Curfew Bell

Jan 20, 2023 0 comments

Nearly every medieval house in Europe used to have an open hearth where a fire was kept going at all times to keep the occupants warm, and also to bake and cook food. The hearth was an integral part of a home and usually placed centrally so that family members could huddle around it during winter. Despite being such an important feature of the house, the hearth posed serious risk of fire, because most dwellings, even those of the higher classes, were built of timber. In order to prevent fire in an unattended hearth from going out of control and accidentally setting a house on fire, people were encouraged to cover the fire with ash or a metal utensil before retiring for the night. To remind people of this crucial step, churches began to ring a bell at a predetermined hour in the evening. This was known as the curfew bell.

A curfew bell in Leadhills, Lanarkshire, Scotland. Photo: Rosser1954/Wikimedia

The curfew law is said to have been first established by King Alfred the Great in the 9th century as a precautionary measure to prevent the rise of destructive conflagrations. The intention was not to put the fire out completely, but merely deaden it. At the sound of the curfew bell, the burning logs were removed and cold ashes were raked over the fire so as to cover it. A fire so covered will often keep smoldering for days giving warmth, and can be easily reignited the next morning by merely adding some logs back and allowing air to vent through the ashes.

After William the Conqueror invaded England, he found the curfew law a convenient tool to keep the Anglo-Saxons in check. By prohibiting the use of live fires after the curfew bell was rung, William found he could prevent rebellious forces from moving around at night, making associations and organizing conspiracies.

“Between the evening twilight and the grayness before dawn one can hardly make out the walls of the houses, for there is no lighting in the medieval city as we said,” wrote Arsenio Frugoni in A Day in a Medieval City. “In the evening the entrances to the dangerous neighborhoods are barred, chains are stretched across the river to prevent a surprise attack from barbarian raiders coming upstream, and the city gates are locked tight. The city is like one big household, with everything well secured.”

A medieval open hearth. Photo:

The word curfew originates from the old French carre-feu or cerre-feu, which later evolved into couvre-feu in the Norman language after the conquering of the English. Each of these terms mean “to cover fire”. There was even a utensil known as the couvre-feu, a sort of shield that was covered over the fire when the bell rang. It was normally only found in houses of the well-to-do.

During King William I and William II’s rule, the curfew was imposed strictly. But William II’s successor Henry I relaxed the curfew and the absolute prohibition of lights after the ringing of the curfew bell was abolished. The practice of tolling a bell at a fixed hour in the evening, however, survived and was continued well into the 19th century in many British towns and cities, especially in the north of England. Although by then it had ceased to have any legal status. The tradition is still practiced in the town of Sandwich, Kent, where a curfew bell known as the “Pig Bell” is rung at 8 PM every evening at St Peter's Church. At Ruthin in Denbighshire, the custom lapsed in the 1970s but was revived in 2020 after the bells of St Peter's Church were restored.

Couvre-feu used for covering a fire. Photo: William Andrews

# William Andrews, Old Church Lore


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