There were seven bells at the time of the Cathedral's foundation, and
from the time of the building of the two towers the bells were divided
roughly equally between them. Towards the end of the thirteenth Century
Roger de Ropeford and his family were appointed by the Chapter as hereditary
bellfounders to the Cathedral, but no bells are definitely known to have
been cast by them. The fabric Rolls record that in 1372 one bell was cast
and another recast by Thomas Karoun, who may have been from Gloucester.
The new bell is thought to have been the predecessor of the present 8th
and the recast bell the predecessor of the present 3rd.
There was a thriving bell foundry in medieval Exeter by 1400 and many
of the products of this foundry can still be seen in the West Country
today. The clock bell "Peter" was recast (in Exeter) at the order of Bishop
Courtenay in 1484, and it is almost certain that the founder was Robert
Russell, who was Mayor of Exeter in 1485. Although this bell does not
survive, many by Russell do and are distinguished by having stamps of
coins between their canons. That Russell's "Peter" was a recast is proven
by an entry in the Fabric Rolls from 150 years earlier, which mention
a bell of this name. Also mentioned are bells names 'Mary', 'Trinity'
and 'Grandisson'. The tradition that "Peter" was brought from Llandaff
Cathedral in exchange for four small bells is known to be untrue, and
is likely to have been caused by a scrap bell used in the recasting having
been purchased or exchanged from there.
The first complete list of the Cathedral's bells dates from 1552, and
is found in an inventory made by the Commissioners for Church Good in
1552. This inventory details the "Peter" bell, and four smaller bells
(three of which were broken soon afterwards, and subsequently scrapped)
in the North tower and eight in the South tower, named 'The Eight', 'The
Major', 'Mary', 'Domme', 'Magdalene', 'Trinity', 'B. Stafford's Bell',
and 'Bishop Graundson's Bell'. Estimated weights are given, but the Commissioners
are known to be inaccurate on such matters. However, although the bells
in the South tower formed a diatonic octave in the key of Bb, this was
in the medieval Mixolydian Mode rather than the now ubiquitous Major Mode.
The difference between the two is that in a Mixolydian octave the 2nd
bell is a semitone flatter than it would be in a major octave. Ringers
would call a Mixolydian octave the front eight of a Major twelve.
In 1616 John Birdall, the last owner of the Medieval Exeter foundry,
was commissioned to 'make Tuneable and perfect' the ring in the South
tower. What he did was to add an additional treble bell (the present fourth),
which created a Mixolydian ring of nine in the key of Bb. It is known
that the Chapter were not happy with their Mixolydian ring of nine, and
the main purpose of this augmentation was presumably to enable a Major
ring of six in the key of Eb (the front six of the nine bells) to be rung.
In the same year, Birdall was commissioned to recast "Peter", which had
become cracked on Guy Fawkes' Night, 5th November 1611.
Between 1625 and 1630 Thomas Pennington recast the tenor, seventh and
third bells, and in 1658 his brother John recast the second (this bell
surviving as the present fifth). However, eight years later the bells
were in a sad state of disrepair with the sixth, eighth, tenor and "Peter"
In 1676 Thomas Purdue of Closworth recast the cracked bells and added
a new bell sounding the note a semitone sharp of the 3rd of nine, the
casting of the bells reputedly having taken place in the Chancellor's
garden. This work produced a Major ring of nine with a flat 3rd. It is
interesting to note that one of the 1676 bells, the present 9th, was cast
without canons - an accident caused by the metal running short. Purdue
hung the bell by drilling four holes through its crown and bolting it
to its headstock, but had to sign a bond guaranteeing to recast the bell
if it failed within 20 years. It is an established fact that the bells
were not hung for 'full circle' ringing until 1678; prior to this date
they were hung 'dead rope', which meant that they could only be controlled
at alternate swings.
In 1693 Thomas Purdue, by now working in partnership with his grandson
and successor Thomas Knight, returned to recast the fifth, which had been
unsuccessfully recast by Thomas Pennington III of Exeter. By 1729 more
work was required as the fourth, seventh and tenor were all cracked. William
Evans of Chepstow was asked to recast the cracked bells and make the ring
into a true 'Major' ring of ten. His first plan was to recast the flat
3rd (presumably into a treble), and the 3rd (why is not clear). However,
the Chapter rejected this and ordered him to recast the one small bell
remaining in the North tower into a treble to make a ring of ten. This
he did, in addition to recasting the three cracked bells. It took Evans
two attempts to recast the seventh, but he succeeded at the second attempt
and this bell is the only one of his bells to survive (as the tenth) in
the present ring. The ring thus created consisted of a ring of ten in
Bb Major plus a flat 4th. The flat 4th served no real purpose, and it
is a matter for conjecture why the Chapter insisted on its retention.
However, it proved to be of use when the ring was ultimately augmented
to twelve, as we shall see.
The bells remained as Evans left them until 1902, when a full overhaul
was carried out by Taylor's of Loughborough, who rehung the eleven bells
in a cast iron 'H' frame for thirteen bells. They also provided all new
fittings consisting of cast iron headstocks, plain bearings, traditional
wheels, Hastings stays and runner bars to the ten smaller bells and similar
fittings to the tenor, except that this bell was provided with a headstock
of riveted steel plate construction, the reason for this reputedly being
that at the time Taylor's didn't have a large enough pattern to make one
of cast iron. The bells were all provided with forked top or 'fishtail'
clappers, which were made with thin shafts in an attempt to make the bells
clapper better. These clappers were prone to breakage, and have at various
times all been replaced with SG cast iron units, that to the tenor being
made with a forked top to suit the existing crown staple. As part of the
1902 restoration, Taylor's also recast the 5th and tenor (despite some
opposition to the idea), and tuned the remainder. The tenor was cast half
a ton heavier than was really required at the request of the Cathedral
authorities, who wanted to ensure that the new bell had enough power to
cover the fine 11th properly, which the previous 62 cwt tenor had not
done. Interestingly, the other bell recast at this time (the 5th) was
scaled to match the new tenor, rather than the remainder of the ring.
In 1915 Taylor's recast the treble of ten, which had become cracked.
This was one of the relatively few bells to be cast during the war years,
and its inscription makes reference to this fact. The fittings from the
old bell were all reused on the new. In 1922/3 Taylor's returned to fill
the two vacant pits, thus augmenting the ring to twelve. The two new trebles
were provided with similar fittings to the other bells, except for having
ball bearings instead of plain types, and wrought iron clappers of conventional
design (which survive) instead of fishtail types.. The semitone bell,
now the flat 6th, became of use at this point as by substituting it for
the 6th a lighter Major ring of eight (comprising bells 2-5, 6b, 7-9)
could be rung.
The bells received no further attention until circa 1960, when
Taylor's rehung the back four on ball bearings. In 1979/80 Taylor's cast
and installed a further bell, an extra treble, to create a light ring
of ten. They moved the pits of the treble and 2nd slightly and inserted
a new 'H' frame pit for the new bell, which was provided with fittings
similar to those of the two trebles of twelve.
In 1990 further work was carried out, this time by Whitechapel, when
the tenor was rehung on a new cast iron headstock (which weighs 15 cwt!).
The bearings fitted to the old headstock had partially collapsed, and
larger ones were fitted to the new to prevent a recurrence of this problem.
The existing Hastings stay mechanism was reused on the new headstock At
the same time the bearings of the treble, 2nd, 9th, 10th and 11th were
overhauled and bells 3-8 and the flat 6th were rehung with new gudgeons
and ball bearings. Following the completion of the work a service of dedication
was held in the bellchamber, with the Dean presiding from the platform
overlooking the tenor.
Since then the bells have had no major attention. They are an extremely
fine sounding ring of twelve but some of them, particularly the tenor,
are still quite challenging to ring. The tenor is often rung 'double handed',
and ringing it to a peal without a strapper is still regarded as a considerable