Lady Day is the last day for the ringing of the curfew bell at Chertsey. Manning and Bray’s “The History and Antiquities of Surrey” (c.1811) records that this curfew was rung, at 8pm on weekdays but also on Sunday mornings at 8am on the largest (tenor) bell. However, although the practice of the 8am ringing of the tenor curfew was discontinued, the 8pm week-night ringing is now done by a bell from 1856 rather than the Abbey bell as established obviously to protect this well. The curfew is not now rung on Saturday nights.
Curfew bells were established across the country as has been discussed before, and some counties such as Kent had a number. Often a story about their establishment is told but in this case this appears lost and is replaced by the story of Blanche Heriot.
For whom the bell tolls
The story is based around the time of the War of the Roses, when in 1471, Yorkist King Edward IV retook the throne such that Blanche’s suitor, a Lancastrian Knight, Neville Audrey, having fought against Edward, had now become a traitor. Thus, he sought sanctuary in the Abbey. However, the authorities did not regard this as sanctuary and he was captured and sentenced to death. The execution was by the chiming of the following day’s first toll of the town’s curfew bell.
However, a reprieve was on offer. For the knight remembered that he had saved the life of a Yorkist nobler who grateful for the sparing of his life, that he gave him his signet ring stating he was a moral and honourable character. So, with the ring him hand he sent a rider to reach the king in search of a pardon.
The King did give him a pardon but the distance between London and Chertsey would be a challenge to get the message to the knight’s potential executioners. Legend tells that the rider was a mile away when Blanche decided to climb the abbey’s bell tower and jumped to grab the clapper. The bell was about to ring, but Blanche holding fast muted the sound by preventing it hitting the bell, until the rider appeared with the pardon. Which indeed happened and he was saved.
In 1840, Albert Smith published the story, and it became very popular West End melodrama. The story also inspired American writer Rose Hartwick Thorpe write ‘The Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight’ which was one of Queen Victoria’s favourite poems. Today one can continue to hear the curfews and see a monument erected to re-remember it.