This year, the bells of the Norman Tower will ring out on the eve of St Edmund’s Day (the evening of 19 November) for the first time in centuries. From the earliest days of Christianity, the Church has begun its celebration of feast days on the evening before (a practice derived from Judaism), giving rise to the existence of ‘vigils’ attached to all of the major feasts (the common practise of Midnight Mass on 24 December is an example of a surviving vigil).
In medieval England, the Feast of St Edmund on 20 November was one of the most important feasts of the years, when everyone was expected to attend church. In Bury St Edmunds, the arrival of the feast at dusk on 19 November was celebrated by the ringing of bells. Francis Young describes the original tradition in his book The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds: History, Legacy and Discovery (2016):
Celebration of the Feast of St Edmund
Celebration of the Feast of St Edmund was, naturally, the high point of Abbey’s calendar. It began at dusk on 19 November – the Vigil of St Edmund – with the ringing, at dusk, of the holy-water bell. ‘Gabriel’, the cemetery or ‘thunderstorm bell’ then joined in, followed by the bells of St Mary’s, St James’s (probably in the Norman Tower) and St Margaret’s; then the younger monks, stationed in the great belfry above the Abbey Church, gave the signal for all the bells to be rung in a fourth peal, in which a Haut-et-cler bell rose above all the others, giving this peal the nickname le glas, ‘the clear one’.
The Norman Tower
Bury’s great abbey church is long since gone, but two of the other medieval churches still remain, and just as it was in the Middle Ages, the Norman Tower remains the belfry of St James’s church (now St Edmundsbury Cathedral). The revival of this bell-ringing tradition should underline the importance of St Edmund’s Day for the town and, hopefully, create a real buzz for our patron saint’s day on 20 November.