For centuries, Bosham was a fishing village, famous for its oysters. You’ll find it on a small peninsula in Chichester Harbour in West Sussex; a bit of a yachting place, also beloved by artists, walkers, cyclists and casual visitors. Yes, Bosham (say ‘Bozzum’) can be a busy spot, particularly on a fine day. There are a couple of pubs, one bang in the middle of the village and another just on the edge, a popular art and craft centre and several tea rooms. Picturesque, with neat, well-mannered houses, all-in-all, Bosham is a great destination for a weekend drive out with the obligatory coffee and bun chaser. At low tide, it is possible to motor around the foreshore; at high tide, your car would be submerged. Thus, received wisdom is to be careful where you leave your vehicle – I favour the car park (hang the expense). Chichester Harbour itself is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, an internationally renowned wetland visited by various breeds of migrating wildfowl. Hence, watch out for lurking twitchers too.
But, whatever its numerous attractions, this charming little village on England’s south coast has always been labelled in my mind as ‘the place where a king’s young daughter is buried’. So, as you’ve probably guessed, it’s somewhere that history-lovers enjoy as well.
For Bosham is an ancient settlement, somewhere to get a sense of English ancestry. The Domesday Book had it listed as Boseham in 1086 – a Saxon name meaning bosa’s homestead. In 731AD it was Bosanham. It must have been called something else before that – its pedigree dates back to Roman times, at least. The Romans used Chichester Harbour as a port and Vespasian, prior to becoming emperor, is reputed to have had a villa in Bosham itself. The first parish church, built around 850AD, was allegedly constructed over a Roman basilica (a public building used for meetings) and the fabulous Fishbourne Palace was (and still is) a near neighbour. An enormous sculpted marble head, surprisingly known as ‘the Bosham Head’, much eroded and weighing 375lbs (170kg) was found in a garden in 1800. It is now thought this could have been part of a twice than life-size statue of the Emperor Trajan that once stood at the entrance to the harbour. The basilica claim might sound a little exaggerated, but the Romans were certainly in Bosham and there’s no escaping the fact that humans have been hanging around the place for a very long time. Alas, nearby Chichester, or Noviomagus Regnorum, fell to marauding Saxons in the 5th century and civilisation in these parts took a step backwards.
However, skipping ahead a few centuries, Bosham is reputed to be the oldest established Christian site in Sussex. Our old friend Bede, writing his best selling History of the English Church and People in the 8th century, talks of St Wilfred bringing Christianity to the South Saxons sometime around 680AD –
“There was, however, a Scots* monk named Dicul who had a very small monastery at a place called Bosanham, surrounded by woods and the sea, where five or six brothers served the Lord in a life of humility and poverty: but none of the natives was willing to follow their way of life or listen to their teaching.”
* Celtic or Irish
Wilfred, with the blessing of the Church of Rome behind him, naturally had far more luck with the local pagans than poor old Dicul did. Not only did he get it to rain for the first time in three years, but he also taught the people how to fish. Wilfred went on to found a monastery (the monastery of fishing?) at Selsey, just down the coast from Bosham. Faithful Dicul disappears from our story; I understand that the probable site of his ‘monastery’, undoubtedly a very simple affair, is just north of the church, now under someone’s house.
In time, a small church college flourished in Bosham, surviving until 1548; though along the way, the clergy were often up to no good. For example, in 1384 complaints were made about the vicar, one Robert Dygby, who was leading a dissolute life, frequenting taverns and so forth in Chichester, and being so obnoxious that his brothers used to avoid him. It was later reported that he was living openly with a widow in Bosham. Another vicar assaulted and tried to murder the sexton. Forget Emmerdale or Corrie – all of life is (or was) in Bosham.
But what’s all this about a king’s daughter? For that story, we need to pop into Holy Trinity Church, adjacent to the quay. The church dates from the 10th century and, inside, just to the right of the Saxon chancel arch is a memorial stone, with the black raven of the Royal House of Denmark on it. The inscription reads:
TO THE GLORY OF GOD
AND IN MEMORY OF
A DAUGHTER OF KING CANUTE
WHO DIED EARLY IN THE 11TH CENTURY
AGED ABOUT 8 YEARS
WHOSE REMAINS LIE ENCLOSED IN A
STONE COFFIN BENEATH THIS SPOT
PLACED BY THE CHILDREN OF
THE PARISH AUGUST 1906
Here is a sad reminder of the real people that came before us, a thousand years ago. There is a long tradition that a young daughter of Cnut’s (or Canute, a much safer spelling when you’re in a hurry) fell into the nearby millstream and drowned in the year 1020. The millstream is still there; it has been, apparently, since the Romans dug it. Cnut, King of Denmark and Norway, was King of England from 1016-1035. He pursued his claim to the English throne in September 1015 by arriving in Kent at the head of an army of 10,000 salivating Scandinavians. Sailing round the south coast, it is said they laid waste to the counties of Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire, waging a series of battles against the Saxons under Edmund Ironside. Cnut became King of all England on Edmund’s death in 1016. And ironically, on his own death in 1035, he was buried in Winchester, ancient capital of the West Saxons. But why would this Danish king be in tiny Bosham? Because, it is said, he had a palace in, or nearby. In that case, Bosham becomes a place of some significance, doesn’t it?
That would make sense because Bosham Church is depicted in none other than the Bayeux Tapestry, the enormous piece of embroidery commissioned just a few decades later by the Normans to tell their tale of the Battle of Hastings. An early scene shows where Harold, leader of the English, and his mounted soldiers ride to Bosham Church (Ubi Harold Dux Anglorum et sui milites equitant ad Bosham ecclesia), before Harold became king. Harold is said to have sailed from Bosham across the English Channel in 1064, a voyage that ended up with him meeting Duke William of Normandy, though whether this get-together was intentional or not is unknown. Anyway, there in the Bayeux Tapestry is Bosham church, the chancel arch, or one very much like it, clearly identifiable. The tower of Holy Trinity is mostly Saxon, constructed from the late 10th to the middle of the 11th century, so it would have been there when Harold dropped by. The top of the tower is Norman and the spire is 15th century. The church is actually a gem, full of wonderful features including a 12th century font, late 13th century effigy of a child (did that represent Cnut’s daughter?) and a 14th century crypt (possibly once used as a charnel house), though the magnificent chancel arch dominates when you enter.
But why Bosham? Well, one possibility might be that the powerful Earl Godwine, Harold’s father and a close mate of Cnut’s, had a manor there. In 1053, when Godwine died, Harold inherited; so Bosham would have been both home turf and port.
In fact, Harold’s association with Bosham is such that some believe he might have been buried in the church. The child’s skeleton thought to be that of Cnut’s daughter was originally discovered under the nave in 1865, but re-examined in 1954. At that time, another stone coffin was found nearby, which contained the remains of a man, about 5’6” tall, aged about 60, minus a head, leg, and part of the other leg. It has been speculated that these are the remains of Harold, last king of the Saxon English. We do not actually know what happened to Harold’s mutilated body after the Battle of Hastings – William didn’t want the English to create a shrine to their dead king and it is generally thought that Harold was discreetly buried at Waltham Abbey. But no one knows for sure. Indeed, it cannot be certain that the child’s skeleton is that of Cnut’s daughter either. All we do know is that under the nave is a privileged place to be buried and the right place to find a king’s daughter – as well as, perhaps, a king.
We should end with a famous tale about the mighty Cnut. He was son of Sweyn Forkbeard and Sigrid the Haughty, which does make you wonder what his childhood was like; perhaps he didn’t get too many hugs. By all accounts he was a no-nonsense sort of chap, as illustrated by the ‘legend of the waves’, which reputedly occurred in Bosham. To be fair, Southampton has a claim to this too – and no doubt other places have as well – but I’m a Bosham supporter. The story is that Cnut was unimpressed by fawning courtiers who assured him that everything and everyone in the world obeyed his word. So, displaying something of a wicked sense of humour, he invited his fans to sit with him on the shoreline whilst he repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, told the tide to turn back; and everyone got very wet. The moral is that the power of kings is nothing compared with the power of God. Or, you might conclude that Cnut, a pretty ruthless Viking, simply didn’t have much time for bullshit but did enjoy a good laugh.