The Bells Speak

One of the things I love about medieaval history is the sense that people saw inanimate objects as being alive. A carton shows a man talking to a bog, asking mr bogman to give him back his shoe. Bells often had messages often warnings or blessings, as if the ringing of them could spread the words to all listeners.

This is from a small information sheet by Neil Bonham, Churchwarden of St John the Baptist Parish church at Glasonbury England. It is on the High Street, opposite the abbey, and is the place where local people were, as they say, hatched, matched and despatched.
St Dunstan is said to have introduced bellfounding to Glastonbury 1,000 years ago, but there is no evidence of any locally made bells. From 1403 there are various references to repairs to the bell ropes or the tower.

The Sanctus bell, dating from before 1490, cracked in 1922 and was recast with its old inscription, ‘Sancte Stefane, ora pro nobis.’

“The fifth was recast in 1612 with the inscription: ‘I sound to bid the sick repent in hope of life when death is spent.’ A heavier Sixth bell became the Tenor when it was added in 1648, with the inscription: ‘Hark! How I call, prepare your hearts to come to the house of God, and Kingdom of His Son.’ The mention of the sick relates to Glastonbury being the country’s biggest pilgrimage destination, so many people came in search of cures, and often died.

Another aspect of churches is how often their bells, organs, fonts and much else moves around, often following renovations when the old ones no longer fit, or when fashion changes. When St John’s tower was rebuilt smaller, the Tenor bell was deemed too large, so is now in St Matthew’s church in Albury, NSW, Australia. It was replaced by the Tenor from St Saviour’s, Larkhall, Bath. Its inscription states that it one of 8 bells which were the gift of William Hooper Esq, parishioner, built by I. Rudhall (a family of famous bellfounders in Gloucester) and positioned by John Pinch who was responsible for both churches. 

The change of language and mindset is clear with the 6th bell, which states:
“Mr William Cassell & Mr Thomas King churchwardens gave the
casting of me Thomas Bilbie Cast me 1743
Recast 1992 Whitechapel”

Bell ringing was hard work, and ringers were paid, and often given ale to keep up their strength. The following list of payments shows the important dates they celebrated, and also the changing value of money:
“3d 1497 Ascension Day
5s 0d 1584 Elizabeth I’s Coronation Day
3s 4d 1625 Visitation fo the Bishop of Bath & Wells
10s 0d 1789 Recovery of George III from his temporary insanity
10s 6d 1794 Lord Howes naval victory over the French at Brest
5s 0d 1794 The burning of Tom Payne in effigy (paid for by the townspeople not something you would think involved the church)
7s 6d 1798 Nelson’s vicory of the Nile
6s 9d 1814 Lord Wellington’s victory

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