Crisp Festive Days Celebrated at Bluestone with History Lessons

Terry john historian at bluestone

There’s nothing better than walking around Bluestone on a crisp, winter’s day. And we’ve had a few of those this past week, making it very festive.

If you’re not lucky enough to be spending a Christmas or New Year break with us, we hope you have a great time with friends or family and enjoy your break.

In the meantime, we asked our resident historian, Terry John, to put finger to keyboard for a festive blog post. So get cosy, imagine you’re snug in one of our luxury lodges, or maybe in front of the roaring open fire at The Tafarn, and enjoy.

Ding dong! Merrily on high
In Heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! Verily the sky
Is riv’n with angels singing.

Hosanna in excelsis!
Hosanna in excelsis!

E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And “Io, io, io!”
By priest and people sungen.


Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime ye ringers:
May you beautifully rime
Your evetime song ye singers.


I’m sure you are all familiar with this popular Christmas carol. You may even find yourself singing it at your local church Christmas service or at one of Bluestone’s Christmas events, if you are lucky enough to be there over the festive season.

The tune of it actually appears for the first time as a dance tune called ‘le branle de l’Official’ in a dance book entitled Orchesographie, written during the 16th century by Jehan Tabouret.

The words, however, were composed by an English composer, George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848, 1934) and first published in 1924.

Although the words are relatively modern, they reflect the importance of bells to our ancestors. In past centuries, the ringing of bells regulated people‘s lives; the sound of them gave warning of danger or disaster, signaled glad tidings and marked the passing of the hours each day.

The earliest Christian missionaries carried small handbells that were instruments of signal, a talisman and a weapon They were rung to attract a gathering, they drove away evil spirits and made curses stick. People took oaths on these portable bells with, so it was said, more fear of swearing falsely by them than on the gospels.

Bells were carried into battle and were believed to work miracles. In the Celtic nations, bells were often cared for by hereditary keepers, who received an income from lands belonging not to any person, but to the bell. If it was thought likely, in times of danger, that the bell would fall into non-Christian hands, it was buried in hallowed ground.

These early bells, especially in Ireland, were known as clogga, but eventually, in Europe, were called campana, a word that became the commonest Latin word for bell; from this is derived campanarius (bell ringer), campanile (bell tower) and campanology. The word comes from Campania, the Italian province around Naples, which from ancient times was famous for its bronze casting

The development of bells from small hand-held objects to large ones placed at the top of buildings took place in monasteries. Bells were no longer personally owned things, but were the corporate properties of religious houses.

In monasteries and larger churches, a number of bells might be hung in the tower or at the top of the building. The first and largest of these was the deep-toned signum, or signal bell. It rang for all assemblies for divine worship. The smallest was the tintinnabulum, different in tone from the other bells and often a small handbell. It was often listed separately in early medieval inventories. In later centuries the more musical cymbalum is mentioned.

Another bell was the porter’s bell. This became necessary after monasteries were enclosed by high walls. It usually hung just inside the main gate which in times of peace was left open from sunrise to sunset and was rung by anyone wishing to gain admittance to the monastery. When the gate was closed a rope attached to the bell was let down on the outside.

The most important bell in a monastery was the abbot’s handbell. It was a small tintinnabulum, and its high, tinkling note was one that the monks dared not disobey. It had something of the aura of the early missionaries’ bells. Most religious houses would have at least one bell cast of bronze and the others from iron.

Bells were sacred objects in the medieval church. New bells underwent a ceremony not unlike baptism, not at the font, but at the base of the bell tower. They were first washed in holy water in which salt had been dissolved to exorcise the devil. They were then anointed with oil. Next, they were placed on a tripod and incense was lit beneath them, so that their mouths were filled with sweet smelling smoke. These bells were so sacred that and the laity were not allowed to ring or even touch them.

The bells were given names, usually those of saints. It was believed that each chime of the bell was an individual request to the saint to pray for the village. More importantly, bells were the messengers of God’s word. They were comparable to the voices of the Old Testament prophets. Some bells were inscribed with the words Vox Domini, the Voice of the Lord, and this was inspired by the words of Psalm 29, ‘The voice of the Lord is powerful.’ Other inscriptions included ‘O King of Glory, bring peace’ or ‘Christ the King brings peace’.

As well as inscription, many bells were inscribed with sacred symbols and whilst the power of the written word went out with the pealing of the bells, the holy symbols protected the bells when at rest and prevented demons from getting into the tower and wreaking havoc.

The chiming of the church bells summoned people to church. Bells were sounded at baptism and death, the two most important times of medieval life.

The most important bell was the sanctus bell. The word sanctus comes from sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, or holy, holy, holy. This bell was sounded in greeting during the mass, when the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ and Christ was believed to have physically entered the church.

The sanctus bell told everyone, whether in the church or in the fields, that they should fall silent and bow their heads. At that moment, the entire community was bound together by the sound of the sanctus bell. You can imagine therefore, the people of Newton North, where Bluestone now stands, ceasing their work in the fields as the bell of the now-ruined church rang out and closing their eyes in prayer until the ringing died away.
In medieval times, the priests often wore tiny bells attached to their vestments and these chimed as the priests went through the services. These were usually gold in colour and were so small that they became inaudible at a distance - but they were really intended to remind the priest that his actions should always be in conformity with his teachings!

Other bells sounded at different parts of the services, particularly a larger bell that directed the attention of the congregation to the most important parts of the rites

In some churches there was a special bell reserved for use at weddings. It summoned the bride and groom to come and be received by the priest at the church porch and invited anyone to witness the service; it also rang at the end of the wedding to welcome the new couple into the world with joyful sounds and to inform the community that the marriage had been performed. Bells also pealed out to wake the bride and groom on the morning after the wedding and to welcome them to church on the first Sunday after the marriage.

When a priest went to a private house to give communion to a sick person, he was often preceded by a scholar carrying a small bell, who sounded it as they walked along. In some parts of Europe, when a woman went into labour, her girdle was tied around a bell and it was given three strokes, or strokes in sets of three, in the hope of an easy delivery. Bells were not regarded as having healing powers, unless they already had a reputation as miracle-workers, as the bells of the early Celtic saints were said to do.

Most churches also sounded a death-knell when someone died. Originally this was called the ‘passing bell’, and the sounding of it was thought to help the soul of the deceased in the after-life. The bell used to ring the death knell was often a high-pitched one and the strokes of the death knell, or the rhythms used, indicated whether a man, a woman or a child had died. The age of the deceased might also be indicated. This was not intended as a clue to the person’s identity, but to ensure that the right prayers could be said.

If a church had a special bell for the death knell it was dedicated to the Archangel Michael, the guardian both of heaven and the faith of the church. A bell known as the lych bell was sounded as the funeral procession approached the church. This was usually a handbell - or several bells if it was the funeral of an important person. The sound warded off evil spirits and protected the corpse on its way to the church, as well as letting passers-by know that they should kneel out of respect as the cortege went by, and to make the proper signs for the salvation of their own souls.

At the church, the Funeral Bell rang until the procession entered the building. Sometimes a second Funeral Bell marked the end of the rites and the Lych Bell would ring as the body was carried to the grave. A Burial Bell (usually the Funeral Bell or a hand bell) tolled as the body was lowered into the earth. The relatives of the deceased might pay for an Obit Bell to be rung a month or a year after the death, to aid the soul in afterlife. If the body ever had to be moved to a new site, a Moving Bell would sound.

During plagues there was continuous ringing, so much so that the bells sometimes cracked. Bells were also rung to drive away evil spirits.

Bell makers often travelled from community to community, casting bells in bell pits which were situated at the base of the bell tower. Because bells have a silvery tone, bell makers often told the lords of the manors, who usually paid for the parish bells, that they needed silver to achieve the sound, and that they would add the silver to the iron from which the bell was made. The silver actually went into the bell maker’s pocket and tin was added to the bell instead.

Categories:Winter, History


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