The History of the Bells at Christchurch Priory

The Tower contains a ring of 12 bells, plus a flat 6th semi-tone bell, dating from the end of the 14th century to 1976. The two oldest, two of the oldest in England still in use, were cast in 1370 by a John Rufford of Bedfordshire, who was appointed the Royal Bellfounder by King Edward III in 1367. A medallion of the King’s head is cast in the inscription on the crown band of each bell. This points to the fact that these bells, with others, were a royal gift to the Priory at Twynham. King’s Head Bells as they are called, are very rare.

Letters Patent issued by King Henry VIII in 1540 refer to the Priory and to “seven bells hanging in the tower thereof” are 100 years older than the tower.

There is little doubt that the church at one time had a central tower. This either collapsed or was taken down in 1422, damaging much of an earlier quire, but it is doubtful if the 7 bells referred to by Henry were ever in that central tower. There are several indications, however, that the room over the North Porch was once a bellchamber. The walls of the porch are substantially buttressed; the housings of the timber baulks, which supported the bell frame, are clearly visible, as are the chasings in the window frames and mullions, showing that they were once louvered. The present tower was completed in 1470 and in due course the bells were hung in it, being rung from ground level, inside the West Door some 90 feet below.

The Letters Patent issued by Henry also recorded that 2 bells were taken “for the King’s use”. In those days it was usual for churches of cathedral status to have 7 bells, a parish church to have 5, and smaller village churches to have 3 or less. Christchurch Priory would have ranked as a cathedral or Minster previously, but it is now a parish church.

The first reference to 8 bells is in a Vestry minute book of 1640 which says “The 4th and 8th shall be rung all the year long.”

In 1885 one bell was recast, and by 1976 after gifts of new bells and replacements, the number of bells reached its present number.

The above is taken from “The Story of Christchurch Bells” by Arthur V Davis. The complete book is available from the Gift Shop for £1.