10 Facts About Church Bells | History Hit

10 Facts About Church Bells

Charlotte Ward

10 Dec 2021
The bells being rung at St Bees, Cumbria. Image Credit: Dougsim, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: Dougsim, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Almost everyone in the UK lives near a church. For some, they form an integral part of daily life, for others they might not have any significance to them. At some point in your life, however, it is likely that you have heard church bells ring, often to indicate a wedding that is taking place or to celebrate a religious service.

It is thought that bells were created over 3,000 years ago and that even from their early origins they have been heavily associated with religion and religious services. 

Here are 10 facts about the humble church bell and its unique and fascinating history.  

1. Metal bells were first made in ancient China

The first metal bells were created in ancient China and were used as part of religious ceremonies. The tradition of using bells was passed on through to Hindu and Buddhist religions. Bells would be installed at the entrances of Hindu temples and were rung during prayer. 

2. Paulinus, Bishop of Nola and Campania introduced bells to Christian churches

Though the use of bells is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, it does encourage worshippers to ‘make a joyful noise’ (Psalm 100) and bells are a great way of doing this. Bells were introduced into Christian churches around 400 AD by Paulinus, Bishop of Nola in Campania after missionaries had been using handbells to call people to worship. It would take another 200 years for bells to be featured prominently in churches and monasteries across Europe and Britain. In 604, Pope Sabinian sanctioned the use of church bells during worship.  

Bede notes that church bells have appeared in Britain around this point and by 750 the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London introduced rules for the ringing of the church bells.  

With Christianity dominating Europe, the Church became one of the most powerful institutions in Britain during the Medieval period and its places of worship played a crucial role in the focal points of people's lives, from birth to death. But as populations declined in areas within the UK, so did the number of attendees, leaving several churches neglected.
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3. It was believed church bells held supernatural powers

In the middle ages, many believed that church bells held supernatural powers. One story is that the Bishop of Aurelia rang the bells to warn locals of an impending attack and that when the enemy heard the bells, they ran in fear. In the modern era we perhaps cannot appreciate nor fathom how loud and imposing these bells would be to people. 

It was also believed that church bells could ring themselves, particularly at times of tragedy and disaster. It is said that after Thomas Becket was murdered, the bells of Canterbury Cathedral rang by themselves.  

Belief in the power of the bell continued into the 18th century. Bells were rung to drive away evil, to heal the sick, to calm storms before a journey, to protect the souls of the dead and to mark days of execution. 

4. Medieval church bells were made from iron

Medieval church bells were made from sheets of iron that were then bent into the shape of the bell and dipped in molten copper. These bells would then be installed in church, or bell, towers. Developments between the 13th and 16th centuries led to bells being installed on wheels that gave the ringers greater control when ringing the bells.  

Cutaway of church bells, 1879.

Image Credit: William Henry Stone, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

5. People were paid to ring church bells

Maintaining the bells and paying the ringers could be expensive and often equate to a substantial amount of the church’s outgoings. For example. The ringers at Parish St Margaret’s in Westminster were paid 1 shilling to ring the bells to mark the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

In the 17th century, bell ringing was being taken over by lay people from the clergy. It was becoming a skilled occupation. The Ordinances of The Companie of Ringers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln was signed on 18 October 1612, making it the oldest surviving bell ringing association.  

6. Having bells at weddings started as a Celtic superstition 

Bells are often associated with weddings, not only through their ringing to mark a wedding service but the symbol of the church bells can be found in decorations and favours. The ringing of church bells at weddings can be traced back to the Celtic heritage of Scotland and Ireland. Superstitions led churches to ring the bells to ward off evil spirits and grant wishes to the newlyweds.  

7. There is an art to ringing church bells 

Change ringing, or the art of ringing tuned bells, became increasingly fashionable and popular in the 17th century. The Hemony brothers of the Netherlands developed new methods in bell construction that would allow for different tones and harmonies to be played. A key milestone in the art of bellringing happened in 1668 with the publication of Richard Duckworth and Fabian Stedman’s book Tintinnalogia or the Art of Ringing followed in 1677 by Stedman’s Campanalogia. 

The books described the art and rules of ringing that could create patterns and compositions. Soon hundreds of compositions for bellringing were produced. 

8. Bell ringing became so controversial that reform was needed 

At the turn of the 19th century, change ringing fell in popularity. It became associated with drunks and gamblers. A rift formed between the clergy and the ringers, with the ringers often using the bell towers for their own amusement. They could also be used to make a political statement: the bells in High Wycombe were rung to mark the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832, but the ringers refused to turn out for the Bishop’s visit as he had voted against the Bill.

The Cambridge Camden Society was established in 1839 to clean up the churches and their bell towers. Rectors were given back control of the bell towers and were able to appoint more respected bell ringers. Women were also allowed to take part and tower captains were appointed to ensure the good behaviour and respectability of the bell ringers.  

Church Bells in the workshop at Whitechapel Bell Foundry, c. 1880.

Image Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

9. Church bells were silenced during World War Two 

During World War One, many church bells were requisitioned, melted down and turned into artillery to be sent to the frontline. It was painful for members of the clergy and public to see this happen to their church bells, a symbol of peace and community.  

Church bells were silenced during World War Two and were to only ring if there was an invasion. Pressure from the church and public led to the ban being lifted in 1943.  

The bells rang to mark the end of both wars to celebrate victory and remember the fallen.  

10. There is a nursery rhyme dedicated to the churches in the City of London

The nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons references the bells of several churches in and around the City of London. The first published version of this nursery rhyme was 1744.  

The bells include St Clement’s, St Martin’s, Old Bailey, Shoreditch, Stepney and Bow. It is often said that a true Cockney is someone that was born within in sound of Bow Bells (around 6 miles). 

Panorama of London Churches, 1543.

Image Credit: Nathaniel Whittock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Charlotte Ward

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