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The Derbyshire Christmas tradition of the Curfew Bell

St Leonard's Church Photo: Richard Bradley
St Leonard's Church Photo: Richard Bradley

Tucked away on the fringes of North East Derbyshire lies the quaint farming village of Scarcliffe, arranged along a main street at the end of which can be found St Leonard’s Church.

Within its Norman-era stone walls you’ll find all the expected trappings of a Christian place of worship, but St Leonard’s reveals additional curiosities: a mysterious statue; a local legend concerning the plight of an elusive lady; and a midwinter custom many hundreds of years old.

For this particular writer, the church holds a personal connection. Here, in 1966, my parents were married.

The practical aspect of this little-known midwinter custom is that each night for three weeks before and after Christmas Day, churchwardens gamely troop out to ring a curfew bell at the church. As for why, we enter the realm of local folklore.

Unlike many folk tales which consist of words passed through generations (either orally or on paper), this has a tangible vestige in the form of a statue - although its presence raises as many questions as it answers.

Believed to date between the 12th – 14th centuries and sculpted from Magnesian limestone, it depicts a woman clutching her little boy protectively in her arms.

The Latin inscription on the tomb informs us the church is the resting place of Constantia alongside her son John, describing her as ‘constant and kind’, who nevertheless committed an unspecified ‘crime’ and has ‘sins heaped upon her head’.

But who was she? Clearly an important personage to be commemorated in this lavish fashion, but the lack of a family name or date of birth, death or any identifying heraldic devices incorporated in the sculpture offer us little to go on.

Whilst no one knows exactly who Constantia was, a little of her story and connection to the church have been passed down through the ages.

Constantia, it is said, had become lost in the surrounding Sherwood Forest whilst out riding with her young son one winter’s night (other tellings have it she was ‘big with child’ at the time).

Great British Life: The bequest board dated 1832 in St Leonard's Church, Scarcliffe Photo: Richard BradleyThe bequest board dated 1832 in St Leonard's Church, Scarcliffe Photo: Richard Bradley

Fatigued and frozen, she had almost given up hope when the sound of the church bell of St Leonard’s guided them back to the safety of the village.

In gratitude she left a bequest of land to the church, the rents from which would go towards providing ale and candles for the bellringers and the upkeep of the roof, enabling the ringing of the bell to be perpetuated for evermore in her memory.

The booklet The Legendary Lady Constantia by Trevor Skirrey, copies of which can be obtained at the church, notes Constantia’s story ‘holds a special fairy-tale like quality and is deeply rooted in the foundations of St. Leonard’s… an intrinsic part of the culture of Scarcliffe’.

Published in 2008, it’s updated by Skirrey from a previous one he put out in 1980 and contains the fruits of further research he has conducted in the intervening years.

He suggests the Constantia buried at Scarcliffe could be the illegitimate daughter of King Henry I - and the 23rd great-grandmother of Princess Diana.

However, the Church Monuments Society is having none of this; scholars Sophie Oosterwijk and Sally Badham scoffing, ‘… a new church guide […] claims rather fancifully that the woman commemorated is Constance ‘FitzHenry’, illegitimate daughter of King Henry I by one of his many mistresses, and ultimately the 23rd grandmother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. A previously unrecognised royal memorial in a village church in rural Derbyshire reads like a fairy-tale and probably is just that’.

My copy of the Derbyshire Guide of 1982 is equally dismissive: ‘The story hardly stands up on any counts, but certainly the curfew continues’.

But don’t try telling this to the people of Scarcliffe, who display a strong proprietary fondness for their nebulous Lady Constantia – so much so St Leonard’s churchwarden Anthony Marriott gave his daughter Amelia ‘Constantia’ as one of her middle names.

For a statue, Constancia has been surprisingly mobile over the years. When Italian historian Francis Bassano visited in 1710, the effigy was by the north wall of the chancel, but when a nearby lancet window was blocked up she was relocated to the south side, where historian of Derbyshire churches John Charles Cox encountered her on his visit in 1860.

Towards the end of the Victorian era Constantia was on the move again to accommodate a new church organ, shunted to the south-east corner of the nave.

When quizzed 57 years after tying the knot, my mum and dad, who do not share my interest in local folklore, were not aware of any kind of curfew bell or folktale and couldn't remember a statue in the church.

It can however be seen in the background in one of their wedding photos, in its previous location by the organ.

Great British Life: The tomb of Lady Constantia Photo: Richard BradleyThe tomb of Lady Constantia Photo: Richard Bradley

The monument was moved to its current location in the north aisle in 2007 as it was becoming badly affected by damp and in danger of being lost entirely.

To quote an email to me from fellow folklorist John Roper, ‘The monument at one stage was moved to a rather damp patch by the organ and the organist would sit there watching bits fall off; they managed to get a grant to repair her and move her to a drier area’.

Funding for the relocation and restoration was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Pilgrim Trust.

Above the monument, a painted wooded board dated 1832 states in elegant gold lettering: ‘Left by the Lady Constantia - Five acres of land, purchased for the purpose of ringing Curfew at Scarcliff [sic] for ever’.

Land in the possession of a John Coupe is mentioned; there are still several people with the unusual surname living in the Bolsover area - indeed my grandad’s mother’s family were Coupes who lived on Bolsover hill, perhaps the John Coupe mentioned is a distant relation?

The word ‘curfew’ derives from the French phrase couvre-feu, meaning 'cover fire' and dates from medieval fire safety practices.

In an era in which buildings were of largely wooden construction there was a great risk of fires spreading from one dwelling to another and quickly engulfing a whole town (as happened during the Great Fire of London).

Therefore, a bell was rung at nighttime to signify to householders it was time to temper their fires; upon hearing it residents would place a ceramic bell-shaped ventilated cover over the hearth to keep flames smouldering in a contained fashion overnight for warmth.

Skirrey’s publication notes the custom is unlikely to have been kept up continuously since Lady Constantia’s time, but a reference in the parish accounts from 1723 for a payment of 5d. for ‘a pound of candles for Curfew’ suggests it has taken place since at least the 18th century.

Scarcliffe now rings the last surviving curfew bell in Derbyshire. I have come across references to them being formerly rung out at Ashford-in-the-Water, Bakewell, Winster, Youlgrave, Chapel-en-le-Frith, Eyam, Wirksworth, Dronfield, Chesterfield and Ilkeston.

At Ilkeston the task was undertaken by local eccentric 'Blind Billy Deverell', who in the 1820s was still ringing the bell in his sixties, taunted by schoolchildren as he went about it.

Following the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, Chesterfield was deemed a suitable location to harbour around 400 French prisoners of war, given its distance inland making it harder for invading French to liberate their countrymen.

During daylight hours the Frenchmen were permitted to travel within a mile of the town centre, but upon the ringing of the curfew bell in the evening they had to make their way back to their billets. Some of the prisoners’ graves can be found in the Crooked Spire churchyard.

The ringing of Chesterfield’s curfew bell prevailed long after the French prisoners departed. A 1910 souvenir brochure to mark the town’s first Shopping Festival noted sadly:

‘Chesterfield is one of the few towns retaining these customs, but each message falls lightly on unheeding ears. The curfew no longer compels the early “lights out,” or does the old shriving bell call the People to Church, on the threshold of the Lenten fast, to confess and be shriven.

Great British Life: Churchwarden Anthony Marriott and ringing captain John Watkins ring the Scarcliffe Curfew Bell, January 2020 Photo: Richard BradleyChurchwarden Anthony Marriott and ringing captain John Watkins ring the Scarcliffe Curfew Bell, January 2020 Photo: Richard Bradley

At St Edmund's Church in Castleton until recent years, a curfew bell was rung between Michaelmas (September 29) and Shrove Tuesday.

Castleton lies nestled amongst challenging terrain and it’s thought the bell may have been established to guide people back to the sanctuary of the village – it was still serving this purpose into the age of the motorcar.

Derbyshire Life was founded in 1931 as Derbyshire Countryside and a 1931 article records the sound of the curfew bell had recently guided a driver and passenger back to Castleton after becoming lost and disorientated in a snow blizzard.

Sadly, it has proved too big a commitment to keep this curfew going as someone has to troop out every night throughout winter and, like many churches, St Edmund's has an ageing population.

The only surviving remnant is that the Reverend Josephine Barnes still rings the Pancake Bell at 11am on Shrove Tuesday, with 50 rings on the tenor bell signalling it’s time to get mixing the pancakes.

Let us hope the bell of St Leonard’s continues to chime out in the winter nights for years to come, Derbyshire's final link to a once-widespread custom of an earlier age.



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