Bells and bell ringing in the history of Worcester Cathedral

Worcester Cathedral medieval bell tower

The medieval bell tower or leaden steeple. Image reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

The Cathedral’s bells make a glorious sound, grabbing our attention when calling us to prayer or when tolling half muffled they can evoke feelings of empathy and sadness. This Saturday the Cathedral’s bells will ring out across the city to celebrate the Queen’s official birthday. This tradition of two birthdays began with King Edward VII, who, born in November, decided to celebrate a second birthday in June when the British weather was better. To mark this special occasion the Cathedral’s bell ringers will be ringing a ‘full peal’ which they also rang for her coronation.

Worcester Cathedral has a ring of twelve bells: they are the fifth heaviest ringing peal, and considered one of the finest rings of bells in the world.  This ‘full peal’ is when all the bells are rung in sequence and include each permutation only once. This will amount to over 5000 ‘changes’ and take around four hours with the Cathedral’s 12 ringing bells,  though ringing every possible combination on our bells without a break would take over 37 years!

The tradition of ringing the bells at Worcester Cathedral to celebrate occasions goes back over a thousand years. The earliest documentary evidence for bells at the Cathedral dates from 1220, when the Annalis Monastici [1] tells us that in 1220 the great bells were cast by order of William de Bradewas and consecrated by the bishop, William de Blois, in honour of the Saviour, the Virgin Mary, and Hautclere. However, the earliest record of bell ringing in our records is from the mid-thirteenth century with the ringing of a bell at the consecration of a new bishop.

Worcester Cathedral Bells

Photograph by Mr. Chris Guy. Reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

Until major building work in the fourteenth century, the bells of the Cathedral would have been housed in the Clochium or Leaden Steeple, which was built circa 1220. This was a free-standing octagonal tower with a spire on top that reached a height of 65 metres.  The ruins of the Clochium stood until the mid-18th century, when its site was leased for 40 years and the lessee given permission to carry away the ruins. [2]

During the medieval period to be a bell-ringer was a distinguished job, and perhaps more importantly the ringers were paid for their services. This ‘salary’ amounted to six pence a year in 1521, though over one hundred years later our ringers were paid twenty times that amount for ringing “on the day of our deliverance from the gunpowder treason”. I personally feel that if someone is willing to climb to the top of a tall tower to ring a bell made of highly conductive metal using a damp piece of rope during a thunder storm they deserved every penny they were paid!

002

The medieval bell tower or leaden steeple. Image reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

The earliest peals that would have rung out from Worcester Cathedral would have been quite simple. The bell, such as our Sanctus bell, was suspended from a stationary support, and the bell rung by pulling a rope attached to the clapper to one side. Later development saw the bell hung on a spindle and chimed by pulling a rope attached to the bell so the bell itself swung back and forth. As time went on, ringers began to experiment with new ways of hanging the bell to get greater control. The first improvement was mounting the bell to a quarter wheel with a spindle serving as the axle and the rope attached to the rim of the wheel.  As this method grew popular, bells then began to be mounted on half wheels and today’s bells are hung on on a full wheel and the bell rotates by 360°.

Up to to the seventeenth century the bells were rung simply in numerical order, highest to lowest or smallest to biggest. This is called ’rounds’. Around the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century ‘change ringing’ began to develop, where bells are rung in a series of changing sequences that are determined by mathematical principles and executed according to learned patterns. It is this style of ringing you will hear on Saturday.

There has been times when the bells of the Cathedral have been silenced or at least curtailed. In 1547, following the death of Henry VIII and the coronation of strongly Protestant Edward VI, an injunction was issued that the ‘ringing and knolling of bells is utterly forbidden at any time on a Sunday’.   An Act of Parliament in 1644 forbade sport on Sunday, including the ‘ringing of bells for pleasure’, and during World War II all church bells were silenced, only to be rung to inform of an invasion by enemy troops.

And finally, I wonder how many of you remember the classic episode called “The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage” from the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army where the church bells rang by mistake, leading the Home Guard to believe that an invasion was taking place.

 

Vanda Bartoszuk

 

[1] Monastici, Annales. “Vol. iv.” Annales Prioratus de Wigornia (to 1377). Ed. Luard, H. R Rolls Series 36., f.108 p. 412. Magna campana fusa sunt sub willelmo de bradewas sacrista, et a willelmo episcopo consecratae in horore Sancti Salvatoris et ejus Genetricis, et hautclere in hornor Sancti Johannis Evangelista com pari suo

[2]   WCM/B1999.Unpublished document: Ronchetti, The Leaden Steeple, The Sacrist’s House & The Red House: some documentary evidence

 

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