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11/27/2003 Archived Entry: "Curfew bells"

Byland Abbey - photo by John de Visser

Byland Abbey (photo:John de Visser)

Curfews, in the form of church bells, are still rung at several venues around Britain, albeit not for their original purpose. Most of us associate them with official instructions to get off the streets and go indoors between certain specified hours, usually as a means of preventing public disorder. In fact the word curfew comes from the French couvre feu and it means to cover a fire.
Although William the Conqueror is generally credited with imposing the first curfew in 1068, there is reason to believe such a bell was rung in this country at Oxford long before his arrival, and it was certainly rung on the continent prior to 1068. It was the Conqueror's actions which revived the practice throughout England, together with heavy penalties for those who disobeyed the bell's message. His concern was not about public disorder, however; it was about putting out one's fire at night.
At the time, there was a great fear of fire because most citizens' homes were built of flimsy material such as wood with thatched roofs; the fire occupied a place in the centre of the floor and there was a large hole in the roof through which the smoke escaped. Some people went to bed and left the fire burning, often with disastrous results. Any resultant fire was also likely to affect other buildings and so the church bell would sound at 8pm to warn everyone to put out their fires.
At the sound of the bell, therefore, they were supposed to rake the burning embers into a heap, then ensure the fire was extinguished or at the least smothered. This was especially important in our towns and cities where the houses were very close together and where fire would spread rapidly. In resurrecting this law, William also ruled that no lights should show within a household after the curfew bell but this was relaxed in 1103 by Henry I who said that lights, eg candles, could show even though the household fire had to be extinguished.
As time passed, the ringing of the curfew bell each night at 8pm was utilised for other purposes. Both Edward I and Edward III made laws which said no-one carrying arms should be on the streets after the curfew bell - this may have been the first time the curfew bell was utilised in an attempt to maintain public order and reduce crime.
There is no doubt it became widely used as a means of keeping the peace with the result that the word curfew came to have another meaning. Today, we associate the term, not necessarily accompanied by the sound of a bell, as a period during which someone must remain indoors for a specified period as a mean of ensuring they do not break the law. The period of the curfew is often during the night, say between 8pm and 6am, but not necessarily so. It can even extend to several days or relate to particular dates, and the system was often used in wartime.
Today, the curfew bell continues to be sounded in several towns and villages across England but it demands no particular action from us. It is merely symbolic, being the continuation of a long established custom.
Nonetheless, the curfew system, not necessarily aided by the sound of a bell, has been utilised for some interesting purposes. In 1918, for example, the British Board of Trade was anxious to ensure the people economised on fuel such as electricity and coal, and so it introduced a Curfew Order. This said that all restaurants had to extinguish their lights by 10pm, that no theatre must show lighting after 10.30pm and that no shop front should be illuminated. That curfew order lasted from April until December, 1918.
In most cases - if not all - the bells used to announced the curfew were those of the parish church. They could be heard throughout the area concerned and undoubtedly exercised a certain authority - in other words, if the church bells rang, the people knew their message was important and should be heeded.
Throughout history, of course, church bells have rung and continue to ring for many reasons apart from announcing that a service is imminent. They ring joyfully to announce a wedding or mournfully to accompany a funeral or even to announce a parishioner's death. In the latter case, passing bells were rung and from their sound could be deduced the age and sex of the dear departed. Nine strokes or knowles heralded a man, and these were followed by one stroke for each year of his life; six knowles referred to a woman and three for a child, in each case being followed by rings for the relevant age.
Bells were rung to warn of impending danger too, such as an invasion, but I believe they were also rung in Malton and Middleham to celebrate the victory of a local horse in a classic race.
Bells once caused a dilemma for the monks of Byland and Rievaulx Abbeys. In 1143, Byland Abbey was situated at the top of Sutton Bank, near Thirsk, but when Rievaulx Abbey was established in the valley below, confusion reigned when the bells were rung as no one could distinguish one from the other. So the monks of Byland-on-the-Moor moved to a site above Coxwold and later to the present site, Byland Abbey between Wass and Coxwold and peaceful relations were restored.

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