Sussex Giants

Subject ListMain Text

[ Folklore Page | Sussex Main Page ]


Several giants once walked the land of Sussex, they mostly lived on prominent hills from which they threw various objects and no doubt made a nuisance of themselves. The most famous of these giants has his outline cut into the chalk on Windover Hill near Wilmington, another giant usually mentioned in the context of the Wilmington Giant is one on Firle Beacon to the west with whom the Wilmington Giant had a fight with and lost, the outline on Windover Hill marking the place where the Wilmington Giant died. Rumour also abounds of another giant, companion to the Wilmington Giant, the rumour pertaining to the lost existance of another outline rather than a living giant. Another giant sandwiched in between and slightly to the north of the two warring giants mentioned is one that lived on Mount Caburn and was called Gill, this one slinging around a hammer rather than the boulders the other two giants used to fight.

Bevis Hampton

Men of Myth often attained gigantic stature as their stories were retold, the list of their achievements and physical attributes often sounding like a title or an impressive string of letters after a learned mans name. Whether any of the giants mentioned so far are stories of men blown out of proportion or just local folklore of a different source is not known but another giant by the name of Bevis Of Hampton. The Hampton is thought to be Southampton but Bevis is usually linked with the town of Arundel as that was the name of his horse, Hirondelle.

Bevis's Sword, Morglay
Bevis's Sword, Morglay

His sword, which goes by the name of Morglay is 5 ft 9 in tall and is currently kept in the armoury (or library) of Arundel Castle, from the battlements of which he threw the sword to mark his place of burial. There are three seperate barrows which have claim to be the spot where the sword fell :

  • Bevis's Grave (SU 692064) is a long barrow near Havant, Hampshire.
  • Bevis's Thumb (SU 787155) is a long barrow near the Sussex village of Compton, which is not too far from the border with Hampshire.
  • Bevis's Tomb (TQ 0108) is a possible long barrow in Arundel Park near the castle, by far the closest of the three.

Bevis was employed as a warden of the castle and was payed with a whole ox, two hogshead of beer as well as bread and mustard (according to one story) each week. He was said to be able to walk from Southampton to the Isle of Wight without getting his head wet. On the way from Arundel to Southampton lies Bosham where Bevis stopped to wash his dogs. Bosham church is said to have contained his staff which he left there as a keepsake. Bevis is mentioned as the hero in a poem from the fourteenth century, ample time to grow a few feet in the retelling. Part of the castle was named 'Bevis Tower' after him, though some think that this name came from someone called Bevis who fought at the Battle of Lewes.

Town Giants

Giants have been protecting towns since the time of Bevis in other ways, giants of a more statuesque variety were constructed by towns and were seen as protectors. Hasting Jack-In-The-Green hosts a small band of giants, two of them from Hastings itself. The first is Hannah who lived in All Saints Street in the 17th century, and rid the town of bailiffs upon the introduction of hearth tax, as well as keeping an eye out for French invaders. The second is a new Giant called "The Man With The Fish", who has yet to acquire a history. Could Bevis have been a constructed giant figure as seen today, who acquired a history while standing motionless at the gates of Arundel? Giants have been known in Midsummer parades in London from the 14th century, linked with the fires along with Morris dancing and other entertainments. These giants could be seen as local figures representing the spirit of the community in which it is in.

Giants at Hastings Giants in the castle 1998

The Ogre of Oxenbridge

As well as fame, certain people have attained a gigantic status through notoriety. Several people in Sussex have been given the title of ogre and accused of being baby eaters. The most famous of these is Sir Goddard (or Robert) Oxenbridge of Brede who died on the 9th of March 1487 and is interred in Brede Church with his wife Ann. He seems to be ostensibly a powerful, yet likeable person but the legends depict him as a giant who roamed the countryside eating children. As well as having a crow as a familiar, he had great strength and couldn't be killed by normal weapons. Eventually, all the children of Sussex got together (or just his heighbours depending on the story), got him drunk on an enormous vat of beer which they brewed (or drugged him) and sawed him in half with a wooden saw on a bridge called Groaning Bridge at Stubb's Lane, Brede. These stories were probably not deserved, it seems all the men so accused were Catholics during the Reformation. Sussex was noted for supporting the Reformation and the Parlimentarian movement, so those who clung to their faith were not too popular. The story seems to have continued though, with the ghost of this particular ogre haunting Brede place, perhaps bolstered by the smugglers who used the place to hide their cargo and were known to use ghost stories to scare people away from places.

Long Barrows As Giants Graves

Barrows, especially long barrows are sometimes associated with Giants in England, in Sussex we have Gills Grave near Glynde, named after the Giant who lived on Mount Caburn. Bevis of course chose the site of Though not directly linked, the warring giants of Wilmington and Firle both have Long Barrows in their domain and Gill has three in close proximity. It is interesting to note that these last three places also have Buried Treasure associated with them, more specifically, in the form of gold or silver coffins. Finally, an earthwork in Devil's Dyke, most commonly known as the last resting place of the Devil and his wife is also known as "Giant's Grave".

Landscape Giants

To the mind of the Shaman throughout the world, figures formed in the landscape are important and can represent the sleeping form of ancestors, gods or other mythical beings. There may be such figures in Sussex. Viewed from the east, Mount Caburn can be viewed as the head of a giant sleeping figure with the body extending to the north with arms at the side. This may be recorded in folklore as a giant named Gill is said to occupy Mount Caburn and throw his hammer from the top. Another figure may be seen at Wilmington as the hill on which the Long Man is carved is in the form of female genetalia with legs either side and a large barrow to the north perhaps representing the navel of the sleeping giantess. Whether there was any form of shamanism in Sussex is a moot point, though the correlation between the landscape features and folklore is striking.

Bibliography Bibliography
  Beckett, A. : The Bevis Sword, SCM Vol. 3, No. 5 1929
Field, C. W. : The Two Roberts (p.160), SCM Vol. 21, No. 5 1947
Griggs, F.L. : Highways & Byways in Sussex, Macmillan 1921
Hutton, Ronald : The Stations of the Sun, Oxford U.P. 1997
Russell, M. : The Early Neolithic Architecture of the South Downs, Brit. Arch. Rep. Vol. 321 2001
Simpson, Jacqueline : The Folklore Of Sussex, B. T. Batsford Ltd. 1973
Walcott, M. : A Guide to the Coast of Sussex, Edward Stanford 1859
Wales, Tony : Sussex Ghosts And Legends, Countryside Books 1992

[ Folklore Page | Sussex Main Page ]