The curious case of Lincoln’s curfew chimes

In a city as old as Lincoln, sometimes the history, and the great stories it tells, don’t need to be seen, but rather heard. Such is the curious case of the curfew bells of the cathedral, seemingly for no reason at all.

The ringing of the curfew began at Lincoln Cathedral with its original foundation, and according to cathedral financial records, it has continued unhindered for nearly a thousand years. Every evening at 8pm in the summer and 6pm in the winter, the two bells of St. Mary’s Tower (the NW tower) toll 101 times: the first bell ringing 101 times minus the day of the month (for example, on the 30th of the month it would ring 71 times), and the second following it ringing the 30 remaining.

This is despite the fact that the law with which the bells complied was abolished some 910 years ago, in 1103. Why then, are the bells rung and why so many times — after all, 101 is an oddly specific number? And what was the point of a curfew to begin with?

The history of the curfew laws of medieval England can be traced back to the Saxon king Alfred the Great, who in 872 was first recorded having issued a decree ordering a curfew in Oxford, though there is anecdotal evidence of curfews having been utilized by the Anglo-Saxons as far back as the 6th century. The rationale behind the curfew was to help alleviate the possibility of late night sedition amongst the populace, as well as to reduce the number of unattended fires and therefore the risk of a serious blaze razing the city.

The Saxon custom of the localised curfew was, however, greatly expanded under the Norman kings William I and II, who, fearing revolt on a much grander level, made the curfew law one which covered all of England. Besides ensuring that fires were snuffed out (the Normans actually provided the term for curfew, as it is an anglicised form of the French ‘couvre feu’ or ‘cover the fire’) the law was essentially a means of controlling the populace, particularly in the North, who the Normans thought were more prone to uprisings.

Upon the sounding of the bell, the populace of the city were required to put out their fires and go to sleep. It should be noted, of course, that this law applied only to the lower classes, as the nobility and the wealthy were allowed to continue with their business unmolested; keeping it in line with the general medieval sense of equality and fairness. Eventually, with the threat of localized rebellion diminished, the law was repealed (the sources say ‘justly’) by Henry I, in 1103.

Now, I know you are probably saying, ‘the history of the curfew is all well and good, but if it was repealed why does Lincoln still ring it? And, what about the 101 rings each night and the significance behind that? The answer to the first of those queries is rather simple: it is still rung because of tradition. The meaning of the 101 tolls, however, is slightly more confusing.

In order to explain the significance of the number of times the curfew bells are sounded each night, it is first important to note the power of the medieval Bishops of Lincoln and the scope of their diocese. The original size of the diocese of Lincoln was far greater than today, stretching from the Humber to the Thames and as far west as Oxford, which was at the time becoming an important European centre for learning.

Many of the Bishops of Lincoln took great interest in the growth of the university, such as Robert Grosseteste, who taught theology there (and may have been Chancellor); Richard Fleming, who, in 1427, founded the ‘College of the Blessed Mary and All Saints, Lincoln’ at the university, and John Longland, who was confessor to Henry VIII and also at the same time Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

It is this close link between the Bishops of Lincoln and the University of Oxford, particularly John Longland, which helps to explain the significance of 101. During his reign, Henry VII authorized the expansion of Christ Church, Oxford to 101 students. Further, when the curfew bell is rung at the University of Oxford to close the gates of all the colleges at 9.05pm each evening, since 1664 (it was changed at the behest of one William Thurston) it has tolled 101 times. It should also be noted that the bell used to sound the curfew at Oxford is coincidentally called ‘Great Tom’: much like Lincoln’s famous bell.

The curfew bells of Lincoln help to illustrate an important period in learning, when the bishops (and by proxy the city) of Lincoln was helping to shape the future of education in the country. Perhaps, then, with the growth of Bishop Grosseteste University and the continued rise up the league tables of the University of Lincoln, the curfew bells are more than just an antiquated tradition, but rather help provide an unintended link between Lincoln’s role in education: past, present and future.