Is England's oldest bell really in our county?

When Col. J.P.O. Mitford restored Mitford church in the late 19th century, his intention was 'to preserve as much of the existing building as was worthy and capable of preservation'.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 19th March 2017, 9:58 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 9:48 am

The church was built in about 1130, and a good deal of the existing fabric is of that date.

Mackenzie, in his Historical View of Northumberland, 1825, says: “The ancient and honourable Northumbrian family of Mitford were possessed of the vills and lordship, from which they derive their name, as early as the time of Edward the Confessor. At the conquest, Sibil, the only daughter and heir of Sir John Mitford, was given in marriage by King William I to Sir Richard Bertram, one of his Norman adventurers.”

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If so, it is likely that there was a settlement at Mitford before 1066, and an Anglo-Saxon church with it.

Unlike Ulgham and Morpeth, St Mary’s is not Anglo-Norman, but a true Norman church.

Pevsner describes it as: “A church of noble proportions, with a five-bay aisled nave...and probably an apsidal sanctuary.”

When it was destroyed by King John in 1216, the nave survived, more or less, but the chancel was rebuilt in about 1220. It was done in the style of the time, now known as Early English, with plain buttresses, lancet windows and three lancets that form the east window.

Its finest ornament, however, is the priest’s door, an original Norman doorway, with its characteristic round arch. The outer edge is decorated with cable moulding, like twisted rope, and inside that a richly ornamented chevron or zig-zag moulding. Inside that again is another chevron moulding.

The slight point of the inner arch isn’t Early English. It's a Norman arch that has been re-set not quite right.

The transept windows have rectangular hoodmoulds. They look like Tudor work, but are in fact, 14th century, and the window heads underneath the dripstone have the characteristic ogee shapes of the time. The master masons of the Middle Ages were experts at geometry and the ogee consists of arcs of circles that bend first one way, then the other.

The south transept has a Mitford shield on the outside — “Argent, between a fess sable thee moles proper”. That is, a silver shield with a black bar across and three moles in their natural colour.

Inside, the lancet windows and the sedilia (seats for the clergy) in the chancel are pure Early English. Richardson, however, in his history of the church, points out that both the sedilia and the east windows incorporate re-used Norman pillars.

The transepts are late 14th century. The north one was formerly the Pykeden or Pigdon chapel of St John, but is now a vestry. The south transept was, and is, the Mitford chapel, containing memorial plaques, photographs and a family tree.

In one corner is a short carved pillar that serves no obvious purpose. It is thought that the chapel once had an apse on its east side and that the pillar formed part of the arched opening.

One of the glories of the church is the south arcade. Its massive piers were walled up for 500 years and even exposed to the elements for a time. But it was revealed and repaired again in the restoration of 1874.

The ancient bell at St Mary’s hangs on the wall to your left as you go in.

The current church leaflet says: “The 12th century bell. We believe that it is the oldest in the kingdom, but are willing to hear from contenders.”

It’s an impressive thought that the oldest bell in England may be right here on our doorstep. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite so simple.

The British Museum has a bell more than twice as old. It is of cast bronze, about the size of a beer barrel, and was made in China circa 500 BC. These bells are lens-shaped in plan, are played with a mallet or stick, and play two different notes, depending on where they are struck.

To compare the Mitford bell with the Chinese one is perhaps not quite fair. But coming closer to home, the Skellat Bell is a hand-bell from the town of Dumbarton. It was made circa AD 900, is 11ins high, and is rectangular in plan. Like the Chinese bells, it is two-toned.

The Skellat bell is made in cast bronze, but other Celtic bells in both Scotland and Ireland are made of sheet iron coated with bronze.

The true comparators with the Mitford bell are not hand-bells nor bells from overseas, but native bells of a size to hang in a belfry and be heard over a wide area.

There seems, unfortunately, to be no modern appraisal of the Mitford bell. The church leaflet refers only to an article in the Pall Mall Magazine for October 1895. It notes that the height and width at the bell mouth are equal, making it steeple-shaped, whereas later bells are dumpier in shape. Another unique feature is that the rim is turned outwards instead of inwards, though this is not easy to see.

But until somebody makes a thorough study of old church bells, we can’t possibly know whether Mitford's bell is the oldest or not.

Until then, however, we can at least give Mitford the benefit of the doubt.