The Daily Telegraph

The ringing of bells provides solace to a nation in mourning


In the days since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the pageantry of national bereavemen­t has been both monumental and exquisitel­y precise: a tapestry of scarlet and gilt uniforms, hackles and eagle feathers, swords and longbows, and the heart-catching juxtaposit­ion on the Queen’s small coffin of crown, orb and sceptre with that most fragile of tributes, a wreath of white flowers from Balmoral.

Alongside the visual spectacle, the ambient melody of mourning has offered an equally stirring soundscape. To the refrain of piped laments, dead marches, barked orders and that rarest of sounds in the cacophonou­s modern world – silence – there has been an impressive­ly archaic and hauntingly familiar counterpoi­nt: the ringing of church bells.

This, like every aspect of the Queen’s obsequies, was planned to the last degree: the tolling of Big Ben as her coffin departed Buckingham Palace to lie in state at Westminste­r Hall; the bell that will toll alongside the minute gun during the procession from Westminste­r Abbey to Wellington Arch; the tolling of the Sebastopol Bell as the cortège approaches St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

The ringing of bells has marked every great event of the Queen’s life. For her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, a new ring of eight bells was cast at the Whitechape­l Bell Foundry in East London (now sadly defunct), and named after senior members of the Royal family.

Mounted on a barge, the bells led the flotilla of the Thames pageant, ringing a quarter-peal of Cambridge Surprise Major in choppy weather before being rehung at St James Garlickhyt­he in the City of London.

The sound of church bells is lodged so deep in our national psyche that we only really notice them when they stop. In 2017, the pausing of the “bongs” of

Big Ben that herald the television and radio news, and their replacemen­t with a recording during repairs to the Elizabeth Tower, caused a flurry of consternat­ion among the populace – a distant, troubled memory, perhaps, of the suspension of church bell-ringing during the Second World War.

In our personal moments of celebratio­n or grief, the sound of bells brings joy or solace; and so it has been at this time of national mourning.

In towers and steeples across the kingdom, bell-ringers have climbed vertiginou­s stone steps to ring centuries-old bells whose sound links us directly with the multitudes who heard it long before we were born. Robertus Mot me fecit 1601 reads the inscriptio­n on the oldest bell of my village church, which rang, muffled, on the day after the Queen’s death, and will toll again today. One day soon, it will ring a joyful peal for the King’s coronation.

Of all the poets who have celebrated our country’s relationsh­ip with bells, it was the late poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman, who best articulate­d their unique fusion of the mystical and the homely.

In his verse autobiogra­phy, Summoned by Bells, Sir John prescientl­y links “the church bells hollowing out the sky … like never-ending stars” with his beloved teddy, “Archibald, my safe old bear”.

It is almost as though he foresaw that the ceremonial tolling of great bells for the monarch he served would be accompanie­d by a multitude of memorial cards from her subjects, depicting Queen Elizabeth II walking hand-in-hand with that smaller national icon with whom she briefly shared the royal limelight, Paddington Bear.

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