Westminster Abbey bells

By Harshitha Jagathiesh

Standing proudly in London, Westminster Abbey showcases the grandeur of Gothic-style architecture. 

Over time, the resounding echoes of bells have remained an inseparable part of Westminster Abbey’s essence. 

These historic bells ring out on momentous occasions, including coronations, royal weddings, and even periods of solemn mourning. 

Their chimes resonate throughout the city, weaving their melodies into the tapestry of church festivals and significant national events.

In this article, learn more about the Westminster Abbey bells, bell towers, history and more. 

History of Westminster Abbey bells 

It is likely that the Abbey, originally constructed by Edward the Confessor and dedicated in 1065, had bells. 

However, the first recorded mention of Westminster Abbey bells dates back to the Close Rolls of King Henry III in 1250. 

An instruction was given to Edward of Westminster to create a giant bell for the Abbey compared to any he had made before. 

The following year, Edward was commissioned to make a small bell that would be in harmony with the great bell. 

According to the chronicler Matthew Paris in 1255, there were already five bells in use at that time.

A bell produced around 1310 by Richard de Wimbis, inscribed with “Christe Audi Nos,” still exists and can be viewed in the Abbey’s new Jubilee galleries. 

By the late 15th century, a set of six bells had been installed, and although some recasting occurred, the number of bells remained at six until the 20th century.

The bells of Westminster Abbey have undergone restoration due to the poor condition of the bell frame and fittings.

The bells of Westminster Abbey, 8 in number, were used for 52 years, chiming for significant events!

Clochard

During the reign of King Henry III in the mid-thirteenth century, the reconstruction of Westminster Abbey began in the Gothic architectural style. 

As part of this project, a distinct bell tower, known as a campanile, was constructed on the north side of the abbey. 

For three centuries, the Westminster Abbey bells rang out from this tower. 

However, in 1750, the remnants of this structure were demolished.

The original campanile occupied a space of approximately 75 feet in width and 60 feet in height. 

It stood on the site currently occupied by the Supreme Court building.

North West Tower

In the 16th century, six bells were placed in the partially constructed northwest tower of Westminster Abbey, which was lower than the roof of the nave. 

In the early 18th century, Sir Christopher Wren suggested finishing the towers, and the project was eventually undertaken by Nicholas Hawksmoor, the Abbey Surveyor.

The project was later continued by his successor John James. 

Finally, in 1745, after five centuries since the construction of King Henry III’s Abbey had begun, the task was completed. 

The two towers were raised to their current height, and the bells of Westminster Abbey were relocated to a higher belfry in the northwest tower.

Ten Bells

Ten bells
Image: Twitter.com

On November 9th, 1971, a set of ten bells was dedicated at Westminster Abbey during a service attended by Queen Elizabeth II. 

The largest bell, known as the tenor bell, has a diameter of 4 feet 6 inches (137 cm), weighs 30 cwt 1 qtr. 15lb (1,530 kg), and is tuned to the note of D. 

Its inscription acknowledges previous tenor bells castings in 1430, 1599, and 1738. 

The smallest bell called the treble, has a diameter of 2 feet 3 inches (618 cm) and weighs 4cwt 3qtr 16lb (246kg). 

Each bell has inscriptions indicating its dedication and the date of its casting.

The tenor bell is rung when there is an announcement of the death of a member of the Royal family or the death of a Dean of Westminster.

The bells are hung in a manner that allows for traditional English-style change ringing, where the bells swing in a full circle. 

This traditional hanging pattern enables the ringers to vary the order in which the bells sound. 

Ringers

The Domesday Cartulary of Westminster Abbey documents the formation of the Brethren of the Guild of Westminster in 1255. 

Their responsibility was to ring the bells of Westminster Abbey, and they received an annual payment of one hundred shillings for their services. 

In 1921, Dean Ryle established the Westminster Abbey Company of Ringers, inspired by the ethos of the old Brethren. 

This volunteer group, consisting of principal, supernumerary, and honorary members, continues to operate.

Ringing occasions

Ringing occasions
Image: Twitter.com

The bells of Westminster Abbey are chimed on various significant occasions, including major church festivals, saints’ days, Royal and Abbey anniversaries, etc.

Usually, the ringing occurs at the conclusion of a service, except when the Monarch is in attendance, in which case the bells are also rung before the service.

The half-muffled bells of Westminster Abbey happen during solemn events, 

To ring the bells of Westminster Abbey for a half-muffled effect, a leather pad is attached to one side of the clapper ball. 

On All Souls Day and Remembrance Day, the Westminster Abbey bells are half-muffled, and a specific ringing method called Stedman Caters is employed.

An interesting historical note is that before the Coronation of King Charles III on May 6, 2023, the Company of Ringers performed 72 changes of Grandsire Caters.

Peals

To commemorate important occasions and milestones, be they royal, national, or Abbey-related, a significant tradition at Westminster Abbey is set in place.

This elaborate ringing sequence consists of a minimum of 5000 different changes or sequences, performed continuously without a pause. 

It requires the utmost concentration from the ringers and the conductor, as they commit the progress of these 5000 changes to memory. 

Completing a full peal typically takes over three hours.

In recognition of these momentous events, inscribed peal boards are displayed on the walls of the ringing chamber. 

These boards provide details about the specific occasion, the names of the ringers involved, and other relevant information.

Sister rings

Two additional sets of bells have been created to match the specifications of the bells at Westminster Abbey. 

In 1936, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry replicated the sizes and weights of the existing eight bells at the Abbey for Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Another set of 10 bells was cast by Whitechapel in 1977 as a bicentennial gift from the English Ditchley Foundation to the Congress of the United States. 

These bells were installed in the Old Post Office Tower in Washington, D.C. 

Each bell bears the engravings of the Great Seals of the United States and Britannia, symbolizing the close ties between the two nations. 

Additionally, the Abbey’s coat of arms is depicted on the headstock of each bell.

Other bells

The Abbey collection also includes several notable bells that have historical significance. 

One is a medieval cymbalum, a bell without a clapper, originally hung outside the monastic refectory in the south cloister. 

Its purpose was to call the monks to meals, and it would have been struck with a hammer.

Another bell in the collection bears the inscription “THOS. LESTER MADE ME 1742.” 

This bell was once positioned in the gable of the south transept until it was taken down during 19th-century restoration work. 

Additionally, there is a large 14th-century bell.

These bells are displayed in the new Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries at Westminster Abbey. 

This exhibition space allows visitors to appreciate these significant historical artifacts and learn about their roles within the abbey’s past.

FAQs

1. Why are the bells ringing at Westminster Abbey?

The bells at Westminster Abbey ring for various reasons, serving different purposes and conveying different messages. 
Here are some common occasions when the bells may ring:
– Religious Services
– Special Events 
– Commemorative Occasions
– Timekeeping
– Practice and Rehearsals

2. How old are the bells in Westminster Abbey?

The bells at Westminster Abbey have a long and varied history, some dating back several centuries.

3. What are the muffled bells at Westminster Abbey?

The muffled bells at Westminster Abbey refer to a particular ringing technique known as “half-muffled” or “muffled peal.” 

This technique involves partially covering the clappers of the bells with a piece of leather or cloth, creating a softer and more somber sound.

The muffled bells are typically rung during funeral processions or memorial services at the abbey. 

The muffled peal adds a solemn and mournful tone, paying tribute to the deceased and creating a reverent atmosphere.

4. How long do the bells ring at Westminster Abbey?

The bells’ duration at Westminster Abbey can vary depending on the occasion or event. 

Generally, the bells may ring for up to around 15 minutes, depending on the purpose of the ringing.


Are you looking for the best tickets to explore Westminster Abbey?

Here are some of the best tickets for visiting Westminster Abbey and London. 

Entry ticket: Get the opportunity to tour around the cathedral, bell tower, tombs and more with the Westminster Abbey entry ticket.

Guided tour: Tour the famous Westminster Abbey with an expert guide and gain insights about the famous attraction

St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey: Enjoy St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey with one ticket.

Westminster Abbey and Afternoon Tea: Tour the Cathedral and visit the Cellarium Cafe for an English afternoon tea. 

Westminster Abbey and House of Parliament guided tour: Get a tour of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. 

London Pass: Enjoy access to over 85 attractions, including Westminster Abbey, with just one pass. 

Go City London explorer pass: Visit Westminster Abbey along with 1 to 6 other attractions with this pass. 

Featured Image: Westminster-abbey.org

Harshita
About the author

Harshitha’s heart lies where greeny mountains meet stretches of beach. She believes getting lost is the best way to explore