The Bells of Saint Mary’s Hitchin

Posted on Jan 12, 2013 by


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Not many towns have a church built by a king. Hitchin in Hertfordshire does. St. Mary’s was part of a monastery which Offa, a vastly under-rated king, established in 792. The foundations are beneath the nave. Famous for founding St. Alban’s Abbey and for the hundred and fifty mile long Offa’s Dyke, he should also be remembered for introducing the penny as the monetary unit of England and as the first English king to put his image on a coin (one is in The National Portrait Gallery, London).

When the Bell Tower was added to St. Mary’s in the 1100s, flints were incorporated to prevent it being struck by lightning. Never-the-less struck it was in 1292. That, and an earthquake six years later, almost did for it. When, in 1311, the tower pulled away from the church, supporting buttresses were built.

 The church has a ringing peal of ten. The fifth bell of the peal of eight has the 1762 inscriptions: Laudo Deum Verum (I praise the true God), Plebem Voco (I summon the people), Congrego Clerum (I assemble the clergy), Defuncto Ploro (I lament the dead), Pestem Fugo (I drive out pestilence) and Festa Decoro (I celebrate the feasts). The tenor bell, number ten, the biggest and deepest sounding, bears the inscription: I to the church the living call and to the grave do summon all.

The church, mentioned in William the Conqueror’s infamous Domesday Book of 1086, has an impressive history and is well worth a visit. An effigy of the Crusader Bernard de Baliol, one time Lord of Hitchin Manor, is on the window cill. One of his descendants became king of the Scots, another established Balliol College, Oxford.

The nave dates from the 1100s, the windows from the 1400s. The Angel Screen, one of the finest in Britain, dates from 1450. Made of oak, it has twelve Angels. The two outer carry shields, the others carry icons connected with the Crucifixion (linen shroud, hammer, scroll, cross, Crown of Thorns, nails, bindings, sop soaked in vinegar, cup and scourge). The font made of limestone imported from Caen in Normandy, has been here since 1470 and the pulpit dates from 1500.

Henry VIII gave Hitchin to three of his wives, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. In 1536, when he ordered the dissolution of religious houses with an income of less than £200 a year, St Mary’s was given to Trinity College, Cambridge.

 In 1645, the regicide Oliver Cromwell billeted his troops in the church and used it as stables. His men removed nine figures from their plinths on the outside of the South Porch and defaced carvings of the Apostles on the font. Until then, Hitchin was anti-Royalist. It changed its mind after Cromwell’s visit.

The Adoration of the Magi, is a copy. The original is in Lyons, France. It’s thought that Rubens may have painted The Holy Family and the remainder of the picture completed by his students.

The altar rail has a mouse carved by a modern craftsman. It was of course the famous Grinling Gibbons who worked on St Paul’s Cathedral with Sir Christopher Wren who first used a mouse as his trademark.

On Remembrance Sunday November 2012, my other half was pleased to be invited to St. Mary’s by our bell ringing friend, aptly named David Bell, to photograph an historic occasion. The ring of bells was about to be refurbished and David wanted a record of the last time the ‘family’ was all together. The following day, the bells were taken to Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London.

It’s thought that the famous Foundry was established around 1420 during the reign of Henry V. It was certainly there in 1570 during the reign of Elizabeth I. The bells of St. Mary’s are in good company. The Foundry cast Big Ben for The Palace of Westminster in 1858. The largest cast at Whitechapel, it weighs in at thirteen and a half tons. George V and Queen Mary visited the Foundry to watch the casting of two bells for Westminster Abbey.

The science or the skill of bell ringing is, to put it mildly, extremely complicated. It would take a PhD in the subject to explain the ramifications but here goes. The present ring of ten at St. Mary’s, with the heaviest bell weighing in at twenty-nine cwt. will end up as a new ring of twelve with the heaviest bell weighing seventeen cwt. Two bells (numbers seven and ten) will not be returned to St Mary’s; they will be re-cast or used elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with them but they will not fit in with the tuning of the new set. The plan is to create a lighter, easier to ring, peal. This will not only produce a higher standard of ringing, it will make it easier to teach future generations of ringers.

The art of bell ringing, campanology, is an art apparently peculiar to England. Bells are used in sets, peals or rings. Changes can be rung on just a few bells by varying the order in which they are rung. The combinations are numerous. With three bells there are six permutations, with four, twenty-four, five bells has one hundred and twenty, six, seven hundred and twenty. With seven bells it’s possible to ring over five thousand changes.

Made from bronze, bells are so heavy and so difficult to transport they were originally made near the church but are now cast in foundries. The bells of St Mary’s were cast in St. Neots near Cambridge. Bells often have an inscription saying who made them and when. Depending on its shape and size, each bell makes a different note when struck. Originally the bell was simply struck with a hammer. Then the hammer (called a clapper) was hung within the bell which was suspended from an axle. Later a wheel was added to the axle and a rope wound round the wheel. By pulling the rope the bell is chimed. The bigger the swing, the harder the clapper hits the bell, the louder the sound. Clappers are muffled for funerals and on Remembrance Sunday.

To see the bells being removed see this video by Sam Hallas: Lowering the tenor bell at St Mary’s Hitchin

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