From Old Church Lore by William Andrews; William Andrews & Co., The Hull Press; London, 1891; pp. 227-239.

stylized border engraving of birds, vases and interlacing vines [227]

The Curfew Bell.

manuscript letter F EW points of national history have given rise to so much discussion as the facts and inferences connected with what is known as the curfew law. The testimony of the various writers on ancient jurisprudence differs widely as to the period at which the law originated, and yet more widely as to the object and intention of those who imposed it upon the people of England. We will first briefly outline the regulation or custom as we find it under the Normans. At eight in the evening, a bell was rung, the sound of which was the signal for everyone to put out, or rather cover, their fires, extinguish all lights, and go to bed. This was the curfew law, which it has been the custom to regard as a repressive measure adopted by the tyrant Conqueror to prevent seditious meetings of the turbulent Saxons. We “find the 228 name of curfew law employed as a bye-word denoting the most odious tyranny, and historians, poets, and lawyers, speaking of it as the acme of despotism, levelled alone at the vanquished English.” We will endeavour to show that, on the contrary, the law was in existence and force before the Normans trod the conquered fields of Angle-land, and that its intention was to cherish the good of the country by preventing the rise of conflagrations.

Throughout the north of Europe, in monasteries and towns, a bell for covering of fires was in common use; a regulation which reason cannot but approve, for most dwellings, even those of the higher classes, were built, for the greater part, of timber, the Saxon term for building being an expression meaning to “make of wood.” We read that London and other towns were frequently subject to fires. In England, the curfew law is said to have been made an established institution by King Alfred. When that monarch restored the University which had been founded at Oxford by St. Frideswide, he ordained, among other thoughtful regulations, that a bell should be rung every night at eight, when all the inhabitants of Oxford should cover up their fires and go to bed. 229 The intention was not that the fires should be put out, but merely deadened. As Mr. Lomax observes, “The old fires were made in the centre of a large hearth, and the accumulated ashes were swept to the back and sides. At the curfew, the large logs were removed, and the cold ashes raked over the fire so as to cover it. A fire so covered will often keep smouldering for days, and can be re-lighted by adding fuel and admitting air, a most important consideration in the days of tinder-boxes. The same custom is still pursued in the backwoods of America, in the Australian bush, and in our won ‘black country,’ where the great coal fires are ‘raked’ in the old fashion nightly.”

The word curfew is derived form the old French carre-feu or cerre-feu, which afterwards became couvre-feu, and lastly curfew. Each of these terms, meaning to cover fire, indicates the intention; and there was a utensil known as the couvre-feu, a kind of metal cover, somewhat resembling a shield in form, the use of which was to be thrust over the fire when the bell rang. This probably would only be found in the houses of the wealthy.

King Alfred the Great passed away, and all 230 the line of Saxon and Danish monarchs after him; yet probably the curfew, under one or another of its ancient names, was kept up as a national observance in each of their reigns, with more or less laxity. At last the Conqueror came, and after that sanguinary struggle, which had to roughly pave the way for England’s advancement, he set himself the task of governing the people he had overcome.

Metal Cover, with designs on edges and a handle on the top. It is in the shape of two-thirds of a hollowed-out half sphere, the open edge is straight, so would be touch flush with a wall, and covering the ashes over the fire.  It really looks like some ancient helmet, without the visor.


Whether he found the law of the curfew still feebly kept up, or whether it had died out we cannot tell, but we know that two years after the battle of Hastings — in 1068 — he ordered fires to be covered at the ringing of the eight o’clock bell, and the people to retire to rest. He had probably been accustomed to a 231 similar regulation in Normandy; and it is evident the enactment, however more severely enforced than the Saxons had previously experienced, could not have been purposed as a suspicious and contemptuous safeguard against them, for the haughty robbers called nobles were as subject to the curfew as the meanest swineherds they owned. There seems to have been, from an indefinitely early period, a religious service at eight in the evening. When William, after the injuries received by the plunging of his horse as it trod upon hot ashes, lay dying, the vesper bell of a neighbouring church aroused him from the stupor which had gathered round his sinking mind. He asked if he were in England, and if that were the curfew ringing, and on being told he was in “his own Normandy,” and the bell was for evening prayer, he “charged them bid the monks pray for his soul, and remained awhile dull and heavy.” Polydore-Vergil tells us that William, to convert the native ferocity of the people to indolence, ordained that the head of each family should retire to rest at eight in the evening, “having raked the ashes over the fire; and for this purpose a sign should be made through every village, which is even now preserved, and called in the 232 Norman, cover-feu.” Mr. Hutchinson, in his “History of Durham,” speaks of the curfew with great bitterness: he says that William “under severe penalties, prohibited the use of fire or candles when the curfew bell should ring, to prevent associations and conspiracies. This bell was heard by the English as the knell of their departed liberty, and a repeated testimony of slavery.”

We learn from Du Cange, that the ringing of the couvre-feu, ignitegium, or peritegium bell, as it was called in mediæval low Latin, prevailed generally in Europe during the Middle Ages as a precaution against fire; and this fact is alone sufficient to justify William in reviving and extending the law in this country.

Voltaire, in his “Universal History,” ridicules the notion of the curfew being a badge of degradation; he observes that “The law, far from being tyrannical, was only an ancient police, established in almost all the towns of the north, and which had been long preserved in the convents.” And he adds this reason for it: “That the houses were all built of wood, and the fear of fire was one of the most important objects of general police.” Throughout the reigns of 233 William I., and his son, William II., the curfew was rigidly enforced, and, however good its intentions were, the rigour of its administration rendered it increasingly obnoxious. The politic Henry I., in 1103, wisely repealed the enactment, modifying the law, which, however, though not compulsory, “settled into a cherished custom.” Though perhaps no longer as Thomson describes:

“The shiv’ring wretches at the curfew sound
        Dejected sunk into their sordid beds,
  And, through the mournful gloom of ancient times
        Mus’d sad, or dreamt of better.”

Yet the weary yeomen would doubtless for a long time welcome the hour that heralded rest. Certainly the name lingered as a dividing period of the day.

Blackstone says (vol. iv., p. 420) that Henry “abolished the curfew, for though it is mentioned in our laws a full century afterwards, yet it is rather spoken of as a known time of night (so denominated from that abrogated usage) than as a still subsisting custom.”

Chaucer speaks of it as a time of day:

“The dede sleep, for every besinesse,
  Fell on this carpenter, right as I gesse,
  About curfew time, or litel more.”


In the Antiquarian Repertory, vol. i., p. 4, it is stated upon the authority of Monsieur Pasquier, that the ringing of the curfew bell was a custom long established in particular towns in France, and originated, as he supposes, in times of tumult and sedition. But the earliest instance he gives is no farther back than the year 1331, when the city of Laon, which had forfeited its privileges, was reinstated therein by Philip de Valois, who directed that for the future a curfew bell should be rung in a certain tower in that city, at the close of the day. Pasquier adds, that under the reigns of Charles VI. and VII., it came much into use.

We will now glance over the records of the curfew, as found in deeds, enactments, poetry, and tradition, preserving, as nearly as convenient, a sequence of date.

In the second mayoralty of Sir Henry Colet, knight (father of Dean Colet), A.D. 1495, and under his direction, this solemn charge was given to the quest of wardmote in every ward, as it stands printed in the Custumary of London: “Also yf there be anye paryshe clerke that ryngeth crufewe after the curfewe be ronge at Bowe Chyrche, or Saint Brydes Chyrche, or Saint Gyles without Cripelgat, all suche to be 235 presented.” Stow may be regarded as corroborating the statement of curfew usage at the two latter churches.

In Stripe’s edition of Stow, 1721 (vol. i., b. 3, p. 542), speaking of St. Mary-le-Bow, it is stated that “The parish clerk’s office, belonging to this church, was to ring the curfew bell; as it was to be rung at three other churches in London, at a pretty distance from each other. That, so this notice, all the curfew bells in other parishes might be rung in due season, viz., Barking Church, S. Bride’s, and S. Giles’s without Cripplegate.”

In the articles agreed upon and settled in 22 Henry VIII. (1531), for the guidance of the sexton of Faversham, we read: “Imprimis, the sexton, or his sufficient deputy, shall lye in the church steeple; and, at eight o’clock every night, shall ring the curfewe by the space of a quarter of an hour, with such bell as of old time hath been accustomed.”

In the Middle Ages, so much regard was paid to ringing the couvre-feu, that land was occasionally left to pay for it. This feeling appears to have been not altogether extinct, even so late as the close of the sixteenth century, for 236 in Bishop Hall’s “Fourth Satire” occurs the following:

“Who ever gives a paire of velvet shooes
  To th’ Holy Rood, or liberally allowes
  But a new rope to ring the couvre-feu bell,
  But he desires that his great deed may dwell,
  Or graven in the chancel-window glasse,
  Or in his lasting tombe of plated brasse.”

In the churchwardens’ and chamberlains’ accounts of Kingston-on-Thames, occurs the following item:

“1651. For ringing the curfew bell
       for one year ................................ £1  10.”

According to the Hon. Daines Barrington, curfew is written curphour “in an old Scottish poem, published in 1770, with many others, from the MSS. of George Bannatyne, who collected them in the year 1568.” It is observed in the notes which accompany these poems, that, by “Act 144, Parliament 13, James I., this bell was to be rung in boroughs at nine in the evening, and that the hour was afterwards changed to ten, at the solicitation of the wife of James VI.’s favourite, James Stewart. This lends some countenance to what might otherwise seem erroneous in the works of the poets and dramatists. Thus, in the old play of the 237 Merry Devil of Edmonton (1631), the sexton exclaims:

Well, ’tis nine a clocke, ’tis time to ring curfew.”

We fear, however, that Shakespeare cannot be held free from mistake and uncertainty in his fixing of the curfew hour. Thus, in Measure for Measure, the Duke says:

“The best and wholesom’st spirits of the night
  Invellop you, good Provost! Who call’d here o’ late?
  Provost: None since the curfew rang.”

In The Tempest, Prospero says:

                                     “You whose pastime
  Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
  To hear the solemn curfew.”

Again, in Romeo and Juliet, he seems to advance the time still further. Lord Capulet is made to say:

“Come stir, stir, stir, the second cock hath crowed,
  The curphew bell hath rung, ’tis three o’clock.”

In King Lear, we also find the curfew considered a midnight bell: “This is the foul fiend, Flibbertigibbett: he begins at curfew, and walks to the first cock.”

Instances of land being given for the ringing of the bell are at Mapouder, Dorset, where land was given “to find a man to ring the morning and 238 curfew bell throughout the year,” and at Ibberton, in the same county, one acre of land was given for the ringing of the eight o’clock bell, and £4 for ringing the morning bell.

Macaulay, in 1791, says: “The custom of ringing curfew, which is still kept up at Claybrook, had probably obtained without intermission since the days of the Norman conqueror.” In winter, and in flat and dangerous localities, the ringing of the bell in the evening has often been the means of safely guiding and sometimes saving the lives of travellers; and there are instances on record of persons so saved leaving a sum of money for ringing this bell. Such is the story of a bride who, from an English village, stole out to hide, like another Ginevra, from her friends on the wedding day. The place was near a wide moor, and the girl hid awhile among the furze. When she thought to return, to laugh merrily at the anxious groom and guests, she, alas! took a wrong path, and presently found herself lost on the waste. The shades of night and the shrouding snow fell fast, and the bride had well nigh given herself up to despair, when, hark! the curfew bell! Yes, it is the well-known curfew bell solemnly, and O, how sweetly, pealing from 239 the grey old tower, that overshadowed her home. After being guided to that home by the blessed sound, she presented a chime of bells to the church, and, upon her death, years after, it was found she had bequeathed money to keep up the ringing of the curfew bell for ever.

We may here state that we are indebted for some of the information given in this paper to Mr. H. Syer Cuming. He has also kindly favoured us with facts and suggestions for other chapters included in this volume.

The curfew bell may now be said to be one of the things of the past. True, here and there a bell may ring in the evening from the powerful force of old custom, yet all the associations itself are lost; the bell summons us from home, not commands to retire to sleep; the couvre-feu is a rare object of interest in our museums; and now only in the volumes of the poets shall we find that

“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.”