Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Notes on bells


O f bells, it may be said that they are a subject eminently English. Rabelais, in his description of the “Ringing Island,” has been supposed, by a variety of commentators (whose suggestions a variety of other commentators have indignantly repudiated), to have intended to typify England, whose bell-ringing propensities have been proverbial from very old times. Be this as it may, the bell has always been a favourite vocalist in this country, and any details connected with its history or capabilities are likely to be welcome, unless “a good tale be marred in the telling.” So, though “Great Ben of Westminster is mute,” I will pass on to bells in general, and endeavour to catch a few historic notes as I listen to them tolling, or pealing, or violently rung, as they sometimes are by people of various dispositions.

“Oh, the tintinnabulation of the bells—bells—bells!” from the Tsar Kolokol, or King of Bells, to the tiny bit of brass that tinkles in a baby’s doll’s-house: what countless shapes and sizes, what infinite concords and discords! Bells Pagan and bells Christian! huge monsters of bells that are rung by a congregation of unbelievers in Tartary, and which growl out their sounds as an elephant does when he is tortured; bells with great wooden clappers that are swayed by bearded Cossacks and Calmucks, or happy clusters of bells, whose notes run sprinkling the frosty air as the sledge glides merrily over the snow; bells that are hung under a roof of cedar, as at the Bermudas, or bells which are heard a hundred miles away at sea, as they say was the case with the bells of St. Salvador; bells that have been duly baptised, exorcised, and provided with godfathers and godmothers who shall be responsible for their conduct in the air, and bells in and round whose metallic cups a whole troop of fairies seems to whirl and dance; bells utterly heathen, conceived and born for the discomfort of all fine-nerved people, that ring us away from all that is pleasant; imprecatory college bells that hurry the “freshman” from his warm dreams and deep morning slumber; relentless railway bells that make us urge the cab-horse along the street, or which cut short our prandial efforts at the stations; fog-bells which sound desolately and with boding roar across the sea; fire-bells which seem to toss their torch-like sounds aloft like wild Mænades and startle a sleeping city; and bells which have garnered all the music of early summer into their throats, and ring us breezy recollections of lanes scented with hawthorn and roses and village sweetbriars, as we lean vacantly over the side of our becalmed vessel, or lie at full-length in our tent, so far away from England that we have even forgotten the day of the month.

The origin of bells, in connection with churches and divine worship, has been variously referred to the times of Constantine and of Paulinus of Nola. Be this, however, as it may, the first bell-tower on record was built by Pope Adrian in front of St. Peter’s at Rome. Southey somewhere says, that bells were not baptised under the idea of doing away with the original sin in the metal, for that nothing but recasting could effectually mend that. If not in their origin, in their use bells were always accounted sacred. The ancient Britons swore by them; and it is probable that Paulinus, who devoted himself to the composition of bells in the fourth century, was an estimable bishop. Bells, in those days, were better treated, and better made, apparently, than they are now. They had grand minster towers raised to receive them. They were hung in lofty chambers, and had plenty of access to the air and the light. They were not left alone, as they frequently are now, in the company of jackdaws; but grave and musical old persons had the care of them, and kept the bell-chambers sweet and clean, so that beams of golden sunlight stole in through the wide windows, and slid down the walls, and even kissed the big sonorous lips. Abbots, in those days, did not think bell-founding beneath them. Many anxious days and nights were spent when a weighty bell had to be cast; its destiny was not entrusted to “a clerk of the works;” but a bishop, or a prior at least, watched over its safe ascent, and the whole neighbourhood repeated aves and paters in its behalf; godfathers and godmothers stood ready with a napkin for the christening, and when all was duly done, and the magnificent infant gave forth a Christian voice, some oratorical person exclaimed:—“O blessed Tom or Peter! how dulcet are thy tones! How melodiously thou tinklest! How abundantly thou gratifiest the ear!” Then properly hoisted up in “the calm and serene air,” and quite removed from the smoke and noise of neighbouring house-tops, a bell of the olden time led a noble and stately life; it felt the gloom or the radiance of the great passing cloud; its vibrations were supposed to ward off the storm and the thunder, and it heard strange news from the meteors and the stars. There was a fine sonorousness in the names of the old bells. Abbot Egelric of Croyland gave to his monastery seven great bells, of which Ingulphus tells us the names. They were Pega, Bega, Tatwin, Turketul, Betelin, Bartholomew, and Guthlac. The names of the bells of the Abbey of Osney have a softer sound:—Douce, Clement, Austin, Haut-Clair, Gabriel, and John. Our later bells, if they are not continually appealing to the rate-payers and asking, with the bells of St. Martin’s, “Who’ll lend me five farthings?” are boastful, like the bell of St. Bene’t’s, at Cambridge, which announces—


Occasionally, too, they neglect the rules of grammar, commemorating their author, as the third bell does at Himbleton, Worcestershire—

John Martin of Worcester he made wee—
Be it known to all that do we see.

The third bell at Calne makes a very singular economical communication—

Robert Forman collected the money for casting this bell
Of well-disposed persons, as I do you tell.

This is different from the tone of the great Roland at Ghent—

Mynen naam is Roland,
Als ik klep is er brand,
And als ik ring is er victorie in het land.
[My name is Roland,
When I toll there’s a fire-brand,
And I ring when there’s victory in the land.]

Guy of Rouen and Great Tom of Oxford do not speak with “bated breath,” the first making “a lusty boom” and ringing a challenge to any mortal who can take him down and weigh him; and the latter sounding “bim bom” to the praise of St. Thomas and for the admonition of members of the University, in a punctual, moral, and very cogent manner. The old bells, for the most part, do not raise their clappers “to sound the good subscriber’s praise,” or implore, as per inscription, that Carolus Secundus or Georgius Quartus may have a long and happy reign, nor do they desire local or parochial prosperity, or “prosperity to the Church of England as in law established,” or testify, as a bell at Alderton does, their belief in the Trinity and “the Worshipful Charles Goare, Esq.,” nor do they ever advertise the gratifying circumstance that

John Taylor and Son
The best prize for church-bells won,
At the Great Ex-hi-bi-ti-on
In London, 1—8—5—and—1.

Yet, making due allowance for their date, they are far from being unchristian bells. The earliest of them bear simply the names of saints. “Sancta Anna,” for instance, or “Sancte George,” or “Gabriel.” Inscribed on some of them we find the letters of the alphabet, or the founder’s arms or initials, or, as on a bell at St. Mary’s, Oxford, an effigy of Time in high relief with the half figure of a man in the dress of the period, and the appropriate inscription, “Keep tyme in anye case.” Mr. Lukis mentions the curious, and, as it would seem, purely accidental, circumstance, “that the key-notes of the several peals in Oxford form nearly all the notes of the chromatic scale.” From the harmony and beauty of its bells, England was once called “the ringing island,”—perhaps in distinction from the practice of the continent, where bells are only chimed or tolled. Durandus gives us the names of the monastic bells, and enables us easily to fill up the tones. “Squilla” rang in the refectory, “Cymbalum” sounded in the cloister, “Nola” tinkled in the choir, “Nolula” or “Duplex” chimed in the clock, “Campana” tolled in the belfry, “Signum” swung in the tower, “Tintinnabulum” summoned the monks into the dormitory, and the quick, petulant tones of Corrigiuncula were heard whenever it was necessary for the flesh of some peccant brother to have bestowed upon it a rather uncomfortable amount of “the discipline.”

Wonderful, as an old chronicler relates, was the ringing in those days. “Fiebat mirabilis harmonia, erat tunc talis consonantia campanarum in Angliâ.” Either from the amount of ringing and the potency of bells, or from some other occult cause, Englishmen of that time were comparatively free from evil spirits. The ringing of bells was accounted curative. The sound of Guthlac, Fuller tells us, was good for the headache. Nervous English folk now and then thought to remove bodily or mental ailments by pealing the bells. It was commonly said,

In Heaven angels sing,
On earth bells do ring.

“The curious do say,” avers an ancient believer, “that the ringing of bells does exceedingly disturb spirits.”

The psychological experience of Wynkyn de Worde enabled him to add a still stronger fact: “Evil spirits do doubt moche when they hear the bells rongen.” The louder the passing-bell was rung, so much the better chance had a poor disembodied soul of escaping the grip of the foul fiend. Evil spirits were kept at bay by the potent and dulcet notes of the bell; and the wind favouring, and a prayerful and sufficiently stout ringer tolling, there was little probability of the soul’s being made a prize of on its way to the celestial haven. There is a touching verisimilitude in that German print of Retsch, representing an old ringer in the belfry. The light of the sun, too low for the spectator to see, is glistening in through the western window, as the old man has dropped down on the rough bench, after ceasing the bell. Death has silently taken his place, and in another moment or two the dull slow vibrations will be heard swinging away over the fading summer landscape.

Delicious ghosts of sound rise up from wooded hollows and sandy creeks, as we recall the legends connected with bells. Come unto the yellow sands, and the wind will blow as Ariel’s song, in soft sad music from a sub-marine belfry. Listen, listen! Those are the old bells of Bosham, carried off, people say, by piratical Danes, and long ago lost under the waves: on a still evening they may be heard chiming in with the new bells. There are similar chimes which fishermen have heard in Cornwall, in Norfolk, and in Normandy; and a sadder peal on the shore near Bangor, whither a sacrilegious, money-loving bishop, who afterwards became blind, went down to see the five fair bells of his cathedral shipped off.

We like that brave old Teutonic bell which refused to toll a requiem for the soul of a wicked emperor, though it rang full inspired tones while a poor man was dying.

The Emperor heard but the sinner’s knell,
For the poor man tolled the emperor’s bell.

The Gothic and Merovingian bells had plenty of mettle and right noble humours. They resented neglect and ill-usage. To keep them quiet, it was necessary to ring or toll them gently every evening, otherwise they might have proved troublesome, and unseasonably disturbed the ears of a town. The great bell of Soissons, indignant at being carried away by Clotaire, began to ring so violently, that the warrior was glad to put it down, and get away as well as he could with his army. These bells were endued with great locomotive powers, for they could walk across the sea, or even fly in the air. Though the great bells were too large to be made pets of, there were certain portable bells which the clergy and laity of Ireland and Scotland held in high veneration: in fact, they swore by them; and we can readily believe that they were more afraid of swearing falsely on them than they were on the Gospels. In Armagh there was a blessed bell of such marvellous and sudorific virtue, that a dying person by merely placing his hand on it has been known, on the evidence of several anonymous persons, to be cured.

St. Columba had a bell called Dia Diogheltus—God’s vengeance—which visited perjurers in some terrible and undescribed manner. As an extreme instance of what bells could do, we need only refer to the Inchcape rock, and the fate of the rover who destroyed the bell placed upon it by the abbot of Aberbrothok.

Winding under oaken shadows along the low grassy meadows of Kent, we hear from the grey minster the pleasant peal that Chaucer’s pilgrims heard, which required twenty-four men to ring. Ringing round the banks of the Cherwell come the notes of the merry Christ Church bells. Along the reedy Cam we can fancy ourselves lean and threadbare students regaling our ears, after a lecture upon Porphyry and the comments of Averroes, with the music of Pope Calixtus’s peal ringing from the belfry of King’s College. Then comes “a most tuneable ring” of bells from Wiltshire and Somersetshire, the old bells of Sherborne which haply Dunstan cast; those of Malmesbury, we fear, have long since disappeared, in spite of the warning epigraph,—

In Heaven’s blest mansion he ne’er sets his feet
Who steals this bell from Aldhelm’s sacred seat.

Wafted far away along the plain the wind brings us the sound of the old bell in Sarum, one of the finest ever cast. And tolling with heavy music for a royal soul we listen by the willowy Thames to the three great bells which King Edward III. hung in Westminster, “whose ringings, it was said, soured all the drink in the town.” Crossing the sea, we hear carillons from the belfry of Bruges, which Longfellow has so aptly caught. Along the Rhine or the Danube still clang a hundred tongues of bells, “now a sermon and now a prayer.”

We know of a venerable old abbey, that of Tewkesbury, whose chimes have condescended to a song of Moore’s—“Believe me, if all those endearing young charms;” and Mr. Thackeray, who was recently at Antwerp, detected the chimes of that stately cathedral profanely indulging in the “Shadow Dance,” from Dinorah.

Sepulchrally sound the bells of Palermo and Paris, summoning thousands of souls to heaven or hell. There are the Exchange bells which rung of themselves in the great fire, and chimed, “There is no luck about the house.” And that fine sympathetic bell of Trim, which they say became cracked on the day the great Duke died, has never uttered a true note since.

Latimer, in one of his sermons, tells even a sadder circumstance. “I heard,” says he, “of a bishop of England that went on a visitation, and as it was the custom, when the bishop should come and be rung into the town, the great bell’s clapper was fallen down and broken, so that the bishop could not be rung into the town. There was a great matter made of this, and the chiefs of the parish were much blamed for it in visitation. The bishop was somewhat quick into them, and signified that he was much offended.

“They made their answers, and excused themselves as well as they could. ‘It was a chance,’ said they, ‘that the clapper broke, and we could not get it mended by-and-by; we must tarry till we can have it done; it shall be mended shortly as may be.’ Among other men one was wiser than the rest, and he comes here to the bishop. ‘Why, my lord,’ saith he, ‘doth your lordship make so great a matter of the bell, which breaketh its clapper! Here is a bell,’ said he, and pointed to the pulpit, ‘that hath lacked a clapper for twenty year. We have a parson that fetcheth out of this benefice fifty pounds a year, but we never see or hear him.

Truly there is significance in the sounds of bells, and some significance even in their silence. But never are their notes more universally significant than on a certain day, now near at hand, when, according to the old carol,

All the angels in Heaven shall sing
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
And all the bells on earth shall ring
On Christmas Day in the morning!

T. B.