Weird Suffolk: The Devil, East Bergholt and the demon-repelling bells
- Credit: Andrew Partridge
Did the Devil stop building work in East Bergholt? The story of the Suffolk church whose tower was scuppered by Satan
It was believed that church bells were used to dissolve storm clouds, destroy demons, lift or bestow curses, keep evil spirits from tampering with the dead or communicate with God - so it should come as no surprise that the Devil is often keen on sabotaging them.
At East Bergholt, the Devil's work is, it is said, evident in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin.
There, Satan was so perturbed by the sound of the bells ringing out across the village that every time builders tried to construct a tower for them to be housed in, he would creep into the churchyard at the dead of night and destroy the work that had been carried out during the previous day.
Work began on the tower in 1525, but the story has it that the Devil's nifty footwork at night meant that builders eventually lost heart and gave up trying to build towards the heavens, deciding instead to construct a unique timber bellcage in 1531, where the bells are housed to this day.
Another story is that Cardinal Wolsey, who was bankrolling the building work, fell out of favour with Henry VIII - or died, according to another account - and the cash flow dried up.
Regardless of whether it was man or beast that caused the bells to be in their specially-made cage, they are thought to be the heaviest bells that are still rung in England today, weighing more than four tonnes, and rather than bell pulls, they are pushed by hand, not a job for the faint-hearted or weak-armed.
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The cage has been moved since it was first constructed - it once stood on the opposite side of the churchyard but the ringing annoyed a landowner to the point that he insisted that it was repositioned so that the church would muffle the ringing.
In Reminiscences of Manningtree and its Vicinity by Joseph Glass of 1855, a ditty links East Bergholt to naughty Nick: "At Manningtree, when standing on the Quay, part of East Bergholt we can plainly see; though oft its tuneful bells salute the ear, to us its towerless Church does not appear. How strange! Those bells by Satan's dictum bound, are doomed to stay upon the level ground! And these same bells we find from age to age, secured within the limits of a cage. We've lately heard that this affair so strange, the men of former times could not arrange; or build again this stately tower and steeple, from sums required, withheld by selfish people. 'Twas thus, indeed, that Satan lent a hand, to bring this structure to a perfect stand…"
Folklore has it that evil spirits and demons fear bells and their ringing and that they would flee if they heard them - to this end, bells were baptized and blessed and would be rung if a storm was imminent in order to scare away the devils that raised them.
In The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, archbishop of Genoa from around 1483, it is written: "… the evil spirits that be in the region of the air doubt much when they hear the bells ringing; thus the bells are rung when it thunders, or when great tempest and outrages of weather happen; to the end that the fiends and wicked spirits should be abashed and flee, and cease of the moving of tempests."
Many bells are engraved with the sign of the cross to add further strength to their fight against Satan. And in East Bergholt, they are kept close to hand, just in case the Devil decides to pay another visit to Suffolk.