From Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1897; pp. 111-120.




Cursing by Bell, Book, and Candle.


THE origin of the custom of “cursing by bell, book, and candle,” is altogether obscure. There seems to be no ground for believing that it was officially recognised by the Roman Church, and Roman Catholics have gone so far as to say that the tradition is a Protestant fabrication. Others, while admitting its authenticity, say that the practice belongs only to local rituals, and that it was forbidden by the Pope whenever a case was brought before him. However this may be, we have sufficient testimony from mediæval writers to show that it was no mere old wives’ tale, but a very real terror to transgressors; and in a few cases we have accounts still extant of the time, place, and manner of the ceremony.

The late Mr. T. P. Earwaker, F.S.A. (one of the most accomplished and trustworthy archæologists of the time), published in the Manchester Courier (1878) “A curious Lancashire Record” of this 112 rite. Mr. J. Paul Rylands, F.S.A., followed this up by a paper in which he cited many learned authorities bearing on the question; and to his article I am largely indebted for the information I have been able to gather.

Two passages from the “Ingoldsby Legends” will occur to every reader. (1) the occasion on which Pope Gregory was only restrained from calling down a curse on the head of Sir Ingoldsby Bray by the timely atonement of the sinner in the form of substantial gifts to the Church; (2) the Cardinal’s curse, all too thoroughly carried out, on the Jackdaw of Rheims. These can scarcely be looked upon as documentary evidence; but there is thus much of historical interest attaching to the latter legend, that the first known instance in which such sentence was pronounced occurred at Rheims about the year 900.* The culprits were murderers; but it is possible that the incident may have suggested to Barham the locale for his story.

In Shakespeare’s King John (Act 3 Scene iii), Faulconbridge is commanded to hasten to England to collect money for the wars, and responds: —

“Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back,
  When gold and silver becks me to come on.”


Referring to this, Knight quotes from Bishop Bale’s Kynge Johan: —

Pandulph, For as moche as Kyng Johan doth Holy Church
            so handle
  Here I do curse hym wyth crosse, boke, bell, and candle.
  Lyke as this same roode turneth now from me his face,
  So God I requyre to sequester hym of his grace.
  As this boke doth speare by my worke manuall,
  I wyll God to close uppe from hym his benefyttes all.
  As his burnyng flame goeth from this candle in syght,
  I wyll God to put hym from his eternall lyght.
  I take hym from Cryst, and after the sound of this bell,
  Both body and soule I geve hym to the devyll of hell.”

And in Halliwell’s Shakespeare (Vol. VIII., p. 432), the full sentence of excommunication against those who defrauded the church of her dues is quoted from Nares, from the “Canterbury Book.” “The prelate stood in his pulpit in his albe, the cross was lifted up, and the candles lighted, when he proceeded thus: — ‘Thorow authoritie of Lord God Almighty, and our Lady S. Mary, and all the saints of heaven, of angels and archangels, patriarches and prophets, evangelists, apostles, martyrs, confessors, and virgins; also by the power of all holy church, that our Lord Jesu Christ gave to S. Peter, we denounce all those accursed that we have thus reckned to you: and 114 all those that maintaine hem in her§ sins, or given hem hereto either helpe or councell, so that they be departed from God, and all holy church, and that they have noe part of the passion of our Lord Jesu Christ, ne of noe sacraments that been in holy church, ne noe part of the prayers among christen folke, but that they be accursed of God and of holy church, from the sool of their foot unto the crown of their head, sleaping and waking, sitting and standing, in all her words, and in all her workes, and but if they have grace of God for to amend hem here in this life, for to dwell in the pain of hell, for ever withouten end, fiat, fiat. Doe to the book, quench the candle, ring the bell. Amen, Amen.’ ”

Staveley says the curse “was solemnly thundered out once in every quarter; the Fyrst Sonday of Advent at comyng of our Lord Jhesus Cryst; the fyrst Sonday of Lenteen; the Sonday in the Feste of the Trynyte; and Sonday within the Utas (octave) of the blessed Vyrgin our Lady S. Mary.”

Two records are before us of special occasions on which the sentence was pronounced. Of the first of these we have three separate accounts 115 which evidently describe the same ceremony. (1) In Dugdale’s Baronage (1675) it is said that Humphrey, Earl of Essex, was present in the 37th year of Henry III., “when that formal curse was denounced in Westminster Hall against the violation of Magna Charta, with bell, book, and candle.” (2) Holinshed (Vol. II., pp. 428-9) describes how, at the date above mentioned, the Archbishop and thirteen bishops were “re-vested and apparelled in Pontificalibus, with tapers according to the manner; the sentence of excommunication was pronounced against all transgressors of the liberties of the Church and of the ancient liberties and customs of the realm. . . . In the end they threw away their extinct and smoking tapers, saying, ‘So let them be extinguished and sink into the pit of hell which run into the dangers of this Sentence.’” (3) In Dickenson’s “Antiquities of Southwell and of Newark” is reprinted the following extract from a “Forest Book, or collection of the forest laws of Henry III.: —

“In the year of our Lord God MCCLIII, the third ides of May, in the great hall of Westm’ of our Lord the Kynge, in consente and by the 116 assente of noble Lord Kynge Henry, and of Lordes, etc. etc., . . . and by the sufferance of God, the Archbushop of Canterbury, . . . arrayed with our pontificalls, with candles burning in our hands, solempnly declare the sentence of curseinge in all tresspassors and breakers of the Church, . . . and in especiall of the liberties of our Lord the Kynge of his great chatre of the fforeste, in form the followeth, viz.: —

“By the authoritie of the Father and the Sonne and Holy Ghost and of the blessed Virgin S. Mary, and of etc., etc., . . . we accurse, and from the liberties of holie church we sequester and depart all those that from henceforth wittingly and maliciously holie church depriven or spoilen of her rights; also all those that the liberties of the church, and of the chatre of the fforeste conteyned granted by our Lord the Kinge to all Archbushops, and to all other prelates, etc., . . . by any matter, craft, or engin, defile or breake, diminishe or change, privy or assert, in deede or in worde, or in counsell against them, in any pointe. . . . And all those that ignorantly be fallen or do anything, or hurte, in the said premises, and therefore be admonished; but yet 117 thereby with fifteen days after the time of the monition to them had themselfe and correcte, and by the arbitremente of the ordinary of the trepasses done make satisfaccord, from henceforth in this sentence they be involved. Also wee bind knitt in the same sentence, all them that the year of our Lorde the Kynge and of the realme, presume to trouble. . . .”**

The second record is that mentioned above as being copied and published by Mr. Earwaker. The MS. from which he took it had been compiled about 1650, at which date the original document had been in the possession of the Shakerley family.

It tells that a certain Nicholas del Ryland, aged 78, was in possession of lands in Westhoughton; and that his son William had, without his knowledge, made a deed of feoffment to Thomas Stanley Peris of Leigh and Roger of Hulton, and had forged his father’s hand and seal. On Sunday, December 4th, 1474, the said Nicholas came to the parish church of Leigh to disclaim all knowledge of the transaction in the presence of the Vicar of Leigh, many of the principal gentry of the neighbourhood, and the general 118 congregation. And after swearing that he had given no authority to his son to part with any of his ancestral lands, he “kneiled downe under the hand of the seid Viker, . . . and there the seid Viker cursed the seid Nichols if ever he was gilte in the poyntts before reherset wth bokke bell and Candle and there opon the Candel done out. And then the seid Viker p’nounset as acurset all those and ichon be themselfe that were of assent reid and consell wth the seid Willm Rylonds of forging and making the seid forgett deide before rehersett.”

Archbishop Winchelsea’s Sentences of Excommunication (1298) is directed to be “explained in order in English, with bells tolling and candles lighted, that it may cause the greater dread.” And in the Abbey Church at Shrewsbury the figure of a priest is represented on his stone coffin lid with the bell, book, and candle as emblems of his priestly office.

In Fox’s account of the ceremony of excommunication we are told that three candles were carried before the clergy, and that as each candle was extinguished, prayer was made that the souls of malefactors and schismatics might be “given over utterly to the power of the fiend as 119 this candle is now quenched and put out.” The General Curse was abolished by Henry VIII. in 1533.

In “Tristram Shandy” Sterne reprints the sentence of excommunication drawn up by the Sorbonne, a copy of which he asserts to be in the possession of the Dean and Chapter of Rochester. It begins, as do the above, with the names of God and of the saints, through whose authority the sentence is pronounced. The sinner is condemned to eternal separation from the Church, “to be tormented, despised, and delivered over with Dathan and Abiram.” He is cursed “in the house or the stables, the garden or the field, . . . in living, in dying, . . . in eating and drinking, in fasting, in sleeping, in standing, working, resting.” He is cursed “in all the faculties of his body, inwardly and outwardly, . . . unless he repent and make satisfaction.”

“Our armies swore terribly in Flanders,” cried my Uncle Toby, “but nothing to this!”

The late Sir George Bowyer, a zealous Roman Catholic, when I mentioned the question, declared that “the Church never cursed anybody,” and declared that all the popular prejudice came not 120 from history, but from “Tristram Shandy,” and that Sterne had invented it all himself. I do not think such a view can be maintained in the face of the authorities the law quoted, and the Rochester Manuscript seems to be a genuine document.



 *  Encyclopædia of Antiquities (Fosbrooke), Vol. II, p. 687.

 †  Pictorial Shakespeare, Histories, Vol. I., p. 45.

 ‡  them

 §  their.

 ¶  Notes and Queries, 2nd series, Vol. III., p. 439.

**  Notes and Queries, 5th series, Vol. III., p. 501.