For centuries, church bells have been used to mark times of death and rejoicing, celebrate great feast days and call the faithful to prayer. Today, the Cathedral’s 16 bells continue to ‘ring the changes’ in the traditional English style, their beautiful sound travelling across the city of Winchester.
When were bells first rung here?
Bells have rung out from the Cathedral since Saxon times. We know that King Cnut gave two bells to the Old Minster where he was buried in 1035, at the heart of his capital city Winchester.
By 1632, seven bells were in place. The great bell was traditionally tolled for prisoners before their execution, right up until the abolition of the death penalty in this country in 1965.
Today, the Cathedral has 16 bells, the oldest dating back to 1621. Taken together, they weigh a staggering 8,341 kilograms (about seven small family cars). The tenor bell that makes the lowest note is the heaviest, weighing 1838 kilograms.
The massive oak frame which holds the bells in place dates from 1734. It still bears the name of the carpenter who made it, John Williams.
How are the bells rung?
The bells are hung in a special chamber in the Cathedral tower, which has louvres to allow their sound to ring out.
Each bell is cast to sound a different note in a scale. They are traditionally numbered from the top note (the treble bell) down to the lowest (the tenor bell). Up to 14 can be rung together as if they were a single instrument.
Church bells can be rung in three ways:
- Chiming – striking the bell with a hammer, for example, to sound the hours
- Tolling – swinging the bell to move its clapper, a technique that can be difficult to control
- Change ringing – swinging each bell in a full circle over itself to produce its note, allowing each ringer to exercise precise timing and control.
This last style, also known as ringing the changes, was developed by English churches in the 17th century, and today can be found all over the world.
Before ringing starts, bells are swung so their mouths face upwards, then pulled to ring in different sequences, producing a rich and complex pattern of sound. The bell-ringers typically stand in a circle around a ringing chamber, each managing one rope for each bell.
Who rings the Cathedral bells? When can I hear them?
Our bell-ringing band has around 25 members who work as a team to create the wonderful sounds you hear today. They are affiliated to the Winchester and Portsmouth Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers.
If you’re in Winchester, you can hear our bell-ringers at work at these times:
- Every Sunday – at 8.45 am and 2.30 pm for about an hour
- Every Wednesday – between 7.30pm and 9.00pm (bell ringing practice)
- On special ringing days at 7.00am – including Ascension Day (40 days after Easter), St Swithun’s Day (15 July) and the Queen’s Official Birthday.
Find out more
Listen to the Cathedral bells
Find out about joining our bell-ringing band
Contact George Medd, Bell Ringers Section Head
Take a Tower Tour
See the bell-ringing chamber and the bells, led by a Cathedral guide