Bells Toll in Honor of HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

As the longest-serving royal consort in British history, HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, provided vital, continuous support to Her Majesty The Queen and the Commonwealth for almost three quarters of a century. His passing at age 99 punctuates a life lived in service to the Crown and the entire United Kingdom.

Preparations for the prince’s death were compiled into a set of protocols and procedures collectively known as Operation Forth Bridge. These established the dissemination of information, national mourning, and funeral plans, and included direction for national bell ringing in honor of the late duke. Over a week, bells tolled to mark the solemn occasion.

Bells announce the time for mourning

Following the statement from Buckingham Palace just after midday Friday (April 9), Westminster Abbey began the tribute to Prince Philip by sounding the tenor bell once every 60 seconds from 6pm local time – 99 tolls in 99 minutes. Tradition dictates that this tenor bell, tuned to the note of D and weighing over 3,300 lbs., should toll following the death of Royal Family members. Further to the north, York Minster also rang out in memory of the duke on Friday. 

These memorials were echoed at noon on Saturday (April 10) by churches across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Cathedrals in Canterbury, Exeter, Worcester, Lichfield, Gloucester, Liverpool, Manchester, and Chichester were just a few of those involved. The somber resonance was followed by a Death Gun Salute, coordinated by the Ministry of Defense.

Bells resound in anticipation of the funeral

The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, the representative body for all who ring bells in the English tradition with rope and wheel, issued guidance to its membership for ringing bells on the day of the funeral (April 17). During this time, many churches and cathedrals opened their doors for people to pay their respects or spend time in personal reflection and prayer.

Under normal circumstances, the event would be marked with a quarter peal on all bells, but COVID restrictions limit the number of ringers in each bell tower to just one (or more, if they are from the same household). Instead, a single bell was sounded resolutely during the hour preceding the funeral. For towers with more than one bell, the heaviest bell or deepest sounding bell was to be rung.

When possible, the sounding bell was to be half-muffled, wherein a leather strap is placed on one side of the clapper. Half muffling creates a poignant, mournful resonance of alternating loud and soft strikes befitting the somber occasion.

The bells at Curfew Tower ring

A quarter hour before the funeral began at St. George’s Chapel on the grounds of Windsor Castle, the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery fired off rounds of minute guns and a piping party from the Royal Navy blew their whistles. The eight bells of Curfew Tower joined the cacophony and echoed the final farewell to Prince Philip. 

Curfew Tower, built between 1227 and 1230, forms part of the defenses of Windsor Castle. Standing over 100 feet tall, the walls are 13 feet thick at the base. In 1477, King Edward IV had a bell and clock built into the tower – timber work from this period is still in use in the ringing room. While it was only meant to be a temporary home for the bells, a tower for St. George’s Chapel never materialized and the bells remained in place. Curfew Tower continues to serve as the belfry of the College of St. George. The current bells date from 1612 to 1898 and only toll for Saints, Royal birthdays, Easter, Christmas, New Year, and other notable occasions.

A prince is laid to rest

At exactly 3:00pm that day, all bells fell silent. Indeed, the nation collectively took a breath and observed one minute of silence at the start of the funeral. Traffic ground to a halt and planes were prevented from landing or departing Heathrow International Airport. While the nation paused, the Duke of Edinburgh was grieved by the Queen and an intimate gathering inside St. George’s Chapel, where he was laid to rest. 

Cover image: Curfew Tower at Windsor Castle.