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The bells of Westminster Abbey

First and foremost, we think of bells as something we hear and don’t see. The bells of Westminster Abbey now mingle in between the great soundscape of London noise and the busy restlessness of Westminster, blending the secular with the divine, much as they have done for centuries.

These bells are, however, extraordinarily special in the history of the nation and are in fact, one of London’s most unique choirs, have given voice to important events in the life of the country, as well as marking the Abbey’s life in the rotation of the Anglican Church calendar. When we bring these bells to mind, we might immediately think of the glorious west front with its two towers, or the Perpendicular splendour of the Abbey’s architecture in general; far less would we think of the bells themselves, which are rung full circle, on occasions of either royal or national significance in rings known as ‘peals’, such as anniversaries, church feast days or special memorial services. The bells of Westminster Abbey provide an audible link to previous centuries; they are literally, voices from the past. They are also, the bells of a royal church.

Whilst the Abbey dedicated by Edward the Confessor in 1065 probably contained bells, it is not until the reign of Henry III – to which much of the Abbey owes its appearance and that we get the first mention of them. The bells that hung at Westminster Abbey have changed many times since then, however, so whilst they continue their time-honoured symbolic function to proclaim to the people of the capital the same cycle of national events, they are not the same bells. They are nevertheless, oral witnesses to the life of the nation. I personally, love these bells because they are like listening to living history.

Importantly, these bells hang in a great shrine to British pageantry where every monarch has been crowned since 1066 and where many English Kings and Queens are buried. Similarly, the Abbey has provided the setting for sixteen royal weddings as well as being the spiritual home of the sacred Coronation Chair around which each coronation ceremony has been centred for over 700 years. The Abbey’s present bells are contained in the great North West tower; two of the Abbey’s older bells will be displayed in the new Jubilee galleries, which will re-open this year. The Abbey’s eight bells in the twentieth century rang out for the coronation of George VI and again for VE Day in 1945; they rang again for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947 and once more, for the coronation of Her Majesty The Queen in 1953.

The first bell which was recorded in the Close Rolls was under the auspices of Henry III, who redesigned the Abbey of Edward the Confessor in a great Gothic rebuilding programme. Henry III commissioned a ‘bigger bell’ in 1230 from Edward of Westminster, which certainly indicates the presence of earlier bells as it was ordered to be larger than any made hitherto; in 1231 he was similarly instructed to cast a bell of smaller size ‘that shall be in tune with the great bell’ of the year before. By the mid-thirteenth century, there were around five bells at Westminster Abbey, we know this because they were illustrated in the chronicle of Matthew Paris. One of the oldest bells to survive, was the one which was inscribed ‘Christe Audi Nos’ by Richard de Wimbis, in around 1310. This was very much in keeping with ancient practice in the casting of bells, which often bore their own personal inscriptions, such as another bell at the Abbey, which proudly proclaims in the bell’s own voice: “THOS. LESTER MADE ME 1742”. The bells under Henry III rang out from a campanile which stood on the Abbey’s north side and would continue to do so, for another three hundred years. This bell tower was dismantled in 1750.

Despite the fact that some bells were recast, the Abbey kept a number of six bells until 1919, when George V and Queen Mary attended the casting of new further bells at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which had incidentally, also cast the ‘Great Bell’ of the Great Clock of Westminster, known fondly today still as ‘Big Ben’, which rang out to London for the first time on 31 May 1859. The Foundry was formed under the aegis of Elizabeth I in 1570; two of the oldest bells still used in the belfry of Westminster Abbey date from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and fascinatingly, are still rung at evensong. These last two bells were kept when a ring of ten new bells were cast in 1971, again commissioned from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

The North West tower of the Abbey – where the bells presently hang – was not yet finished in the sixteenth century and only completed in 1745 when the towers were finished by Nicholas Hawksmoor and later, John James. The new bells were dedicated in 1971 in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen; one of these, the tenor, is the bell which tolls on the death of a member of the Royal Family and when the Dean of Westminster dies.

Hearing the bells of Westminster Abbey is to Londoners of course, like hearing the voices of one that you know, they are part of the background of life in the capital. The London church of St. Mary-le-Bow is an example in point because its historic bells are key to Cockney folklore and identity if you are born within hearing distances of their carillon. I remember hearing the bells of Westminster Abbey feature on a programme on Cologne radio, ‘Glocken aus Europa’ [Bells from Europe] where they pealed in the new year alongside those of great European cathedrals, such as the Notre Dame in Paris, Berlin Cathedral and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The suggestion was that you could be listening to the voices of cities, as well as of churches.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.