From Old Church Lore by William Andrews; William Andrews & Co., The Hull Press; London, 1891; pp. 210-217.

stylized border engraving of flowers and interlacing vines [210]

The Passing Bell.

manuscript letter Tb HE passing bell, or soul bell, rang whilst persons were passing from this life to that beyond, and it was rung that all who heard it might address prayers to heaven and the saints for the soul then being separated from the mortal body. One of the earliest accounts of the use of bells in England is connected with this bell. Bede, in speaking of the death of the Abbess of St. Hilda, says that a sister in a distant monastery thought that she heard in her sleep the well-known sound of the passing bell. She no sooner heard it than she called all the sisters from their rest into the church, where they prayed and sang a requiem. To show how persistently the custom was maintained, we may quote from the “Advertisements for due Order,” passed in the seventh year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth: “Item, that when 211 anye Christian body is in passing, that the bell be tolled, and that the curate be speciallie called for to comforte the sicke person; and, after the time of his passinge, to ringe no more, but one shorte peale, and one before the buriall, and another shorte peale after the buriall.” In ancient days, the bell rang at the hour of passing, whether it happened to be night or day. In the churchwardens’ accounts for the parish of Wolchurch, 1526, appears the following regulation:

“ Item.  The clerke to have for
                tollynge of the passynge belle for
                manne, womanne, or childes, if it
                be in the day ................................  iiijd.
   Item.  If it be in the night, for the
                same .............................................  viijd. ”

Shakespeare’s universal observation led him to make use of the melancholy meaning of the death bell. He says, in the second part of King Henry IV.:

                              “And his tongue
  Sounds ever after as a sullen bell
  Remembered knolling a departing friend.”

The passing bell has a place in the story of the death, in the Tower of London, of Lady Catharine Grey, sister to the unfortunate Lady Jane. The 212 constable of the Tower, Sir Owen Hopton, seeing that the end was approaching, said to Mr. Bokeham: “Were it not best to send to the church, that the bell may be rung?” and Lady Catherine herself, hearing the remark, said to him: “Good Sir Owen, be it so,” and died almost at once, closing her eyes with her own hands. This was in 1567.

The tolling of the passing bell, as such, continued until the time of Charles II., and it was one of the subjects of inquiry in all articles of visitation.

The form of inquiry in the Archdeaconry of Yorke by the churchwardens and sworne-men, in 163—, was: “Whether doth your clark or secton, when any one is passing out of this life, neglect to toll a bell, having notice thereof, or, the party being dead, doth he suffer any more ringing than one short peale, and before his buiral one, and after the same another?” Inquiry was also to be made: “Whether, at the death of any, there be any superstitious ringing?” There is a widespread saying:

“When the bell begins to toll,
  Lord have mercy on the soul.”

Gascoigne, in his “Workes,” 1587, mentions 213 the passing bell in the prefatory lines to a sonnet, he says:

“Alas, loe now I heare the passing bell,
  Which care appoynteth carefully to knowle,
  And in my brest I feele my heart now swell
  To breake the stringes which joynd it to my soule.”

Another instance of the poetic use is to be found in the Rape of Lucrece, by Heywood (1630), where Valerius exclaims: “Nay, if he be dying, as I could wish he were, I’le ring out his funerall peale, and this it is:

Come list and harke, the bell doth towle,
For some but now departing soule.
And was not that some ominous fowle,
The batt, the night-crow, or skreech-owle,
To these I heare the wild woolfe howle,
In this black night that seems to skowle.
All these my black booke shall in-rowle;
For hark, still, still, the bell doth towle
For some but now departing sowle.”

Just a little earlier, Copley, in his “Wits, Fits, and Fancies” (1614), bears evidence to the ringing of the bell while persons were yet alive. A gentleman who lay upon a severe sick bed, heard a passing bell ring out, and thereupon asked his physician: “Tell me, maister Doctor, is yonder musicke for my dancing?” Continuing the subject, he gives an anecdote concerning “The 214 ringing out at the burial.” It is as follows: A rich miser and a beggar were buried in the same churchyard at the same time, “and the belles rung out amaine” for the rich man. The son of the former, fearing the tolling might be thought to be for the beggar instead of his father, hired a trumpeter to stand “all the ringing-while” in the belfry and proclaim between every peal. “Sirres, this next peale is not for R., but for Maister N.,” his father. In the superstitions which gathered round the bells of Christianity, the passing bell was considered to ward off the influence of evil spirits from the departing soul. Grose says: “The passing bell was anciently rung for two purposes: one to bespeak the prayers of all good Christians for a soul just departing; the other to drive away the evil spirits who stood at the bed’s foot and about the house, ready to seize their prey, or at least to molest and terrify the soul in its passage; but, by the ringing of the bell (for Durandus informs us evil spirits are much afraid of bells), they were kept aloof; and the soul, like a hunted hare, gained the start, or had what is by sportsmen called law. Hence, perhaps, exclusive of the additional labour, was occasioned the high price demanded for tolling the greatest 215 bell of the church, for, that being louder, the evil spirits must go farther off to be clear of its sound, by which the poor soul got so much more the start of them; besides, being heard farther off, it would likewise procure the dying man a greater number of prayers.” This dislike of spirits to bells is mentioned in the “Golden Legend,” by Wynkyn de Worde.

Douce takes the driving away of the spirits to be the main object in ringing the passing bell, and draws attention to the woodcuts in the Horæ, which contain the “Service of Dead,” where several devils are represented as waiting in the chamber of the dying man, while the priest is administering extreme unction. Of course, the interpretation that the spirits are waiting to take possession of the soul so soon as disembodied is not necessarily the intentional meaning. Douce concluded his remarks by an observation which has escaped the notice of most of those who have dealt with the subject. He says: “It is to be hoped that this ridiculous custom will never be revived, which has been most probably the cause of sending many a good soul to the other world before its time; nor can the practice of tolling bells for the dead be defended upon any 216 principle of common sense, prayers for the dead being contrary to the articles of our religion.” When the English first began to see the apparent inconsistency of the practice of tolling with their declared religion, the subject gave rise to much controversy. The custom had many apologists, Bishop Hall says: “We call them soul bells, for that they signify the departure of the soul, not for that they help the passage of the soul.” Wheatly says: “Our Church, in imitation of the saints in former ages, calls on the minister and others who are at hand to assist their brother in his last extremity.” Dr. Zouch (1796) says: “The soul bell was tolled before the departure of a person out of life, as a signal for good men to offer up their prayers for the dying. Hence the abuse commenced of praying for the dead.” He cites Douce’s versified letter to Sir Henry Wotton:

“And thicken on you now, as prayers ascend
  To heaven on troops at a good man’s passing bell.”

Fuller, long before this, in 1647, expresses some little indignation at hearing a bell toll after the person had died, as he was thereby cheated into prayer. He observes: “What is this but giving a false alarm to men’s devotion, to make them ready to arm with their prayers for the 217 assistance of such who have already fought the good fight.” Dekker, in an evident reference to the passing bell, calls it “the great capon-bell.”

From the number of strokes being formerly regulated according to circumstances, the hearers might determine the sex and social condition of the dying or dead person. Thus the bell was tolled twice for a woman and thrice for a man. If for a clergyman, as many times as he had orders, and, at the conclusion, a peal on all the bells to distinguish the quality of the person for whom the people are to put up their prayers. In the North of England, are yet rung nine knells for a man, six for a woman, and three for a child.