standing churches. The north door in this church was bricked up during the 16th century which is the time of the Reformation when the protestants were busy stamping out any form of superstition. Whether this bricking up is a reaction against a perceived connection between the north door and the old religion or against a Catholic ritual that was deemed too pseudo-magical is unclear, though it is interesting to note that in the same phase of building that the door was bricked up, a large Sarcen stone, probably an old Pagan relic from the village of Alfriston below, was inserted into a wall of the church when it was being thickened, indicating perhaps the stones were still viewed as a threat and were being destroyed or used as building material. It may be that the Christianised version of the legend followed on from the Pagan one, reuse of Pagan places and ideas being quite popular during the early days of the church.

Architecturally, most of the north doors in existing churches were built from pre-conquest times to the 12th century and mostly in the nave or north aisle. When they were bricked up is not conclusively known by the author, the Victoria County History being particularly vague and listing the blockages as "Modern", which could mean the many changes made to parish churches in the Victorian period.

Two church plans in volume 116 of the Archaeological Journal however are more forthcoming. The first is for the church of St. Nicholas in Old Shoreham which had a north door in the pre-conquest tower which was blocked in pre-14th century Norman times, though a door was opened in the south wall at the same time, so this may be a red herring. The other is the church of St. Mary in Rye, originally a mid 12th century cruciform church which had two aisles and two chapels added to make it roughly rectangular. The blocked north door is in the late 12th century north aisle and was blocked in the 14th century. An earlier church plan for West Hoathly church in SAC 76 says the original 11th century north door was blocked around 1200 and mostly erased by a later window around 1400. Similarly, the north door in the early 12th century north aisle of Guestling church was replaced by a window in 1886.

Combining these dates with the date from the Lullington excavation gives a very broad timespan for the phenomena, perhaps indicating some sort of general tradition for blocking the north door of a church after a certain period of time rather than a sudden and blanket dislike for north doors due to a particular change in religious attitude. The author would appreciate any information regarding bricked up north doors in Sussex, especially any specifically known as a Devil's Door. Below is a list of churches that have or have had such doors or a Devil legend :

  • East Chiltington
  • Alciston
  • Selmeston
  • Sompting
  • Hamsey
  • Folkington
  • Patcham
  • West Hoathly
  • Beckley
  • Guestling
  • Hooe
  • Hangleton
  • Kingston
  • Piddinghoe
  • Ovingdean
  • Rottingdean
  • Chithurst
  • Trotton
  • Balsdean Chapel
  • Peasmarsh
  • Icklesham
  • Pevensey
  • West Dean
  • Appledram
  • Birdham
  • Slaugham
  • West Itchenor
  • Rye
  • Old Shoreham
  • Ore (Old)
  • Udimore
  • Etchingham
  • Ford

Pacts With The Devil

You don't need to be a man of the cloth to outwit the Devil, a smuggler by the name of Mike Mills once raced the Devil through St. Leonards forest, the wager being his soul against being left alone forever. He won the race and so became immortal as Heaven wouldn't touch him either because of his crimes. The avenue along which the race was run is still known as Mike Mill's Race.

A similar challenge to the Devil has a less fortunate outcome. A poacher in the village of Northchapel was even more drunk than usual and would not leave the pub and go home, claiming "may the Devil burn me if I do". In the end, he was left asleep on the floor in an adjoining room. In the morning, the landlord found a large pile of black ash in the centre of the room and a smell akin to Brimstone.

In the 19th century, a gentleman from Hastings was said to have made a pact with the Devil. Apparently, he could enter a house through the keyhole, sit on pins without feeling any pain and even tried to convice his daughter to become a witch. The Devil In Place-Names

Apart from Devil's Dyke mentioned above, the Devil has given his name to many places, through legend and Pagan association. We have the Devil's Book near Mount Caburn, a six mile long earthwork in West Sussex called the Devil's Ditch, the Devil's Bog in Ashdown Forest, a stretch of Stane Street called the Devil's Road, Several fields called Devil's Race (such as near Cradle Hill, Alfriston, in Eastbourne and on Tilton Down near Alciston) and the same name applied to a wood near Ditchling, a group of barrows on Bow Hill called the Devil's Humps and a similar group on Treyford Hill called the Devil's Jumps, so called because the Devil once decided to amuse himself by jumping between the barrows and disturbed Thor who was sleeping there. The Devil only laughed and jeered as Thor got angry so Thor threw a large stone at him and caught him mid-jump in the midriff. The Devil decided not to stay any longer. There is a Devilsrest Bottom near Seaford and just along the coast, there used to be a pinnacle of rock near Beachy Head which was called the Devil's Chimney, probably by rock climbers because of how hard the climb was. Moulscoomb Pit, just east of Hollingbury hillfort is also known as the "Devil's Footprint", which was created when he stepped over the hill. The valley is in the rough shape of a footprint. Hell, the Devil's abode is also mentioned in "Hell's Corner", the name for the place in Horsham churchyard where Felons were buried.

The Names Of The Devil

Some people in Sussex used to refer to the Devil as "He" since it was bad luck to speak the Devil's name. For those who didn't hold this superstition, there were several names that the Devil went by. An old name for part of the ramparts of Devil's Dyke Camp is the" Poor Man's Wall", Poor Man being one of many names for the Devil, others include Old Nick, Old Scratch, Old Man, Old Harry, Naughty Man, Old Grim and Mr. Grimm. These names echo the ridicule the Devil has to suffer in the legends associated with him. In addition to these, the name Beelzebub is used in the Sussex Mummers Play and there may be a link with the name Puck, more readily associated with fairies. A companion for Satan also gets a mention, going under the name of "Dame Dark".

The Devil Goes Fruit Picking

One way to keep children out of trouble is to threaten them with scary stories to stop them doing certain things. The Devil is known as the frightening force in two such Sussex superstitions, the first tells us that on the night of October 10th the Devil goes around and spits on all of the blackberry bushes. Breaking this particular taboo is sure to bring death and disaster, or at least a tummy upset as the berries rot and become flavourless and mushy due to frost. Another similar taboo concerns the collecting of nuts on a Sunday, if you were to do so, the Devil would come and hold the branch down for you. The purpose of this taboo may have been to stop children ruining their Sunday clothes or to stop a pastime considered far more serious a sin, as "going nutting" was once a euphemism for going to see your sweetheart in the woods for some serious hanky-panky, very much frowned upon at the time. This last superstition has coined the term "As black as the Devil's nutting bag". The Devil is also noted in a superstition relating to tree felling. It is said that it is easier to strip the bark from the tree in the spring when the sap is rising because "The Devil cannot creep between the oak and its bark".


An ancient method for summoning a spirit or force, probably predating Christianity, involves moving round certain sacred spots in a certain manner. As the old pagan places fell out of use, good Christians were warned away by legends of the Devil haunting these places. The most famous of these places in Sussex is also one of the most haunted, Chanctonbury Ring. It is said that if you run or walk forwards/backwards at a certain date/time or not the Devil will appear and offer you soup or porridge or steal your soul or both. A similar, though less complicated peramulation can be used to summon the Devil at the group of barrows on Bow Hill known as the Devil's Humps or King's Graves. The relatively simple task of running around the barrows six or seven times without further restriction is enough to perform the summoning. Other sites of summoning include a tree by the old Rectory at Kingston Buci, an old Unitarian Chapel and various old tombs such as the oldest tomb in Broadwater Churchyard in Worthing, perhaps a smugglers stash, the story invented to keep people away. Another site of supposed smuggling involvement was the Miller's Tomb on Highdown hill. If you run around the tomb 12 times backwards at midnight you will raise the Devil who will jump out and chase you, though running 7 times forwards will summon the ghost of the miller who will promptly do the same as the Devil would. A similar story is told of the pyramidal tomb of Mad Jack Fuller, the eccentric Georgian squire who lived at Brightling. If you run backwards around his tomb seven times, you will summon the Devil or the ghost of the squire himself. This is despite the squires efforts to keep the Devil away from his tomb by having broken glass sprinkled on the floor inside.

A more occult form of raising the Devil was performed by a "Cunning Man" near Crowborough Green. Once the Devil was raised and his task performed, the man had trouble getting rid of him, but his son scattered a sackful of clover seeds on the floor and set the Devil the task of picking the seeds up one by one. By means of this distraction, they found the time to find the right spell to send the Devil away again.

As well as Summoning, it is well to keep the Devil away. One author links the removal of the Devil with the Howling of the apple trees at new year. It is said that the minions of the Devil made their homes in the uppermost branches of apple trees and would blight crops around. The wasailing ceremony not only removed these demons but encouraged good spirits to move into the tree.

The Devil Likes . . . The Devil Hates

If you cut your nails on Sunday, the Devil is sure to chase you all week and having horse brasses in your house will also attract him. Salt and sunlight are means to keep away the Devil, who is also said to dislike a plant that goes by the name of Blue Scabious because of it's healing properties. It is said "The greater part of the root seemeth to be bitten away; old fantastick charmers report that the Devil did bite it for Envie, because it is an herb that hath so many good virtues and is so beneficial to mankinde". Other plants that have a nickname relating to the Devil are the Puff-Ball Fungus which is known as the "Devil's Snuff Box", the nettle which is known as the "Naughty Man's Plaything" and Field Concolvulus which is known as the "Devil's Weed" due to the difficulty in eradicating it. On Easter Sunday morning in Sussex, it is said that the sun dances, but the Devil always manages to put a hill, some trees or a cloud in the way. The Devil's dislike for the housewife of a Sussex farmer is recorded in a folk song sung to the tune of "Lilliburlero", ascribed to Purcell. The chorus consists of whistling a short tune, giving the song its name of "The Whistling Song". The words of the song were unfortunately edited for coarseness, but are recorded as follows :

There was an old farmer in Sussex did dwell,
(Chorus of whistlers)
And he had a bad wife, as many know well.
(Chorus of whistlers)

Then Satan came to the old man at the plough,
'One of your family I must have now.

It is not your eldest son that I do crave,
But 'tis your old wife, and she I will have.'

'O welcome! good Satan, with all my heart;
I hope you and she will never more part!'

Now Satan he got the old wife on his back,
And he lugged her along like a pedlar's pack.

He trudged away till he came to his gate,
Says he, 'Here, take an old Sussex man's mate.'

Oh! then she did kick all the young imps about;
Says one to the other, 'Let's try turn her out!'

She spied seven devils, all dancing in chains,
She up with her patterns and knocked out their brains.

She knocked old Satan against the wall,
'Let's try turn her out, or she'll murder us all!'

Now he's bundled her up on his back again,
And to her old husband he's took her again :

'I've been a tormentor the whole of my life,
But I ne'er was tormented till I took you wife!'

The Devil And Buried Treasure

The Devil is referred to as 'He' with a special emphasis in a story relating to Buried Treasure at the Trundle hillfort near Goodwood, the story goes thus :

"In the Downs there's a golden calf buried; people know very well where it is - I could show you the place any day. Then why doant they dig it up? Oh, it is not allowed; he would not let them. Has anyone ever tried? Oh, yes, but it's never there when you look, he moves it away."

Another tale tells of someone actually trying to dig it up :

"You know, there's many a one that tried... My dad used to say as his grandfather got up early on Holy Sunday an' went along to the place an' started digging. An' he actually ketched sight of a lump o' gold, an' then he was almost deafed by a clap o' thunder, an' when he looked again, the gold was gone."

A similar story is told of Clayton Hill, which has barrows rather than a Hillfort and is also protected by The Devil.

Bibliography Bibliography

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Devil's Doors

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