Legend of St. Nicholas Galley

A large stone cross or crucifix formerly stood immediately in front of the Brighton St. Nicholas Church. The stone steps to it and the lower fragment of the pillar alone remain. A legend in connection with this cross has been preserved of which the following is a copy, as told in a manuscript found in Brighton's town chest:

Lewes Castle
Lewes Castle
Photo: Charlesdrakew Wikipedia, public domain

Long had raged the bloody feud between the Lords of Pevensey Castle and the Earls de Warrene, Lords of Lewes; when early one bright May morning, the warder of Lewes Castle, from the northern turret blew loud his horn.

The lady of Earl de Warrene1 hastened to the turret's height, her infant first born son kerchiefed on her arm. From thence she viewed the dread conflict which was raging with all the fury of inveterate foes, on Mount Caburn's shelving sides.

Lord Pevensey, on his white steed was seen leading his followers down the hill; Earl de Warrene was urging his men to withstand the charge. In an instant both parties commingled; the strife was desperate, but of short duration. Lord Pevensey, having the vantage ground, drove Earl de Warrene's troops pell mell down the hill; but the Earl scorned to turn his back upon his foe, and for some time he singly maintained the conflict against a host; until Lord Pevensey came up, flushed with success, and raised his battle-axe to cleave the Earl in twain.

It was at this moment that the noble lady of Earl de Warrene, seeing her lord in such imminent hazard, held up her infant son and vowed to Saint Nicholas (the protector of the faithful in dangers) that if her lord's life was spared his son should never wed till he had placed the belt worn by the Holy St Nicholas on the Blessed Virgin's Tomb in Byzantium.

The saint heard her vow; for the Earl dexterously avoided the blow, and Lord Pevensey, having lost his balance by the exertion, nearly fell from his horse.

In the next moment the Earl's sword appeared through his cuirass behind; Lord Pevensey fell dead; his terrified retainers fled in dismay; and Earl de Warrene returned in triumph to the Castle.

Full twenty summers had now passed over, and Manfred, Lord of Lewes, the Earl's eldest son had not yet fulfilled his mother's vow, to visit the Blessed Virgin's tomb. He was betrothed to Lord Bramber's daughter, the gentle Edona—beauteous as the jessamine's bloom—kind as the Zephyr—good and pure as the saints.

Full twenty times had the anniversary of Earl de Warrene's victory been celebrated most gallantly in the Castle's kingly hall. Again the guests had assembled there; the wassail bowl went merrily round; the bards sung in highest strains; Lord Manfred led his betrothed to join in the mazy dance; when—whilst all was merriment and joy,—suddenly a wintry dismal blast passed through the hall.

The lights were quickly extinguished, the din and clamour of war seemed to assail the castle walls on every side; and whilst the guests stood in darkness and in stupid wonder, in a moment vivid flashes of lightning shot across the richly tapestried walls, and displayed the fight renewed on Mount Caburn's side. The hill and dale were seen distinctly, as if broad day were shining, and the combatants eagerly engaged. But when Lord Pevensey again lifted his battle-axe to strike Earl de Warrene, all disappeared and total darkness ensued; the clamour ceased against the castle walls; lights were brought, but the guests, terrified, gloomily withdrew.

On the morrow, Earl de Warrene hither to Brighthelmston, to St Bartholomew's Chapel came, and by the counsel of the holy fathers, built a ship, gaily trimmed, and named "St Nicholas Galley," to bear his son to the blessed Virgin's tomb. It was fixed that when he should return from performing his noble mother's vow, then should he wed the fair Edona.

The vessel gallantly dashed from Mecheem2 harbour, and bounded over the yielding wave, making his way for brighter—not happier climes. Lord Manfred safely arrived at Byzantium, and performed his sacred duty.

It was noon on the 17th of happy May—another year had rolled its wain—when a sail bearing the well known pennant of St Nicholas, was descried off Wordinges (Worthing) point by one of the Fathers of this Chantry. Instantly a messenger was sent to carry the welcome tidings to Earl de Warrene, who with all his retinue, a train of gallant bearing, hia noble lady, the Lord of Bramber with the Lady Edona, and the holy Abbot, of the priory, with all his brotherhood, had in a few hours, assembled beneath the Earl's banner, on the hill where now stands St Nicholas Church.

The day was fair, the wind was favourable, and the "St. Nicholas" glided swiftly on her way; the holy fathers sang with cheerful voices. The Earl watched, with beaming eyes, for the signal agreed upon. It was made; shouts rent the air; every face shone with joy, every heart beat with gratitude; when, in a moment, the progress of the vessel was checked; she reeled on her side, and sank before their eyes.

She had ran full on the hidden rock off Shore-ham3 harbour. The Earl and every soul around him stood motionless; not a word broke the silence of that sad scene. To move was useless. One sad, last, long drawn sigh burst from Edona, and she fell never more to rise. The Earl passed his hands over his eyes; dropped his head on his bosom; no smile ever rested on that face again.

One foreign sailor alone of the hapless crew survived to describe feebly indeed the ecstacy of Lord Manfred when he beheld his native shores and discerned his father's banner waving on St Nicholas hill.

Slowly as the cavalcade descended, each cast a look of despair on that sea which had swallowed all their hopes.

Earl de Warrene survived a few years only; but before he died he built the church to St Nicholas on the hill, to be an everlasting remembrance to all who go upon the mighty deep not to neglect their vows. Lady Edona lies under the cross at the entrance to the church, being the spot where she fell and died; but still, on the anniversary of that day, "St Nicholas Galley" glides at midnight past the town of Brighthelmston, and is seen from the cliff by hundreds of the inhabitants, to sink.4

St Nicholas Church
Cross base, Saint Nicholas Church, Brighton
Photo: Hassocks5489, Wikimedia Commons, public domain
St Nicholas Church
Saint Nicholas Church, Brighton, sits on high ground in the town
Photo: C Myers

The Earl leaving no children, his family became extinct, and the estates passed to the heir, Lord Arundel, to whom they still belong.

1. The name Warrene/Warenne comes from the name of their Normandy property; the earldom of Surrey came to be known as Warenne as they held little property in Surrey and had holdings in 12 other counties (the first earl was close to William the Conqueror who created the Surrey earldom in reward for loyal service during the Conquest) back
2. Ancient name of Newhaven back
3. The rock is still there and is well known to mariners back
4. A tradition is still held by the old inhabitants that a galley is seen here in the offing before a storm back

Editor's note: The Sussex County Magazine tells that London newspapers in 1934 reported a crowd of several hundred people assembled on the cliff just south of Brighton between Black Rock and Rottingdean at dusk on Sunday, May 17, to await the arrival of a phantom galley which legend says appears and sails off Brighton every year on that date. There are various reports of the legend and this, and some other somewhat related tales, appears in English haunting accounts. There are some historical discrepancies. The existing Saint Nicholas Brighton church was probably built in the 1300s, though there was a church in Brighton (Brighthelmston) since before the 1086 Domesday Book. The last Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne, son of William de Warenne, died in 1347, leaving no issue, and he was succeeded by his nephew Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel. Warenne, however, did not die in a shipwreck at an early age; he was 61 at the time of death. It is reported that St. Nicholas Church, Bramber, had at one time a monumental tablet in the chancel dedicated to Edona, daughter of one Lord Bramber.

This account is found in both The History of Brighthelmonston as I View it and Others Knew It by John Akerson Erredge, 1862, pps. 108-110, and History of Bramber Castle by Herbert E. Erredge, 1881, pp. 39-42.

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