In the 16th Century, a towering, 7ft nobleman is said to have prowled the streets of Brede, near Hastings, looking for children to eat for supper.

The story is believed to have originated after several village youngsters went missing.

The cannibal was said to have been Sir Goddard Oxenbridge, who came from a long-line of gentry and lived in the regal Brede Place, which still stands today.

Servants became aware of their master's nasty eating habits and soon it was common knowledge in the locality.

But because Goddard appeared to be a pious, God-fearing man, the gentry and clergy discounted the rumours as wicked gossip, leaving the bereaved parents with little chance of retribution.

Fearing for their lives, the children of Brede took the law into their own hands and are said to have plotted revenge.

Goddard was said to have had superhuman strength and could not be killed by the conventional metal weapons of the time.

If the stories are true, Goddard's death was just as grisly as those of the children he killed.

The youngsters plied him with alcohol until he was drunk before taking a huge wooden saw and cutting him in half.

Locals say he still haunts the place of his death - the Groaning Bridge in Stubb Lane.

His alleged antics earned Goddard a multitude of nicknames from the Brede Giant to the Sussex Ogre.

Although the legend may sound like nothing more than a ghost story, reports of strange noises in Stubb Lane were enough to convince the Psychical Research Society to monitor the area in the early 20th Century.

Goddard lies in a tomb bearing his armoured effigy in St George's Church in the centre of the village.

Hardly a person in Brede has not heard the stories and some even claim to have felt Goddard's presence 400 years after his death.

Carol Kynvin, who chairs Brede Parish Council, said: "Most of the people here know the stories.

"It happened so long ago we have no idea if it is based on fact or not. It has been passed down through generations. How are we to know if it is true?

"Once my car broke down on the Groaning Bridge and it certainly felt very eerie. It's an isolated, scary spot. I wouldn't like to be stuck out there alone again."

Some remain convinced Goddard still walks within the walls of Brede Place.

The house was badly damaged by fire in the Seventies and a firefighter reported seeing a ghostly figure in the flames.

Some say the mysterious apparition was a priest who lived in the house. They say his spirit was disturbed when alterations were made to the chapel area of the property 300 years ago.

Others have speculated the figure was none other than Goddard himself.

Opinion is divided about the authenticity of the stories. In some circles, it is viewed as a vicious rumour spread by Protestants during the Reformation because Goddard was a Catholic.

The tale may have been bolstered by smugglers who were known to have used Brede Place to hide their cargo and thought the ghost stories would keep people away.

Reverend Duncan Lloyd-James, from St George's Church, certainly considers the stories bogus.

He said: "I am sure the Brede Giant was a very holy and devout man. Stories about him eating children were, I'm sure, just made up by people who did not like Catholics at that time.

"Despite that, it's rather nice he's attached to such a well-known house in the village. A lot of people come to the village to learn about him and visit his tomb."

A nobleman roaming the streets looking for stray children is perhaps not the image most of us associate with cannibals.

Ritual cannibalism more often than not conjures up images of unfortunate Westerners sitting in huge cooking cauldrons in far-flung places.

Such a tragic fate befell East Sussex missionary Thomas Baker, who was clubbed to death and eaten by a Fijian tribe 136 years ago.

This year, the villagers finally said sorry to the clergyman's family, believing it would rid them of more than a century's bad luck.

It appears cannibalism can no longer be resigned to the history books, however.

When Armin Meiwes advertised for a person to kill and eat through the internet two years ago, more than 400 people replied.

Meiwes, who is now standing trial, has admitted his bizarre obsession plagued him since childhood and that it provided sexual fulfilment.

If his accounts are to be believed, his victim, Bernd Jurgen Brandes, shared a similar desire.

Whether Goddard's story is fact or fiction, there may well be another Sussex Ogre among us today.