Sunken Bells

Legends of Christiansen Type 7070
edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2013


  1. Kentsham Bell (Herefordshire, England).

  2. The Bells of Forrabury Church (Cornwall, England).

  3. The Bosham Bell (Sussex, England).

  4. The Whitby Abbey Bells (Yorkshire, England).

  5. The Whitby Abbey Bells (Yorkshire, England).

  6. The Buried Chime (Yorkshire, England).

  7. The Bells of Brinkburn (Brinkburn/Durham, England).

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Kentsham Bell


Great Tom of Kentsham was the greatest bell ever brought to England, but it never reached Kentsham safely, nor hung in any English tower. Where Kentsham is I cannot tell you, but long, long ago the good folk of the place determined to have a larger and finer bell in their steeple than any other parish could boast. At that time there was a famous bell foundry abroad, where all the greatest bells were cast, and thither the Kentsham people sent to order their famous bell, and thither too sent many others who wanted greater bells than could be cast in England.

And so it came to pass at length that Great Tom of Lincoln, and Great Tom of York, and Great Tom of Christchurch, and Great Tom of Kentsham, were all founded at the same time, and all embarked on board the same vessel, and carried safely to the shore of dear old England. Then they set about landing them, and this was anxious work, but little by little it was done, and Tom of Lincoln, Tom of York, Tom of Christchurch, were safely laid on English ground.

And then came the turn of Tom of Kentsham, which was the greatest Tom of all. Little by little they raised him, and prepared to draw him to the shore; but just in the midst of the work the captain grew so anxious and excited that he swore an oath. That very moment the ropes which held the bell snapped in two, and Great Tom of Kentsham slid over the ship's side into the water, and rolled away to the bottom of the sea.

Then the people went to the cunning man and asked him what they should do. And he said, "Take six yoke of white milch-kine, which have never borne the yoke, and take fresh withy bands which have never been used before, and let no man speak a word either good or bad till the bell is at the top of the hill."

So they took six yoke of white milch-kine, which had never borne the yoke, and harnessed them with fresh withy-bands which had never been used, and bound these to the bell as it lay in the shallow water, and long it was ere they could move it. But still the kine struggled and pulled, and the withy-bands held firm, and at last the bell was on dry ground. Slowly, slowly they drew it up the hill, moaning and groaning with unearthly sounds as it went; slowly, slowly, and no one spoke, and they nearly reached the top of the hill.

Now the captain had been wild with grief when he saw that he had caused his precious freight to be lost in the waters just as they had reached the shore; and, when he beheld it recovered again and so nearly placed in safety, he could not contain his joy, but sang out merrily:

In spite of all the devils in hell
We have got to land old Kentsham Bell.
Instantly the withy bands broke in the midst, and the bell bounded back again down the sloping hillside, rolling over and over, faster and faster, with unearthly clanging, till it sank far away in the very depths of the sea. And no man has ever seen it since, but many have heard it tolling beneath the waves, and if you go there you may hear it too.

The Bells of Forrabury Church


In days long ago, the inhabitants of the parish of Forrabury -- which does not cover a square mile, but which now includes the chief part of the town of Boscastle and its harbour -- resolved to have a peal of bells which should rival those of the neighbouring church of Tintagel, which are said to have rung merrily at the marriage, and tolled solemnly at the death, of Arthur.

The bells were cast; the bells were blessed; and the bells were shipped for Forrabury. Few voyages were more favourable; and the ship glided, with a fair wind, along the northern shores of Cornwall, waiting for the tide to carry her safely into the harbour of Bottreaux.

The vesper bells rang out at Tintagel; and the pilot, when he heard the blessed sound, devoutly crossed himself, and bending his knee, thanked God for the safe and quick voyage which they had made.

The captain laughed at the superstition of the pilot, as he called it, and swore that they had only to thank themselves for the speedy voyage, and that, with his arm at the helm, and his judgment to guide them, they should soon have a happy landing. The pilot checked this profane speech; but the wicked captain -- and he swore more impiously than ever that all was due to himself and his men -- laughed to scorn the pilot's prayer.

"May God forgive you!" was the pilot's reply.

Those who are familiar with the northern shores of Cornwall will know that sometimes a huge wave, generated by some mysterious power in the wide Atlantic, will roll on, overpowering everything by its weight and force.

While yet the captain's oaths were heard, and while the inhabitants on the shore were looking out from the cliffs, expecting, within an hour, to see the vessel, charged with their bells, safe in their harbour, one of these vast swellings of the ocean was seen. Onward came the grand billow in all the terror of its might. The ship rose not upon the waters as it came onward. She was overwhelmed, and sank in an instant close to the land.

As the vessel sank, the bells were heard tolling with a muffled sound, as if ringing the death-knell of the ship and sailors, of whom the good pilot alone escaped with life.

When storms are coming, and only then, the bells of Forrabury, with their dull, muffled sound, are heard from, beneath the heaving sea, a warning to the wicked; and the tower has remained to this day silent.

The Bosham Bell


In the days of the Northmen, a party of pirates came up the creek [to Bosham] in search of pillage. They plundered the inhabitants, sacked the church, and carried off the tenor bell of the monastery. Having put their spoil on board, they dropped down the channel with the ebbing tide; but by the intervention of St. Nicholas the bell refused to remain in such wicked hands, and sank through the deck and the hold of the vessel to the bottom of a great hole in Bosham channel, known to this day as the "Bell Hole," to the great consternation of the heathen marauders.

It is still the belief of the good folk of Bosham that though the bell is deep down in the water, it has not lost its power of resonance, and that whenever a sturdy peal is rung out from the church tower, the lost tenor chimes in with her sister bells, and those standing at the brink of the "Bell Hole " can distinctly hear the whole octave peal.

The Whitby Abbey Bells


The abbey was suppressed in 1539 A.D., and shortly afterwards dismantled. The bells were sold, and were to be conveyed by ship to London. They were duly placed on board, and, amid the lamentation of the people, the sails were unfurled and the anchor weighed. But, lo! the vessel refused to bear away its sacred burden. A short distance it moved out into the bay, and then -- on the beautiful, calm summer evening -- it quietly sank beneath the waves; and there under the waters, at a spot within sight of the abbey ruins, the bells still remain, and are still heard occasionally, by the superstitious, rung by invisible hands.

The Whitby Abbey Bells


A favourite story told in connection with the Abbey is one concerning its bells. It runs thus: The magnificent peal excited the cupidity of some sea-roving free-booter, who, landing with a sufficient force, extracted the bells from the sacred building, and conveyed them on board his vessel. This desecration was, however, not suffered to go unpunished, for ere the vessel had gone many miles she struck, and foundered a short distance from a projecting ridge of rock called the "Black Nab."

As a fitting conclusion to this we are told that he who dares, on Halloween, to spend some time on the rock, and call his sweetheart's name, will hear it echoed by the breeze, accompanied with the ringing of marriage bells from the sunken chime.

The Buried Chime


Under the cliffs at Whitby, when the great tides landward flow,
Under the cliffs at Whitby, when the great winds landward blow,

When the long billows heavily roll o'er the harbour bar,
And the blue waves flash to silver 'mid the seaweeds on the Scar,

When the low thunder of the surf calls down the hollow shore,
And 'mid the caves at Kettleness the baffled breakers roar;

Under the cliffs at Whitby, whoso will stand alone,
Where, in the shadow of the Nab, the eddies swirl and moan,

When, to the pulses of the deep, the flood-tide rising swells,
Will hear, amid its monotone, the clash of hidden bells.

Up from the heart of ocean the mellow music peals,
Where the sunlight makes his golden path, and the sea-mew flits and wheels.

For many a chequered century, untired by flying time,
The bells, no human fingers touch, have rung their hidden chime,

Since the gallant ship that brought them, for the abbey on the height,
Struck and foundered in the offing, with her sacred goal in sight.

And the man who dares on Hallowe'en on the Black Nab to watch,
Till the rose-light on St. Hilda's shrine the midnight moonbeams catch,

And calls his sweetheart by her name, as, o'er the sleeping seas,
The echo of the buried bells comes floating on the breeze,

'Ere another moon on Hallowe'en her eerie rays has shed,
Will hear his wedding peal ring out from the church-tower on the Head.

The Bells of Brinkburn

Brinkburn/Durham, England

Centuries ago one of the priors of Brinkburn presented the bells of that building to the priory of Durham. They had been the pride of the secluded sanctuary on the Coquet, for their tones were possessed of great power combined with sweetness, and many tempting offers had Durham made to secure them, but hitherto to no purpose.

But she prevailed at length, and the bells so coveted were removed from the tower and dispatched on horseback on their way to Durham under the care of some monks. They journeyed till they reached the River Font, which, owing to a quantity of rain having fallen, was much swelled. However, they prepared to ford it; but when the horses reached the middle of the stream the bells by some means fell, or, according to the popular belief, were removed from the backs of the horses by miraculous interposition, and sank to the bottom. Owing either to the dangerous state of the stream or from the bells being unwilling to be removed, the exertions of the monks to recover them proved unavailing; so they returned to Brinkburn and reported the disaster. But the Brinkburn prior, determined not to be baffled, sent forthwith a messenger to Durham to request the presence of his brother prior, and both ecclesiasties then proceeded with a full attendance to liberate the imprisoned bells; and lo! the superior abilities of high church functionaries over humble monks was manifest to everyone; for they had no sooner ridden into the stream than the bells were lifted with ease; and, being conveyed to Durham, were lodged there in safety.

To this day it is a saying in Coquetdale that "Brinkburn bells are heard at Durham;" and Wallis, in his History of Northumberland, assures us that the bells of Brinkburn were removed to the cathedral on the banks of the Wear.

Still there are doubters. Walter White, in 1859, says: "The deep pool where the bells were lost is still to bo seen in the river" [Coquet] (13); and Mr. Wilson is positive that some years ago "a fragment of the bell was found buried at the root of a tree on the hill on the opposite side of the river" (14).

Of the bells, William Howitt, in his Visit to Remarkable Places, etc., p. 525, note, says: "The bell tower looks down upon the Bell Pool, a very deep part of the Coquet, lying concealed beneath the thick foliage of the native trees that jut out from the interstices of the lofty, craggy heights, impending over either side. Tradition says that into this pool the bells were thrown in a time of danger in order to place them beyond the reach of the invading Scots. It is still a favourite amusement among the young swimmers of the neighbourhood to dive for the bells of Brinkburn, and then it is generally believed that when the bells are found other treasures will be recovered with them."

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Revised May 25, 2013.