Standing in the Cloister just before 5.00pm yesterday afternoon, I heard the bells in the central tower chiming. This continuous sound, which lasted over ten minutes, indicated that Evensong was about to begin in the Quire and summoned those both inside and outside the building to take their seats for the service. The ringing of these bells occurs three times a day in the cathedral, announcing the services of Matins at 8.00am, Eucharist at 12.30pm and Evensong at 5.15pm, an aural reminder that the monastic traditions established at Bristol in the 12th century continue through a daily cycle of prayer and worship. It is likely that the Perpendicular crossing tower, the bellframe and two of the four extant bells were built during the seat of Abbot John de Newland (1481-1515), who was also responsible for rebuilding the Cloister, the upper part of the Gatehouse and part of the Prior’s Lodging. His tomb can now be found in a star shaped niche on the north wall of the Eastern Lady Chapel. Newland was also known as ‘Nailheart’, and his rebus – a heart pierced by three nails – can still be seen on the two smallest bells, along with Newland’s initials and dedications of ‘ora pro nobis’, or ‘pray for me’ to St Margaret and St Clement. The other two bells are probably post-Reformation, one dated with 1670 and the other with an evocative inscription of ‘Clara vocor et clarior ero’ – ‘I will be brighter’.
Bell ringing has always been closely associated with ceremonial practice and in a busy urban space, bells at the cathedral were used to mark public feast days, such as Easter and Corpus Christi, or civic processions, such as Elizabeth I’s Royal Progress to Bristol in 1574, or to warn the city’s occupants during times of crisis. Today the North-West tower, designed by John Loughborough Pearson and completed in 1888, attests to this long history of celebratory bell ringing at the cathedral, with a prelude of ringing before every 10.00am Sunday Eucharist and on special occasions, including weddings, ordinations and school services. Local bellringers are invited once a month on a Friday to practice and full peals can last for three hours at a time. With its eight bells in use at any one time, this glorious sound can often be heard across the city.
Historically, perhaps the most important reason for sounding bells in the cathedral space was for timekeeping. With no mechanical clocks and the difficulties in using sundials in winter or at night, the sound of a bell chiming across the city or cathedral close could give its listener a sense of temporality. The striking of bells could root a person in either day or night and even seasonal changes could be marked, with longer spaces between the bells ringing in the summer and shorter spaces in the summer. On 24 August 1535, Richard Layton – one of the principal agents of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries – signed off a letter to Thomas Cromwell: ‘From Sainte Austin’s withouts Bristowe, this Saint Batholomew’s day, at iiii of the clocke in the morning…’, a clear sign that he only understood the hour of the night by the sound he could hear. Late medieval accounts of the cathedral suggest that these bells in the central crossing tower were rung every hour and – as Layton’s account indicates – also through the night.
For the Augustinian monks who lived and worked at the cathedral until its Dissolution in 1539, the sound of bells chiming would have been a familiar part of their everyday soundscape. Following the Canonical Hours – set intervals in the day for prayer – the divisions of work, pastoral care, public ministry and private worship for the monks, were all structured around an aural experience. A bell would awaken the monks and encourage them to hurry down the Night Stairs to celebrate Matins – often long before dawn – and also to signify the closing of the day with Compline, when the cathedral bells would usher in the night. As a 17th-century songbook recorded, ‘At night when you heard all the sundry bells rings / Tell me, good friends, what thoughts do they bring? The Augustinians’ bells, now what is their tale? Rise, rise! The service of God must not falter or fail!’