Some people from Kent may be planning to go to London and join the queues to pay their respects at Westminster Hall, during the four days when the royal coffin will be there. But for most people, public mourning is local. So how is this being undertaken? In many places it will be marked by the tolling of a bell. Given the Queen’s advanced age, there has been much planning and instructions were already in the hands of those required to act.
For whom the bell tolls
The first reactions, as the news of her death broke on 8 September, were on the national media: the screens turned black, the national anthem was played and, on BBC 1, Huw Edwards, dressed in black, made the announcement.
Immediately those in charge of flags were required to lower the Union Flag to half-mast.
Captains of bell-towers would have done a quick reread of the instructions and started to phone around to find out who was available to toll the bells. As the Queen’s death was announced in the late afternoon of 8 September, the bells were to toll at 12 noon for one hour the following day. Not every parish in Kent achieved that.
Kent has 240 ringable towers, with 1 400 active ringers. Some were not available at short notice. It is the heaviest bell, the tenor, which is used for tolling. This requires a fit person. Long Covid is affecting the fitness of some of the most competent and keen bell-ringers. So a capable volunteer bell-ringer had to be found for every local tower.
During a period of mourning, church bells are either muffled or half muffled. As this involves some technology, here is the explanation from the Central Council of Church Bell-Ringers (CCCBR) guide:
“Muffles are leather pads fitted to a bell’s clapper to reduce the volume. They attenuate the bell’s strike note whilst retaining the hum. By only muffling the clapper on one side (half muffled) you get an ‘echo’ effect as blows are alternately loud and soft.
“For safety reasons, muffles should always be fitted and removed with the bells down. To muffle the backstroke, put the muffle on the side of the clapper that is furthest away from the rope. To muffle the handstroke, put the muffle on the side of the clapper that is nearest to the rope.”
So, this means that before the tolling, someone has to climb the bell-tower to muffle the bells. Many country churches do not have complete sets of muffles, so most likely they were half-muffled. So, what could be heard across most of Kent at 12 noon on Friday was the slow tolling of a tenor bell, a loud sound, followed by an echo, both at the same deep pitch. It is one of the most evocative sounds in the English countryside.
Muffles off for the new king
After this tolling, the bell tower captains had to get busy again taking off the muffles, because the CCCBR instructions say that bells should be rung unmuffled after the Proclamation of a new monarch. This took place first in London on Saturday, followed on the same day by a proclamation outside the offices of County or Unitary authorities at 3pm. For this, the full team of change-ringers would need to be assembled. There was the option for Parish councils also to do the Proclamation at 4pm, followed by change-ringing from their local tower.
Re-muffle – it’s the law
After this the muffles had to be put back on again in preparation for the usual bell-ringing for the Sunday service. You may have noticed that these sounded different, with a softer sound and an echo after each note.
You might think cynically that all this physical activity around a death announcement is unnecessary in the digital age, when we all know the news anyway, from TV, radio, internet and smart phones. But this is how important national news was conveyed in less techy times, and the law about these procedures is still extant.
Books of condolence
Books of condolence have also been opened by the authorities. There is a book at County Hall, a book in each borough council centre, a book in each Cathedral. Most Church of England parishes will also have a book open in the local church – provided enough volunteers can be found to keep vigil over it there for some hours each day.
I have been doing my stint there, and took a peep at the kind of messages people are writing. Most are addressed to Her Majesty, some are to the Royal Family, and some are statements of emotional reaction.
Future food for research
What will happen to these books? It is not suggested that they are going to be sent to the Royal Family. They are going to the archive of the organisation that has opened the book. This means that when you sign your message, it is for posterity. Different types of researchers will mull over these messages to gauge the level of commitment to monarchy, or affection for the Queen in person.
Even, I guess, the lucrative ancestry business will get hold of them, digitize the messages, file them under names – so your own descendants will be able to check up on what you wrote! Death is not ephemeral: it booms in the after echo of history, like that tolling of the tenor bell.