Bell numbering in the early 16th century

Richard Smith richard at
Tue Sep 18 20:29:09 BST 2012

I've been reading the churchwardens accounts of Great St 
Mary's, Cambridge, from the first half of the 16th century. 
These frequently refer to bells by number: "the third bell", 
and so on.  Previously I've always assumed without really 
thinking about it that bells were numbered in their modern 
order, with the first bell being the lightest.  This appears 
to be accepted wisdom, but I don't like assumptions, and so 
I'd like some evidence to support it.

A 1567 inventory of St Andrew's, Norwich, quoted by 
L'Estrange, gives the weight of their six bells and leaves 
no doubt that their bells were numbered with one as the 
lightest and six as the heaviest.  That would appear to 
support the usual explanation.

But another seemingly-plausible explanation would be that 
bells were numbered in an arbitrary order depending on local 
custom or the whim of the writer, and it wasn't until the 
advent of change ringing in the early 17th century that 
there was any reason to standardise the way bells were 
numbered.  This hypothesis would appear to be backed up by 
the mid-16th century inventory of Shrewsbury Abbey quoted by 
Walters which numbers the heavier of their rings of five in 
normal order, and the lighter ring in reverse order.

It's possible that the record of the light five at 
Shrewsbury is simply an error.  Walters doesn't quote the 
inventory at first hand, but rather via Owen's & Blakeway's 
1825 'History of Shrewsbury'.  I have verified that Walters 
is (broadly) accurate in quoting Owen & Blakeway, but it's 
not clear to me exactly what document Owen & Blakeway are 
quoting and it's possible that they have misquoted it.

If the Shrewsbury reference is accurate it casts doubt on 
the conventional belief that bells were always numbered from 
lightest to heaviest, and therefore on any conclusions based 
on that assumption.  For example, most accounts of the bells 
of GSM say that they were a four rather than a three in 
1514, but this is based largely on the fact that in 1528 the 
"third bell" and the "great bell" were different bells.  If 
we admit the possibility that bells were numbered in the 
opposite order, this conclusion breaks down.

So is anyone aware of any evidence, besides the Shrewsbury 
inventory, of bells being numbered from heaviest to lightest 
in England in the 15th or 16th centuries?



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