By Regan Walker
As the opening scene in my new medieval novel, Rogue Knight, was unfolding in my mind, I heard a loud church bell ringing as my heroine was striding down Coppergate in York in 1068. So, I wrote it into the scene and then I thought, “Wait… did they even have such bells in York at that time?”
I hurriedly dove into the deep past of York and dusted off the books I’d piled up in the course of my research. Not many were helpful, but I did find one and some information online. I sighed in relief when I discovered that yes, indeed, they had such bells in England then and, since York was the second largest city in England with its own Minster, I was pretty confident it would have bells that would be tolled at regular intervals. Which, of course, got me to wondering about church bells in medieval England in general.
The Earliest Bells
The Saxons installed large bells in church towers in England though none of the towers that remain today are older than the tenth century. The Romans used bells in London to mark the hours of the day.
A story told by Bede, a seventh century English monk in Northumbria, tells us that when the Abbess Hilda died at Whitby in 680, the death-knell could be heard thirteen miles away.
And to the point of my own story, in 750, St. Egbert, the Archbishop of York, instructed the priests when to ring the church bells, which were apparently of some size. In the reign of William the Conqueror, Archbishop Lanfranc issued rules for the ringing of bells in Benedictine monasteries.
In 1035, King Canute in the last year of his reign gave two bells to Winchester and the Archbishop of York made similar gifts. In 1050, there were seven bells at Exeter Cathedral.
Some of the early church bells, both pre-Conquest and Norman, were housed in central towers for bells, such as the one at St. Peter’s Church in Barton-upon-Humber. Its tower is Saxon at its base but the higher portion, in two different styles, is Norman, added in the 11th century.
Some of the bells cast during the Norman period were quite large. Prior Conrad gave Canterbury Cathedral five large bells, one of which required twenty-four men to ring.
And some were quite small. Hand bells, believed to be the first bells, were used in worship services in the English church. And they were used at funerals. Pictured below is a portion of the Bayeux Tapestry. Note the dead bells held by the two acolytes below the deceased.
The larger bells first appeared during the late Saxon period. Bells were made using sheets of iron that were bent and riveted into a wedge and curve. After the shaping of the metal, the bells were dipped into molten copper in order to coat them so that they might toll with a more musical tone.
The Bells That Have Endured
Since bell metal is an alloy of copper and tin, the melting point is below that of copper so the metal in bells will melt in the heat of an ordinary house fire. Hence, many of the early church bells burned along with the towers that housed them. Surely this is what happened to York Minster’s bells in 1069 when a fire set by the Norman knights got out of hand and spread through the town to the Minster. (One of the scenes in Rogue Knight.)
Of the bells that survive, the oldest may be in St. Chad’s Church in Claughton in Lancashire. The original church was built in 1070, though it has since been rebuilt. Its bell bears the date 1296 in Roman letters.
But in Caversfield in Oxfordshire there is a treble bell that may be much older. Bells are often dated by engraved dedications. The inscription (in Roman or Saxon letters) on the Caversfield bell says, “In honour of God and St. Laurence, Hugh Gargate and Sibilla his wife had these bells erected.” Hugh Gargate died in 1219.
The treble bell is believed to have been cast in about 1218 and is thought to be the oldest inscribed bell in existence in England.
So, you see, bells were a part of the medieval English churches and as you think about that time in England’s past, you can imagine them ringing at regular hours, calling the faithful to services or prayer, or sounding the death knell of one who passed. And there was also the “curfew bell”, rung at eight or nine in the evening, to tell everyone it was time to cover their fires and go to bed.
Regan Walker is an award winning, bestselling author of Regency, Georgian and Medieval novels. She writes historically authentic novels, weaving into her stories real history and real historic figures so that readers experience history and adventure as well as love.
Church Bells of England by Henry Beauchamp Walters (2013)
Old English Musical Terms by Frederick Morgan Padelford (2014)
List of the Great Bells of Britain (a “great bell” being defined as a tower bell that weighs at least 4 tonnes (British weight):
Church Bells in Medieval London
St. Peter’s Church in Barton-upon-Humber
St. Chad’s Church, Claughton
St. Lawrence parish church in Caversfield
Curfew bells: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curfew_bell