The Story of Great Dunstan and the Arundel Tower of Canterbury Cathedral

Richard C. Offen, 1981

Photo RCO Dunstan, along with Augustine and Alphege, is probably the best known of our pre-Norman Archbishops of Canterbury. He was a remarkable man who, after becoming a monk at Glastonbury, set about reforming monastic life in England, which had fallen' into a state of disorganisation. Dunstan was not only a great churchman, but a statesman also, acting as minister and treasurer to the kings of Wessex. He was also responsible for the founding and refounding of many of our greatest abbeys.

Dunstan was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 959 - an office which he held for nearly thirty years. He was a very talented man, who is said to have been a fine scribe and illuminator, a skilled musician with an excellent voice and a very dextrous metalworker. Bell founding was another of his talents and he is said to have cast bells for Abingdon Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral.

In view of his association with Canterbury and his canonisation, it is not really surprising that there has been a bell in Canterbury Cathedral dedicated to St. Dunstan for many centuries.


The first Bell Dunstan was given by Prior Hathbrand in 1343 and was hung, with five others, in the Cathedral's Campanile, which was situated to the South-East of the main building. On 23rd May, 1383, a great earthquake rocked the South-East of England, causing the fall of the Campanile and the destruction of three of its bells, among them St. Dunstan. Following the tower's reconstruction, the three sound bells plus two new ones were hung. Whether one of these was dedicated to Dunstan is not known.

Impression of the Campanile


During the first quarter of the 15th century, the South-West tower was rebuilt by Archbishop Henry Chichele. Because of the Archbishop's connections with Oxford (he was born there) the tower, which had formerly been known as the St. George's Tower, was renamed the 'Oxford Tower'. In 1430 Prior Molash for this tower presented a large bell. This great bell was cast in London, but had to wait almost 30 years on the floor of the Nave before being dedicated to St. Dunstan in June, 1459. This

delay was presumably caused by the incomplete state of the new tower.

Like many bells of the period, the fortunes of the new Dunstan were less than good and after only 40 years use the bell had to be recast; by John Bayle, in 1499. From this time on Dunstan seems to have been hung on the roof of the Oxford Tower, the position where its successors have been for nearly 500 years.


Because of its status as the Archbishop's church, Canterbury Cathedral survived the reformation intact, as did Great Dunstan. The next item in the great bell's history is the recasting by Michael Darbie, of Stepney, in 1663. The Treasury records for that year show the bell as weighing, 62-1-5. The new bell only lasted 21 years, for in 1684 Christopher Hodson, who is quoted as adding 16 cwt. of metal, again recast it, this time. As the weight of the new bell is recorded as C 69-3-5, we' can only assume that much of the new metal was waste.

Some time during the 1750's Dunstan again became cracked. The cause of the crack being the use of a hammer to toll the bell! In 1758 an attempt was made to solder the bell, but to no avail. In the book "Walk in and Around the City of Canterbury", written by Mr. Gostling in the 1770's, it is stated that, "a great deal of rubbifh was hoifted up the bell-loft to prevent the danger of fire. The experiment failed '(soldering the bell), and the rubbifh was thrown down on the weft fide; this demolifed the keyftone of the great window..."

The soldering not having been successful, Lester and Pack of Whitechapel were commissioned to recast the bell in 1762. The work was undertaken by William Chapman, who was the firm's head moulder and, later, a partner. The invoices for the work are still in the Cathedral Archives and make very interesting reading.

Work on Dunstan commenced in the middle of September; the Cathedral's carpenter cutting a hole in the roof to allow' Dunstan to pass. The work of dismantling the ring of eight, necessary to allow Dunstan passage through the tower, and the lowering of the great bell was undertaken by John Potter, a well known bell hanger of the period. Once safely on the ground the work of recasting could start, this probably being done in the Cathedral Plummery, by coincidence, hard by the site of the old Campanile. Whilst preparing for the casting, William Chapman noticed a young man taking a greater than 'usual interest in the process; this man was William Mears, who later became owner of the famous Whitechapel firm.

The bell was cast on the morning of 3rd October and after being left to cool for over two weeks, was cleaned ready for hoisting into the tower. The hoisting was carried out under the direction of Potter, the entry on his invoice reading as follows:

"23 Oct. For one day self 3 men. Helping up ye Great Bell lOs-4d."

The Cathedral work staff also supplied labour for this job, which must have been a major operation. After hanging Dunstan, Mr. Potter turned his attentions to the ring of eight below, which he rehung with partly new fittings; the total cost of his work was 13-li s-6d.

An entry in the Treasury Accounts shows that 1894s-6d was paid to Thomas Lester for his firm's work. We also find that 88-i 3s-OOd was paid for a new clock and quarter chimes (a ting tang'), this new clock being made "to strike on the great bell" - was this the first time that Dunstan had been used as an hour bell?

The only other work to be carried out at the top of the Oxford Tower was in 1892, when Mr. S. B. Gostling rehung Dunstan on a new steel girder headstock. So Dunstan remained, sounding the hours and being clocked as a death knell, until the beginning of this year.

Great Dunstan as it hangs today


We now turn our attention to the North-West tower of the Cathedral. This was first built in about 1170 by Archbishop Lanfranc (the first Norman Archbishop), who was rebuilding the entire Cathedral following the disastrous fire of 1067 which had razed the building to the ground. The tower seems to have remained vacant until 1316 when Prior Henry of Eastry rebuilt the upper storey and supplied a lead covered steeple surmounted by a weather cock. After this addition the tower became known as the 'Cock Steeple'. Prior Henry also supplied four bells, one of which was used to summon Chapter; this bell was later transferred to the central tower and, because of the name of its donor, became known as 'Bell Harry'

In about 1440 work started on rebuilding the central tower. This work necessitated the removal of the ring of five bells, given by Archbishop Arundel. The ring was transferred to the 'Cock Steeple', which then became known as the 'Arundel Steeple'. The ring, augmented, to six and, with many recastings, remained in use until the beginning of the 18th century. In 1703 the tower was struck by lightning, thus rendering it unsafe, the spire was removed in 1705 and by 1718 four of the bells were reported as cracked. In 1726 the bells were taken down by Samuel Knight of Holborn, who cast a new ring of eight from the metal, this new ring being hung in the Oxford Tower.

The Arundel Tower remained in a derelict condition for upward of a 100 years. By 1824 some concern was being shown about its condition and a London architect was called in to prepare a report upon it. It is interesting to note that the' architect felt that the tower

was capable and worthy of restoration - such a respect for antiquity was well in advance of its time! Ignoring this report, the Dean and Chapter decided to pull down the old tower and rebuild it from the foundations. For this purpose an Act of Parliament was obtained, by which the Dean and Chapter were empowered to raise 20,000 by mortgage on their estates, with the power to raise a further 5,000 if required; the money to be paid off in 40 yearly instalments. The new tower was designed and executed by the Cathedral Surveyor, Mr George Austin, who built an exact replica of the Oxford Tower, thus making the Cathedral's West front symmetrical.


It is interesting to note that whilst excavating the foundation for the new tower, the ground was found to be very boggy and piles had to be driven in. Whilst the men were digging, they came across the skeletons of a man and two oxen, all in an upright position; presumably where they sank many centuries before.

The new tower was never supplied with a ring of bells; at the time of the rebuilding the Dean and Chapter were suffering from a ringers' revolt and probably did not want to compound their problems by providing an additional set of bells to be rung! Thus the tower remained empty for the next 150 years.


1981 saw the beginning of a new chapter in the history of bells at Canterbury Cathedral. A new ring of 14 was to be cast for the Oxford Tower; Bell Harry was to be rehung at the top of the central tower, but what of Great Dunstan? It had been felt for some time that more use should be made of this fine bell, so it was suggested that it should be hung for slow swinging. Then came the question of where to hang it; the obvious answer was the vacant Arundel Tower and with it was decided to hang five of the previous 12, to be used as a clock chime.

A 'generous donation from The Anglia Building Society made this scheme possible and work commenced on installing floors and the bell frames. Meanwhile, at Whitechapel, the clock chime and Dunstan were being cleaned and tuned. It was considered that Dunstan, a particularly thick bell for its diameter (its note being sharp of C), would respond to tuning quite well. Unusually, for its date, Dunstan proved to have a harmonic structure similar to that of a modern bell, this of course made tuning even easier. On the tuning machine Dunstan excelled our greatest expectations, becoming a magnificent, resonant and musical bell - it is probably true to say that whilst a modern bell could match Dunstan's tone, it would be unlikely to surpass it!

Back in the tower, the clock chime was hung dead and Dunstan was hung to be slow swung automatically by an electric motor. The clock mechanism has also been moved into this tower, the clock face however, remaining in the old position on the South-West tower.


All was now ready for the opening ceremony on 15th November. After chiming three o'clock, Dunstan was set swinging for ten minutes to herald the arrival of the Archbishop, who, in front of guests from The Anglia Building Society, John Smith and Sons, of Derby and the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, dedicated a plaque commemorating the work. Following this the bells of many towers throughout Great Britain rang out to celebrate the completion of this great work of restoration.

"Great Dunstan" very aptly describes this, "the noblest of bells", as it majestically sends its joyful message over the rooftops of Canterbury. Many people have already remarked on the grandeur this splendid bell adds to the beginning of the daily services. Its carrying power is remarkable, yet in the Precincts Dunstan's voice is not overpowering or harsh. Canterbury Cathedral at last has bells befitting its beauty and status.


In 1988, during a routine maintenance visit, Great Dunstan was found to be cracked in the crown. This crack was caused by the huge cast-in crown staple that, because of its size, could only be partially removed during the 1981 restoration. In order to effect a repair, Dunstan was lowered to the ground and welded by Soundweld of Lode, Cambridge (probably the largest bell they have welded to date) before being rehung in the tower and put back into regular use.  

Unfortunately, in 1997, the bell was again found to be cracked. On the recommendation of the bell founders, no action has been taken and the bell is still in regular use.

In 1997, one of the clock bells found to be cracked and was also welded by Soundweld.