The Bells of Saint Mary’s Abbey

Gundulf's tower

Gundulf's tower

For four and a half centuries the bell or bells of Saint Mary’s Abbey rang out over the village and countryside. Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, founded a community of nuns in this place in 1090ad and the nuns followed the daily life of prayer, worship and work of a Benedictine Community. The day was punctuated with the offering of worship in the church and the bell would have told both the nuns and the village that this was about to take place.

No doubt there would have been only one bell in the beginning but as time went on and the buildings were enlarged and rebuilt there may have been more bells installed. At the end of the fourteenth or beginning of the fifteenth centuries there was considerable rebuilding of the original west gable and west window of the Norman Tower which was replaced by an octagonal bell tower with a tall spire that rivalled that of the parish church. This suggests that by that time there were several bells. After the dissolution in 1538 the bells fell silent. We do not know how many there were but they were worth plundering and carting off to make shot for King Henry’s guns.

Three and a half centuries would pass before the bell was heard again. In 1892 the abbey was restored to its original use when Charlotte Boyd bought the property and invited an Anglican Community of Benedictine nuns to come and live here. So once more the village heard the abbey bell ring out as it called the Sisters to worship. The bell at that time was quite small and hung on the south facing wall of what had originally been the Chapter House and is now our Library.

The community prospered and numbers grew until the abbey could no longer provide the space they needed so in 1911 they left Malling Abbey and moved to Milford Haven. Once more the bell fell silent and it was to be another five years before it was heard again, not until our present community arrived in 1916 and the chapel bell was rung to call the Sisters to worship.

The old bell

The old bell

The day was punctuated by the ringing of the bell at regular intervals for the seven daily services. Lauds, the morning Office, was said at sunrise and Prime followed shortly after. Terce, Sext and None, were short services which sanctified the working hours of the day namely at the third hour (9.00am) the sixth hour (noon)and the ninth hour (3.00pm). Vespers, the evening Office was said at sundown and Compline ended the day in the evening. There was also a daily Mass and the Night Office of Matins at 2.00am. Apart from Prime which was discontinued in the 1960's, the same services are still held.

In those days we did not have our own watches, only the bell-ringer had a watch, so we relied on the chapel bell to alert us that it was time to stop what we were doing and prepare to go to church. Three bells were rung, the first of 33 strokes, 10 minutes before Office, the second of 15 strokes, 5 minutes before and the third of 5 strokes at the time of Office. The 33 strokes were likened to the 33 years of our Lord’s life, the 15 to the15 mysteries (meditations) of the Rosary, and 5 to the wounds of Jesus on the cross.

Matins at 2.00am only needed 2 bells as we were called 20 minutes before Office and only needed warning that it was almost time. There were 15 strokes at 1.55am and the 5 strokes on the hour.

The bell Resurrexit arrives at the Abbey

The bell Resurrexit arrives at the Abbey

In 1966 with the building of the new Abbey church it was possible to build a bell tower at the north west corner of the original south transept and have a new and larger bell. This was the gift of our Oblates for the new church. As our church was to be dedicated to the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of The Blessed Virgin Mary, Resurrexit seemed an appropriate name for it. The bell was cast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and hung in its new home on March 9th 1966. It was ready to be rung by 2.00pm and we listened with delight as it rang out on a deep and mellow E.

Being higher and larger it could be heard far and near. Alas! One near neighbour objected strongly and even went so far as to gather names and lodge a complaint. But he endeared himself to us by adding a P.S. My wife insists that I tell you that she likes the bell! In later years he became a firm friend!

Modern Abbey Church showing bell tower beyond

Modern Abbey Church showing bell tower beyond

Nevertheless we took note that to ring Resurrexit as often and for as long as we had previously done so was going to be disturbing for some so we agreed that the bell at 4.30am (we had moved the time of Night Office to 4.30am in 1963) should be discontinued and as by then we all had watches there was no need for the 10 minute warning bell the first 33 strokes could be omitted, and we shortened the 15 strokes to 9. As far as we can remember there was no significance in this number but just that it seemed a suitable length for all to hear it without being too long so as to be troublesome. Taking into consideration that not all people were early risers, especially not on a Sunday, we decided that the first bell of the day would be for the daily Eucharist at 7.20am on weekdays and 8.50am on Sundays. This rings 10 minutes before the service, the bell at the beginning of Office being a handbell rung in the church.

The abbey bell is sometimes rung at other times too. In the early days it was rung when a novice was being clothed in the monastic habit. This was a joyful occasion and the postulant, who wore a white dress and veil, was led into church by the whole community as they sang a joyful hymn and the bell was rung until all were in their places. This was discontinued in the 1960's, when much liturgical reform and renewal was taking place and services were being simplified, as also was the tolling of the bell when a Sister died.

The bell was also rung for the saying of ‘The Angelus’ three times a day, usually at 6.00am, 12 noon and 6.00pm. The bell rings for 3 strokes 3 times with an interval between them and this is followed by 9 strokes. This was, and still is, a widespread devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and is based on the angel’s greeting to the Virgin Mary at the annunciation. We gave this up in the 1960's.

The Bell Tower with Resurrexit

The Bell Tower with Resurrexit

During the 1960's and 1970's Archbishop Michael Ramsey received and entertained several State Visits from Orthodox Patriarchs. As Malling Abbey is on the route from Canterbury to Lambeth Palace in London, he would bring them to meet the community and see the Abbey. The bell would be rung as a welcome when they arrived and continue until they had been led in procession to the church.

In more recent years we rang the bell at the Millennium and again at the Queen’s Jubilee, along with all the other church bells that were ringing at the same time. In the last twelve months we showed our appreciation of the work of the NHS and all hospital staff by ringing Resurrexit at 8.00pm on Thursday evenings when all the country was clapping their appreciation. The Pilsdon community at the other end of the Abbey Estate rang their bell too.

For many years there were two abbey bells, one for the community and another above the Pilgrim Chapel. We have no record of when that bell was hung. It had a beautiful tone and it was a joy to hear it when retreat groups using the Pilgrim Chapel rang it before their services. Unfortunately a few years ago the bell tower was declared unsafe and the bell can no longer be rung.

In 1966 when the Anglican Cistercian Community was founded by Father Aelred Arneson a bell was hung outside at the east end of the Barn Chapel. The monks rang it for their services until 2004 when the community terminated their monastic life there. Since then the Pilsdon at Malling Community, who moved into the monastery, have rung the bell for their services.

It is heartwarming to know that many of the villagers listen for and appreciate our bell, some say they set their watches by it! Others that it gives them the signal to start out for work. Others that when they hear it they know ‘the nuns are praying for us’! This is indeed the case as all the world is taken up in our prayer and brought before God whenever we sing the Divine Office in church.