Blanche Parry

Stedman's story still rings true

Church Bells celebrating the failure of the Gunpowder Plot on the 5th November 1605 did not sound the same as they do today thanks to the Herefordian Fabian Stedman. Our local historian, Ruth E. Richardson, explains why.

On a cold 7th December 1640 Reverend Stedman baptised his second son, Fabian, in the Medieval font of his Church in Yarkhill. In 1553 Yarkhill had had four bells but, today, the oldest dates from 1636. As a small boy Fabian heard this tenor, cast during the ferment of the Civil War by John Finch of Hereford, a founder known for the fine tone of his bells. Its inscription reads: 'Gloria Deo in Excelsis 1636', meaning 'Glory to God in the highest'. This word order, also on a 1636 tenor in Chertsey, reflects Protestant teaching that glory belongs to God alone. It suggests lower–church sympathies as the Church of England and Roman Catholics used 'Gloria in Excelsis Deo'. Fabian's family were also connected to Stoke Lacy where his brother Francis was inducted as Rector in 1660, the year of the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II.

In 1655 the fifteen year old Fabian had gone to London to train as a master–printer. He continued bellringing, joining the Scholars of Cheapside, and became treasurer in 1662. This society rang at St Mary–le–Bow, though the church Fabian knew was destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London. Bow bells had caused Dick Whittington to 'turn again' to London. 'The great bell of Bow' figures in the nursery rhyme 'Oranges and Lemons'. These couplets reflect the sound of each bell and interestingly the tune also reflects change– ringing. Fabian Stedman is considered the Father of Modern Bellringing for he wrote the first two books on change– ringing.

In 1668 he co–authored 'Tintinnalogia', with Richard Duckworth, explaining 'plain and easie Rules for Ringing all sorts of Plain Changes'. In it Fabian described himself 'as a lover of that art '. In 1664 he joined the Ancient College of Youths. Temporarily moving to Cambridge, he was parish clerk at St. Bene't's Church in 1670, reputedly teaching bellringing there. In 1677, the year he became steward to this 'College, he published 'Campanalogia'. Here among numerous methods of bellringing (the art of campanology) he describes the Grandsire Method and his Stedman's Principle. His book was so popular that it was reprinted in the same year. Bells are rung in order with the small tenor first: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5... Change–ringing is the skill of altering the order at each pull of the rope, or sally, to produce a pattern. Fabian's meticulous mathematical ability is demonstrated in his complex, easily remembered and still used methods.

Fabian Stedman became Master of the 'College in 1682. His subsequent success as auditor to the Crown's Customs and Excise indicates administrative and financial skills. He died in 1713 and was buried in the Church of St. Andrew Undershaft in the City of London.

The peal of Church bells is a lovely sound ringing across the countryside for Church Services and Celebrations. England has more than 5,000 bell towers, while the rest of the world shares c.300. Bellringing is predominantly English music. Marvellous, too, for keeping fit–to know more do contact the Hereford Diocesan Guild.

©Ruth E. Richardson 2013

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