“The Devil`s Knell will be tolled on Christmas Eve, to finish on the stroke of midnight.” – Dewsbury Minster Church Bulletin
In the Western world, the history of bell-ringing is inextricably linked to the development and spread of Christianity. There are no records at all of bells in the pre-Christian era, and the earliest references to them come from the second century, being used in a Christian context. Bell-ringing can take many forms, but the solemn ringing of the Passing Bell traditionally denoted the death of some significant person, and for all society to take note. In 1624, John Donne warned against sending ‘to know for whom the bell tolls’, since every human death brings the diminishment of humanity as a whole. But there is one funereal peel to which Donne would not have applied this rule, since on Christmas Eve in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, the bells record the demise not of any human, but of Satan himself.
In 1434, a local knight, Thomas de Soothill, flew into a rage upon hearing that a servant boy had failed to attend church that week. He grabbed the boy and, lifting him up, threw him into a mill pond, where the boy drowned. Overwhelmed by remorse at the murder, and as an act of penance, de Soothill paid for a new 1300-weight tenor bell for the parish church (now Dewsbury Minster), asking for it to be tolled at his funeral as people prayed for his soul. Sir Thomas also instituted the practice that the bell (named Black Tom after its benefactor) should be to be rung on Christmas Eve, with one toll for each year of the Christian Era, to proclaim the defeat of evil and the forgiveness of all sins, not just his own. At the time of writing, we are in anno domini (‘year of our Lord’) two thousand and nine, this being, in Christian understanding, the two thousand and ninth Year of Grace since the birth of Jesus.
Dewsbury Minster, like many congregations in the Church of England, celebrates Midnight Mass as the clock ticks from Christmas Eve to the Christ-Mass itself. “The first eucharist of Christmas declares the defeat of evil,” as the church rector says. With this understanding, Tolling the Devil’s Knell should not be seen as a separate ritual but as an extended drum-roll, leading up to the taking of the sacrament. The final toll is timed to take place on the stroke of midnight.
Since Black Tom now has to be rung well over two thousand times before twelve o’clock, the Tolling of the Devil’s Knell has to begin at 10:15pm, with the bell being struck (on average) every three seconds. The Midnight Mass service begins at 11:15pm, but the Knell continues. A scorer keeps tally of the rising number tolled, as seen below in a picture from the 1950s.
The tenor bell, Black Tom, was featured on a 31p stamp in the 1980s, as part of a Royal Mail set called Traditions of England.
Although Christian views on Satan vary, few would suggest that the Devil was actually killed when God was incarnated as a human (in the Nativity – ‘birth’), but that by this event his future defeat was sealed. In this sense, the Tolling of the Devil’s Knell at Dewsbury can be seen as a kind of exercise in goading; reminding Lucifer of his defeat and ultimate doom.
Alternatively, since the ringing of bells (and other assorted noise-making) was often used in Mediaeval times to cleanse a locality of evil spirits, the Dewsbury ritual may well have included such a function, although the alternate name for the ritual – Old Lad’s Passing – seems to indicate the former understanding.
The Knell is not participatory – the bells are rung by the Minster’s own regular team – and is far from a crowd-pleasing spectacle, since there are no accompanying rituals until the service starts.
The inscription on the bell is:
I shall be here if treated just
When they are mouldering in the dust