Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Bell foundry and bell thievery in Worcester

Notable bell founders.

The oldest bell displayed in the cloister is dedicated to St Wulfstan and was cast by William Burford, a London bell-founder.  William Burford worked between 1371 and 1392, and only twenty two of his bells are known to exist. The inscription on the bell in Worcester Cathedral, "IN HONORE SCI WOLSTANI EPI", when translated reads, "In honour of St. Wulfstan, Bishop”. This dedication of a bell to St. Wulfstan is unique to Worcester Cathedral

Next to this bell is the oldest dated bell cast in the county of Worcestershire, which was cast at Worcester in 1480. Although it is not known for sure who cast this bell, the city of Worcester has had a long tradition of bell-founding from medieval times through to the mid-1690s.  

One of the most prominent bell-founders in the Cathedral Library records is a Richard le Belyeter, who on four occasions occupied the office of Bailiff. Le Belyeter occurs as a witness on many documents, from 1300 to 1322.  He held land in Sidbury in his own right. In 1976, when an archaeological dig took place of three medieval craftsmen's tenements in Sidbury, bell-founding waste was found in the medieval layers.  For those familiar with Worcester, look for the florists shop in Sidbury. This is the site that may have been Le Belyeter’s house and work-yard.

A lease of lands from Richard le Belyeter to Richard le Mercer, complete with a bell-founder's seal. Photograph reproduced by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.) 

 A particularly rare document pertaining to bells in Worcester Cathedral Library is one in which Le Belyeter is leasing lands in Timberdine to Richard le Mercer. The document has affixed to it an exquisite specimen of his seal, a wide-mouthed bell, with the legend "Sigillum Ricardi le Belyeter".  This seal is one of only a handful of bell-founder seals surviving in the country.

Bell thievery in Worcester

Can you imagine churches without their bells? Here at Worcester Cathedral, on the east side of the cloister, are displayed some of the medieval bells of the cathedral which were decommissioned in the second half of the 1800s as part of the major Victorian restoration of the cathedral.

The "New Bells for Worcester Cathedral" manufactured by John Taylor and Co. as part of the Victorian programme of restoration. Photograph reproduced by the permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

Initially, there had been no plans for the replacing of these bells, but in May of 1863, when work on the great Victorian restoration of the cathedral was in progress, it was discovered that one of the bells had been stolen. Curiously, it seems that at the time of the theft no-one noticed a giant bell being stolen! No trace of the bell was ever found. It was the theft of this bell which led to the replacement of the remaining medieval bells by a new ring of twelve bells.

The Victorian theft was not the first time that a bell was stolen from the Cathedral. Legend has it that during an invasion of the city by the Danes one of the raiders attempted to steal the Sanctus bell but the townspeople caught him. He was punished by being flayed alive and his skin pinned to the Cathedral door. The less squeamish of you can view what is reputed to be a piece of this skin, displayed in a cabinet in the Cathedral Library, it is next to King John's thumb bone.
Bells in Worcester Cathedral today

The Cathedral’s tower now contains a ring of 15 bells, with a total weight of 16 tonnes, the fifth heaviest ring in the world and also generally acknowledged to be one of the finest rings in the country. These bells were cast in 1928 by John Taylor & Co. of Loughborough, from the metal of the previous bells cast for the Victorian restoration.  The non-swinging bourdon bell, which on its own weighs nearly a tonne, was cast in 1868, and is used by the clock to strike the hours.

by Vanda Bartoszuk

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