Priston church possesses seven bells in all. Inscriptions on six of the bells include the date of manufacture, but dating the oldest bell, which is fixed and no longer rung, is more difficult.
John Wilkinson’s item in Our Millennium Book states that “experts think it was the work of Robert Hendley of Gloucester” and gives a date of 1450-1500.
The inscription on the bell reads as follows:
HELPOVS ANDRV VVE BIDDITHYE EVREBY FOR YE TRINITE
In modern English this probably translates as “Help Us (Saint) Andrew we bid you, ever/hereby for the Trinity”. There is an initial cross, with words then separated by a crown symbol. The initial cross and lettering are of a very intricate design. The wording features the use of internal rhyme - ye/Trinite. - kown as Leonine verse.
H.W.Hammond (son of the then Priston rector John Hammond), writing in The Ecclesiologist magazine of 1866, suggests that the inscription is a chronogram ie contains a date in coded form [see article].
If one takes the letters from the inscription which qualify as Roman numerals then:
HELP O VS ANDRVV VE BIDDITH YE EVREBY FOR YE TRINITE
= LVDVVVIDDIVII = (reordered) DDDVVVVVIIII
(or 1569 if one ignores the VV that makes the W in WE).
This could help explain the bizarre spelling in the inscription, although spelling was erratic at this time, and the chronogram could just be a coincidence (=802).
A noted bell expert of the time, H.T.Ellacombe, writing in the same magazine[see article] recognises the fine initial cross and lettering of the inscription as having been used by Robert Norton of Exeter, who was active in the reign of Henry VI (1422-6, 1470-71). However Norton's name stamp is not used and because the inscription is in English rather than Latin, he agrees with Hammond that the bell must date from after the Reformation (c. 1530 onwards) and suggests that Norton’s stamps were passed down to another bell-founder – a common practice.
Dedications to saints were politically unwelcome after the Reformation, but Hammond suggests that the reference to St. Andrew may have been a hang-over from the reign of the catholic Queen Mary I (1553-1558). However Ellacombe writing later in 1875 in The Church Bells of Somerset seems to have changed his mind, and considered the bell to be pre-Reformation because of the reference to the saint
While the evidence is conflicting, it seems quite possible that the date derived from the chronogram of 1569/79 is correct, rather than the 1450-1500 date range previously identified.
Whatever the answer, following the trail reveals a time when using the wrong language or invoking saints could land one in considerable trouble, and shows us how there may be more to inscriptions than immediately meets the eye.
Thanks to John Wilkinson for his assistance.