Our Favourite Archaeology in Suffolk – Bellcage at East Bergholt

Photograph of Bellcage

Featured Image: Bellcage located in the Churchyard. Source: Copyright Historic England

We continue with our blog series showcasing some of our favourite archaeology in Suffolk. This week, we visit a unique bellcage in East Bergholt with Abby.

Abby is a Senior Archaeological Officer and has been with the team since 2008. She is currently on secondment with Historic England, but day to day she usually provides archaeological advice in relation to the planning process. She works mainly on towns, churches and larger housing and infrastructure projects, and also gives advice on Local and Neighbourhood plans.

As James said in the first blog of the series, the best thing about working in Suffolk is the county’s vast and varied heritage. So it’s hard to pick, but I’ve chosen the  bellcage at East Bergholt which is thought to date to the 16th century. This is because it reflects my interests in historical archaeology and buildings, and also my hobby of church bell-ringing!

The bellcage is listed at Grade II* on the National Heritage List for England. It is timber framed with a pyramid roof and it houses a bell frame. There are bell frames in many of Suffolk’s churches, but this one is at ground level, which means you can see bells arranged as they would be in a tower without the need for a climb. The bells are all of different dates, and the earliest, dating to around 1450, is inscribed ‘Hecce Gabreelis Sonat hec campana fidelis’. This translates as ‘here sounds the bell of faithful Gabriel’. It was believed that bells could be heard directly by saints, and medieval bells are often dedicated to Gabriel, the messenger.

The bells are in the cage due to an accident of history because the church tower was never finished. All that stands is the base, dated 1525. Simon’s Suffolk Churches notes that towers at nearby Dedham and Stratford St Mary were raised in the early 16th century, but that East Bergholt’s was not finished, although it would have been a sizeable tower had it been completed.  Grand designs were also planned for the chancel. Many medieval churches changed through time. They were added to, expanded, or altered as patrons and donors sought to glorify them, in the hope of commemoration and spiritual reward. However, the impressive works at East Bergholt were begun on the brink of the Reformation, which came in the 1530s. Perhaps, as Simon comments, they weren’t finished because of a local change in attitude to investing in church buildings, or perhaps because of a loss of wealth, maybe through re-direction to the crown.  

Photograph of the exterior of the Church
Church of St Mary, East Bergholt. Source: Copyright Stuart Shepherd

The bellcage at East Bergholt was most likely intended as a temporary house for the bells during construction, and it is a relatively rare survival of what might have been a more common sight, given the amount of building and rebuilding at churches. There are some other examples, including one for two bells at Wrabness, in Essex.

What is completely unique is the way that East Bergholt’s bells are rung. They are swung through almost 360o in the same manner that bells in a tower would be rung using a rope and wheel, but all by hand – check out this YouTube video of bell-ringing at East Bergholt.  The bells are loud, and the cage was likely moved in the 18th century from the east side of the church, at the request of Joseph Chaplin of the neighbouring Old Hall.

The bell cage and incomplete tower represent a point in time, but what also appeals to me is the resourcefulness which has meant that the temporary set-up has lasted for centuries.

Photograph of bells inside the bellcage
The famous Bell House at East Bergholt. Pevsner says “a unique piece, built probably when the plan for the west tower had been given up”.

Find Out More:

You can see the bell cage in the churchyard. The church website has further information on the bells, including ringing times https://eastbergholt-bells.org.uk/

More information can be found in articles in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History,  ‘Dedham meeting’ (1878) and ‘East Bergholt Church’ (1909).

More images can be seen in Historic England’s archive.

Further details on the East Bergholt area can be found on the Heritage Explorer.

East Bergholt parish includes Flatford which was made famous by John Constable’s The Haywain (now owned by the National Trust), and a visit to both makes a good trip.   

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