Usually heard on a Sunday calling worshippers to Service, the ringing of church bells is also used to mark national celebrations and other solemn occasions such as weddings and funerals. The bells at the Parish Church of St. Nicholas have been rung on many important occasions in the history of Kenilworth. It is most likely that they were rung for the many kings and queens who visited Kenilworth during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, including Queen Elizabeth I who, in July 1575, is said to have heard a “most fruitful sermon” during her stay at Kenilworth Castle.
Entries in the Church Wardens’ accounts give an insight into the role of the bells in the history of the Church and Kenilworth. For example in;
- 1618 – ringers were paid 2s 6d when King James I came to Kenilworth
- 1642 – 3s 6d was “spent on ye Ringers to drink” when Charles I visited Kenilworth
- 1746 – the bells were rung for “ye Duke’s victory in Scotland (Culloden) over ye Rebels” and the ringers were paid 2s 6d.
There has been a set of bells at St. Nicholas since the 15th century when the tower was built onto the 13th century church. We know that this was a ring of four bells because an inventory in 1552 records that it had “4 bells plus a Saunce (Sanctus) bell”.
The Sanctus bell was the Great Bell from the Abbey of St. Mary the Virgin and given to St. Nicholas in 1538, following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. It was cast by the Prior of Kidderminster between 1410 and 1430 and hung in the church from a huge wooden beam spanning the inside of the tower. Sections of this beam are still visible in the tower today.
In 1656, during the period of the Commonwealth, a new bell frame was installed and the ring of four bells “being cracked” was recast into five by bell-founders, Bryan Eldridge of Chertsey, Surrey who set up a temporary foundry in Coventry. The bells, (the heaviest (the Tenor) weighing 14cwt 0qt 22lb), were re-hung with a full wheel so that they could be rung in a continuously changing pattern (Change Ringing). According to the Churchwardens accounts, this new set of bells cost £36 10s 0d.
The two lightest bells were subsequently recast by John Briant of Hertford (1793) and Joseph Smith of Edgbaston (1734), respectively. However, the others survived through to the 1875 restoration.
In 1875, the four lightest bells were removed and five new ones cast by John Taylor of Loughborough, making up the present ring of six bells. The Tenor bell was retained and is the original cast by Bryan Eldridge in 1656. It is also the bell which chimes the hour.
One of the four bells removed in 1875 was not melted down but passed on by the bellfounders to the newly built Parish Church of St. Matthews in Surbiton, Surrey where it is still rung today as the Service Bell. It had been the second in the ring of five at Kenilworth, cast by Joseph Smith of Edgbaston in 1734. The inscription on the bell says “Mr William Best, Vicar. John Parker and Thomas Garlick Church Wardens 1734”. Mr William Best was vicar at St. Nicholas’ from 1690 to 1740.
Dove’s guide for Church Bell Ringers provides the following information concerning the present set of bells at St. Nicholas;
The last major work at the bell tower was carried out by Taylors of Loughborough in 1957 when it was discovered that the oak frame fitted in 1875 to support the bells had become loose and was dangerous. The wooden frame was replaced by a steel one set in a concrete ring and when they were re-hung, the bells were quarter-turned.