There have been reports that there is a shortage of bellringers ahead of the coronation of King Charles on May 6, 2023. The UK has 38,000 churches. The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers’ appeal is to encourage more people to “ring for the King” in each church.
Foreign visitors to Britain have noted the ubiquitous nature of the country’s bellringing since at least the 16th Century. Credits for calling Britain a “ringing island.””
Church bells dating back centuries still ring in church towers. Children still sing songs about their music. Oranges and Lemons takes its singers to London churches.
St. Clement’s bells ring out oranges and lemons.
The bells of St. Martin’s will tell you that I owe five farthings.
When will you pay? Old Bailey is ringing the bells.
When I become rich, say the bells in Shoreditch.
When will it be? Say the Stepney bells.
The great bell at Bow says, “I don’t know.”
The bells from St Paul’s Cathedral in London were removed in 2017 for restoration. Neil Lang/Shutterstock
This article is part of the coverage we have done of King Charles III’s coronation. This piece is part of our coverage of King Charles III’s coronation.
Church bells have left their mark more widely on English culture specifically. Pubs named The Bell or The Ring o’ Bells are found across the country. Bells are routinely pictured on Christmas and wedding cards.
I am a musicologist and have been fascinated by the history of popular music, such as ringing for the monarchy. I’m a campanologist, having founded and directed our university handbell chorus.
What do church bells mean?
Bells have been used to summon the faithful since the Middle Ages. The bells also mark the different stages of a person’s life, from passing the bells at death to baptism.
Inscriptions often give bells names and tell their stories. On a Cambridgeshire Bell dating back to 1607, it says: “Of the bells of Benet, I’m the best.” The parish paid the lowest amount for my casting.
These messages would sometimes ask the bells for praise or to send the prayers of the believers to heaven. They believed that they could dispel thunder drive away plagues or even devils.
The bell tower of St Mary le Bow in London, where the Bow Bells are located. Pressapassimages/Alamy
Bells are not just religious symbols. They have a wider meaning than that. Bells served as aural markers for communities. The traditional definition for a Cockney refers to someone who lives in Cheapside, London within hearing distance of the bells at St Mary le Bow.
Bells were some of the loudest sounds in the historical soundscape before the introduction of noise pollution from traffic. They also served a practical purpose in signaling dangers like fires, unrest or invasion.
Ringing was so deeply ingrained in English culture that even when the Reformation questioned the theology behind bellringing, the practice continued to be followed.
Ringing for fun
The enthusiasm for a new style of ringing, which began around 1600, is what made English bellringing so distinctive. Up until this point, ringing was done with simple tolling or “rounds”, which are repeated descending scales on tuned bells.
In the 16th century, technological advances allowed bells to be mounted on wheels that rotated fully (rather than half wheels which had a more limited movement). The bells were mounted on fully rotating wheels, allowing for greater control of the timing. This led to the development and use of “change ringing” with predetermined tone patterns that became more complex. These “methods” have esoteric and charming names like Cambridge Surprise Major.