What Is a Bourdon Bell?

The bourdon bell is the heaviest bell within a carillon or chime. Consequently, it sounds the lowest tone or note of the instrument. Similarly, within a ring of peal bells, the heaviest bell is called the tenor.

Bourdon bells may serve many functions within the bell tower. Not only do bourdons lend their sonorous, bellowing tones to a musical repertoire, they also frequently sound the hour. When you count “one, two, three…” to tally the strikes that denote the hour, you are likely hearing the bourdon bell.

Because of their deep, plangent resonance, bourdon bells are typically sounded as a mark of respect at funerals. When Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States, died in 2004, a state funeral was held at Washington National Cathedral. Following a ceremony that included a eulogy by U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the 12-ton (24,000-lb.) bourdon bell tolled 40 times as the casket departed for Andrews Air Force Base en route to burial in California. 

In 2019, that same bourdon sounded again in solidarity with other English churches and cathedrals of the Anglican Communion, following the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington National Cathedral’s bourdon bell sounded each time the nation reached another grim milestone of an additional 100,000 dead.

The bourdon within the 74-bell Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon at Riverside Church in New York City is the largest carillon bell ever cast. Installed in 1925, the bourdon is tuned to low C and has a diameter of over 10 feet. It weighs 20 tons or 40,000 lbs. The size of the bourdon typically aligns with the prestige of the carillon instrument. 

Famous Bourdon Bells

Bourdon bells often become a tangible piece of a nation’s identity and cultural heritage, with a significance that resonates across centuries. We’ve gathered a few of the notable bourdon bells hanging in some of the most magnificent bell towers in Europe: Emmanuel, Great Paul, Petersglocke, and Pummerin bourdon bells.


Bourdon bell Emmanuel in the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral

Image: The bourdon bell Emmanuel in the south bell tower of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris.

A bourdon bell has hung in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris since at least the 15th century. At the request of King Louis XIV, the bourdon was recast in 1681. He named it Emmanuel. Widely considered one of the most pleasant-sounding bells in Europe, Emmanuel rings in F sharp. 

The bourdon survived the French Revolution of the early 1790s, when the cathedral’s other bells were removed from the tower, broken, and smelted for revolutionary armament. Emmanuel was preserved and, by order of Napoleon I, was lifted back into the south bell tower in 1802.

Emmanuel has sounded to mark the coronation of kings and when peace was announced after World War I and World War II. The bell continues its service to the nation, having emerged unscathed from the devastating cathedral fire of 2019. Emmanuel rings during major religious celebrations, papal visits, state funerals, and commemorations. In solidarity with the United States, it resounded in mourning following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Great Paul

Bourdon bell Great Paul travels from the bell foundry to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London

Image: A specially constructed trolley transports Great Paul from the foundry in Loughborough to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Courtesy: John Taylor and Co. Bell Foundry.

Weighing 16.7 tons and with a diameter exceeding 11 feet, Great Paul (the bourdon bell in the southwest tower of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London) is the largest bell ever cast in the British Isles. Within the U.K., Great Paul is surpassed in weight only by the Olympic Bell, cast in the Netherlands for the 2012 London Games, which is currently not hung for ringing.

Maneuvering Great Paul from the foundry in Loughborough to London was no small challenge. After a brief period of public viewing at the foundry over Christmas week 1881, the bell had to get moving. But how? Because of its size, transporting by train would require shutting down the rails to all other traffic. Bridges and tunnels would also be an impediment. One man suggested a team of elephants to drag the bourdon through the streets. It was ruled out only because elephants were so hard to come by.

The team instead constructed a custom-built, steam-powered trolley. The journey took 11 days. After a century and a half, Great Paul remains in faithful service over the British capital. After repairing a broken chiming mechanism that had kept the bell quiet for the better part of 15 years, the bourdon resounded back to life on July 31, 2021.


Bourdon Bell Petersglocke in Cologne Cathedral

Image: The bourdon bell Petersglocke in the south tower of Cologne Cathedral.

With a clapper alone that weighs three quarters of a ton, Petersglocke or Saint Peter's bell is a commanding presence in the south tower of Cologne Cathedral. The bourdon was cast in 1923 to a diameter of 10 ft. 7 in. by Heinrich Ulrich. It weighs over 26 tons or 53,000 lbs. and remains the second largest freely swinging and actively ringing bell in the world.

Before Petersglocke, the 1873 Emperor’s Bell (sometimes called Gloriosa) had hung in the cathedral. It was over three tons heavier than Petersglocke, but the nation’s insatiable demand for war materials saw the bell melted down in 1918. Good riddance, many said, as the bell had a reputation for inadequate sound quality and tone. When Petersglocke was cast five years later, the bell founder demanded payment in U.S. dollars ($5,000), because of the hyper-inflated German mark.

Petersglocke has not been without its own drama throughout the bell’s short 100-year life. In 1951, a three-and-a-half-foot-long crack was discovered on the bell, which wasn’t repaired until 5 years later. In 2011, the clapper (which had been incorrectly reinstalled during the 1950s repairs) snapped in half, dropping to the floor below and triggering the cathedral’s four earthquake sensors.


New Pummerin Bell After Casting at the Bell Foundry

Image: Heinrich Gleißner (right), governor of Upper Austria, visits St. Florian's Bell Foundry in 1951 to inspect the New Pummerin bourdon bell with foundry employees. The governor had been deposed after the annexation of Austria to the German Reich and imprisoned several times in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps between 1939 and 1940, followed by a forced stay in Berlin. After the restoration of the Republic of Austria, Mr. Gleißner resumed his governorship and went on to hold the longest term of office of any Austrian governor. Courtesy: Angerbauer Collection.

High up in the belfry of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, witness to some of the most consequential events in Habsburg and Austrian history, hangs the Pummerin bell – the third largest swinging bell in Europe. To be more precise, there have been two Pummerin bells. 

The first, aptly named Old Pummerin, was cast from 208 smelted cannons captured during the Second Turkish Siege of Vienna. The bell was lifted into the south tower of the cathedral and rang for the first time on January 26, 1712, as Charles VI entered the city following his coronation as Emperor. But there was a design flaw.

The extraordinarily heavy bell required 16 men, pulling for a quarter hour, to swing the bell wide enough for the clapper to strike. The momentum created by the swinging bell destabilized the tower and, in 1878, it was ordered that only the clapper should be pulled so that the bell could remain motionless.

It continued in this manner until Easter 1937, the last time Old Pummerin sounded. War-time looters, storming nearby shops, ignited a fire that raced into the bell tower on April 12, 1945. The wooden supports gave out and Old Pummerin, along with three other large bells, dropped into the stone floor below and shattered.

After the war, a new bell was cast, arriving in Vienna in April 1952. Officially named for St. Mary, but colloquially called New Pummerin, the new 22-ton (44,380-lb.) bourdon was cast from the remnants of Old Pummerin. Standing over 9 ft. tall, the bell is crowned with a canon that is replicated from Old Pummerin: a ring of faces resembling the Turkish invaders.

It was lifted into the shorter (but sturdier) north tower and reinstalled as a traditional swinging bell, where it continues to ring for special occasions throughout the year. To mark the New Year, the ringing bell is broadcast on television, followed by a performance of Austria’s favorite waltz: The Blue Danube.

A Note on Sub-Bourdon Bells

Sometimes, a bell within a bell tower will not fit the sequential order of notes on the carillon instrument. A carillon, much like a piano keyboard, is composed of semitones or half steps (whole tones separated by sharps and flats). Bells separated from the next higher note by more than two semitones are called sub-bourdons. 

Sub-bourdon bells are deeper, heavier, and – while they might be sounded in music or repertoire – likely owe their placement in the tower to a generous benefactor who wanted to donate an impressively large bell, or to the merging of two carillons, or to the preservation of an old and historically-important bell. These bells are often called upon even when the carillon is not being played, as swinging bells or to chime the hour.

Cover image: The carillon bells at Washington National Cathedral, with the instrument's 12-ton (24,000-lb.) bourdon bell in the foreground.