I find myself increasingly noticing and enjoying the sound of church bells, whether it is the local bell ringers practicing, the time of day, or they are ringing out joyously for a wedding. The height of many church towers means that they can be heard across the fields. Often when I am walking my cocker spaniel, Jasper, I recognise the church bell for the hour, half-hour, or quarter hour, and enjoy the sound. It connects me back to a way of life when medieval villagers would have been working out in the fields and the sound of bells that would have structured their day or alerted them to an event. This blog post is about belfry windows and how bells were used. I have also included some information on the cockerels that often adorn weathervanes on top of church towers.
Medieval churches had at least one bell to sound out as part of the daily life of a church and the village, town, or city where it stood. Before the development of towers, bells may have been housed in timber-framed bell-cages erected in church yards, such as at East Bergholt in Suffolk.[i] By the 13th C church towers had bells. Hand held bells were used in mass or for taking the sacrament to the sick. The towers and bells stood out as defining a parish church. It distinguished them from smaller chapels, which may have had smaller bells or none.[ii].
In Somerset the rise of 15th and early-16th century towers provided newly ornamented belfry windows. Different patterns of belfry window tracery can be found as well as the number of belfry windows. This contrasts with louvre boards fitted elsewhere on churches.
Isle Abbots’ tower dates from circa 1517 & Kingsbury Episcopi’s tower date from circa 1515.[iii]
There could be 2 or 3 belfry windows at the top stage, some with another belfry window below.
Louvred belfry openings also appear on some Somerset medieval churches.
Some smaller churches had bellcotes rather than towers.
Church of All Saints, Sutton Bingham, Somerset: Nave of original church dates from 1111. Chancel rebuilt circa 1250. One of the bells is said to date from circa 1250.[vi]
Bells Ringing in Medieval England
From the earliest church legislation about bells, issued by the bishops of Salisbury and Exeter, it was laid out that the parishioners were responsible for providing the bells and ropes. In the 13th C, two bells were the norm. As time went on the number increased. They were hung initially to swing in a limited arc, or by the 15th C, in a half wheel. Today many swing the whole wheel. They were rung in a mixture of sounds and not as a sequence in modern change ringing.[vii]
At Exeter Cathedral the bells are still chimed for daily services in accordance with the principles laid down in the Medieval period.[viii]
Names were given to the bells such as Mary, Peter, Jesus, or John. Some had nicknames like ‘dancer’, or ‘singer’. Others may take the name of their donor. They were sacred objects, and therefore required to be consecrated by the bishop, with holy water, oil, chrism, and incense. Bells were another form of protection for the church. The bishop prayed:[ix]
where after its ringing may come, there may depart from the neighbourhood the power of those who lie in wait, the shadows of spectres, the incursion of whirlwinds, the strike of lightning, the injury of thunder, the calamity of tempests, and all kinds of winds, and when the children of Christianity hear its clangour, may it arounds in them an increase of devotion so that hastening to the bosom of their pious Mother, they may sing eternally in the church the new song of the saints.
The key daily function of the bells was to mark the times of the three daily services: matins, mass, and evensong. The bells would start an hour beforehand to give parishioners time to get to church. The matins bell would serve to wake up parishioners early in the day. The Council of London in 1281 required that bells be sounded during mass at the moment of consecration and raising of the host above the high altar – ‘so that the people might bend the knee wherever they were, in the fields or their houses’.[x]
A custom developed of the ringing of a ‘sanctus bell’. This bell was sited sometimes in the tower or elsewhere and had a long rope so it could be rung from the ground. This bell was rung at the singing of the Sanctus in the mass.[xi]
Bells were run to mark deaths and before funeral services. This was when a charge could be made for their ringing. During Rogation week the bells rang out. This was when clergy and parishioners walked the parish to pray from deliverance from evil and bless the fields. In storms the bells would be rung, a practice that continued after the Reformation. Bells would also be rung for special occasions – visits of bishops or royalty, royal births, victory in battles, national celebrations, etc.[xii]
Bell foundries were needed with specialist skills. Whilst not of the medieval period, Closworth near Yeovil was a centre of bell founding. In the church yard at the Church of All Saints, Closworth, is a table top tomb with a sculpted relief of a bell. According to Orbach & Pevsner it is the tomb of Thomas Purdue, a bell-founder (d. 1711).[xiii] I couldn’t make out his name, but the inscriptions are not that readable. I did make out the name of John Knight. The Knights were also a family of master bell makers.
At Exeter Cathedral the bell in the north tower (a single bell) is named ‘Peter’. It was gifted to the Cathedral by Bishop Peter Courtney in 1484 after being re-cast from bells from LLandaff Cathedral. However, in 1606 after some enthusiastic ringing of this bell following the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, the bell cracked. In 1676 it was re-cast by Thomas Purdue of Closworth. Peter is a static bell that is struck on the hour and at curfew.[xiv]
Summary on Bells
Bells in churches and cathedrals that exist today may well have been recast from older bells providing a continuous history of these sacred objects. The ornamented bell window tracery that can be seen on Somerset towers demonstrates a late-medieval fashion and it would be interesting to know more about the history of the bells contained within the belfries of such churches.
The bells of the parish church were very much part of the day-to-day community life of the parish.
With bells sounding at intervals through the day village life had a structure which gave a routine to the day. Probably villagers at work and play often sang secular carols. Rather than the quiet, and sleepy idea of today’s village, the medieval village was alive with noise – blacksmith’s tools, geese, dogs barking, children scaring crows, singing, bells ringing out, the work activities of different seasons, and the cockerel crowing.
Metal cockerels were a common sight by the end of the 13th C on the top of towers. This has continued through the centuries. Cockerels were viewed as watchful birds that crowed in the night, symbolising a protection for the tower.[xv]
Often the metal cockerels on Somerset towers are from a later date, but perhaps had ancestors. At the Church of St. George, Hinton St. George, there is a 4-stage tower of 1485-95, adorned with a weathervane of 1756 made by Thomas Bagley of Bridgwater.[xvi]
The towers of Somerset are often adorned by cockerels. Some are similar in style and likely produced by one workshop. Most are likely to date from the 18th C onwards, but further research is required!!
Most of the information on usage of bells & cockerels in this post came from Nicholas Orme’s excellent book Going to Church in Medieval England.
[i] Warwick Rodwell, The Archaeology of Churches (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2012), p. 80.
[ii] Nicholas Orme, Going to Church in Medieval England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021), p. 107.
[iii] Peter Poyntz Wright, The Parish Church Towers of Somerset (Avebury: Avebury Publishing, 1981), p. 143.
[iv] Poyntz Wright, p. 143.
[v] ‘Church of St Andrew’, Historic England, <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1295876?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 8 July 2022].
[vi] ‘Church of All Saints’, Historic England, < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1057236?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 2 July 2022].
[vii] Orme, p. 108.
[viii] ‘Bells’, Exeter Cathedral < https://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/music/bells-bell-ringers/> [accessed 8 July 2022].
[ix] Orme, p. 108.
[x] Orme, p. 109.
[xi] Orme, pp. 108-9.
[xii] Orme, p. 109.
[xiii] Julian Orbach, and Nikolaus Pevsner, Somerset: South and West (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014).
[xiv] ‘Bells’, Exeter Cathedral < https://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/music/bells-bell-ringers/>
[xv] Orme, p. 107.
[xvi] ‘Church of St George’, Historic England, < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1056124?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 2 July 2022].
‘Bells’, Exeter Cathedral < https://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/music/bells-bell-ringers/> [accessed 8 July 2022]
‘Church of All Saints’, Historic England, < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1057236?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 2 July 2022]
‘Church of St Andrew’, Historic England, <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1295876?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 8 July 2022]
‘Church of St George’, Historic England, < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1056124?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 2 July 2022]
Orbach, Julian, and Nikolaus Pevsner, Somerset: South and West (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014)
Orme, Nicholas, Going to Church in Medieval England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021)
Rodwell, Warwick, The Archaeology of Churches (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2012)