Why the Devil’s Knell is a Christmas tradition in Dewsbury

Dewsbury Minster

Dewsbury Minster

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The ringing of bells are a traditional sound over Christmas - and the people of Dewsbury will be able to hear these 2,015 times on Christmas Eve this year. That is because Dewsbury Minster is honouring a tradition known as the Devil’s Knell.

The tradition began when a local knight flew into a rage after hearing a servant boy had failed to attend Church and threw him into a pond, where he drowned in 1434. The murderer, to atone for his sins, donated a tenor bell and requested that it be rung each year at Christmas Eve.

There is one toll for each year that has passed since the birth of Christ. It signifies the forgiveness of sins.

“It’s a nice tradition, which is symbolic,” said Stephen Parker, organist at Dewsbury Minster. “The last toll should be at midnight.”

The bell ringers will be working hard to produce those 2,015 tolls, which will start at 10.30pm. The Minster will be open for Holy Communion during the ringing of the Devil’s Knell from 11.15pm.

Stephen Parker explains that the tolling of the bells is a skill. “They are seasoned bell ringers,” he said, discussing those who will be involved in the occasion at Dewsbury Minster.

“A lot of people have been trained to ring them. I have had a go. You might think that you just need to pull a bit, but there’s a technique to it.

“There are different bells and different notes for each one. You have to be a more advanced ringer for certain tunes. There is more to it than meets the eye and it is quite physical.”

The tenor bell which was donated by the murderer was known as Black Tom. The bell featured on a 31p stamp, part of a set issued by the Post Office in 1986 – Traditions of England. The inscription on the bell reads ‘I shall be there, if treated just, when they are smouldering in the dust’.

The Bell Tower at Dewsbury Minster has an octave of eight bells. They were recast in 1875 and rehung in 1964.

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