This talk was given by Sue Bassett during the Bell Sunday service on 14th May 2023
Bishop Latimer, in 1552, remarked “If all the bells in England were rung at one time, there would scarcely be a single spot where a bell would not be heard”. Although the bishop was referring to the ease with which the population could be warned in the event of an invasion from the sea, it is also a comment on the number of churches, with bells, that had existed in pre-Reformation England. Bells have occasionally been used to signal disaster but they are primarily associated with places of worship. Ringing as a form of communication, both religious and secular, has a very long tradition which continues to this day.
Before the Reformation, ringing in cathedrals and monasteries was usually the duty of deacons. With improvements in bells and how they were rung over the centuries, lay people became more interested in the art of ringing. Gradually local people took over ringing from the clerics who then paid the ringers to ring for church services and church feasts. Ringers receive payment to ring at weddings and funerals but nowadays, we give our time and skills freely to ring for church services and special occasions.
The original use of bells to signal church services became adapted over the years to include secular purposes, such as the beginning and end of the harvest, the arrival of the mail-coach, village fetes, the squire’s birthday or other local or national events and anniversaries. In 1586 the ringers at St. Margaret’s Westminster were paid one shilling each for ringing at the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1605 ringers were paid ten shillings each to ring at the time when the Houses of Parliament should have been blown up. You may like to know that the ninth bell here in Staplehurst was cast in 1605, so there is plenty of history to bell-ringing.
At around the turn of the 17th century bell ringers in London and Norwich started “ringing the changes” on their bells, producing a unique kind of music based on changing patterns of bells rather than on conventional tunes. This art of change ringing spread across England and gradually to all corners of the English-speaking world. Today this is the familiar sound heard from thousands of churches every Sunday morning, and a continuing fascination for us as bell ringers. Some of these 17th-century bell ringers established ringing societies, the most famous being the Ancient Society of College Youths, founded in 1637, whose members ring at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Ringing on state occasions, such as the recent Coronation, has to be perfect so only the best ringers are invited to join.
Staplehurst is extremely fortunate to have as its Tower Captain, Adam Brady, who is an excellent ringer and member of the Ancient Society of College Youths. He cannot be here today as he is practising for the National 12-bell competition when the best ringers in the country will be competing against each other on 24th June this year.
In addition to ringing faithfully and often at our home tower, ringers benefit from a wide variety of venues in which to practice their skills. There are 7,147 sets of bells worldwide – 7K of which are in the British Isles. Although a majority of bells are found in Anglican churches, there are 56 sets of bells in Roman Catholic churches, 34 in Orthodox and non-Episcopal churches, 350 former churches with bells are now vested in the Churches Conservation Trust and 25 sets of bells are in schools and colleges.
Calling the faithful to prayer is generally considered the main object of ringing. In addition, it is an extremely interesting and rewarding activity, physically and mentally for us as ringers. Just climbing the stairs several times a week is as good as going to the Gym and much more interesting! The complexities of skills needed to ring the bells provides us with a sense of fulfillment as well as being an honour to serve the life of the church and its congregation. Even if some of us are not often seen within the body of the church, we spend a great deal of time and energy proclaiming the living church to our community through the sound of the bells. This Bell-Ringing Sunday Service is a great opportunity for us all to acknowledge our part in the life of the church.
We are very happy to share our knowledge about ringing and to teach anyone who would like learn to ring. Please talk to us over coffee or perhaps visit us in the tower afterwards, when we can show you the bells and give you a ringing demonstration.