A bell was rung usually around eight o'clock in the evening which meant for them to cover their fires - deaden or cover up, not necessarily put out altogether. The usual procedure was at the sound of the curfew bell the burning logs were removed from the centre of the hearth of a warming fire and the hot ashes swept to the back and sides. The cold ashes were then raked back over the fire so as to cover it. The ashes would then keep smoldering giving warmth without a live fire going. The fire could easily be reignited the next morning by merely adding logs back on and allowing air to vent through the ashes. A benefit of covering up the fire in the evening was the prevention of destructive conflagrations caused by unattended live fires, a major concern since at the time most structures were made of wood and burned easily. Voltaire, in his Universal History, notes the curfew bell acted as an ancient police on fire prevention in towns of the northern hemisphere.
The curfew bell with the associated curfew law is recorded by history as having been started by Alfred the Great. The law associated with the curfew bell is a custom that history records as being adopted by William I of England in the year 1068. The curfew law imposed upon the people was a compulsory duty they had to do or be punished like a criminal. Historians, poets, and lawyers speak of the Medieval law associated with the curfew bell as being levelled mostly against the conquered Anglo-Saxons. It was initially used as a repressive measure by William I to prevent rebellious meetings of the conquered English. He prohibited the use of live fires after the curfew bell was rung to prevent associations and conspiracies. The curfew bell was heard by the Anglo-Saxons as the sound of their departed liberty and a testimony of their slavery. The strict practice of this medieval tradition was pretty much observed during the reign of King William I and William II of England. The law was eventually repealed by Henry I of England in 1103.
A century later in England the curfew bell was associated more with a time of night rather than an enforced curfew law. The curfew bell was in later centuries rung but just associated with a tradition. In Medieval times the ringing of the curfew bell was of such importance that land was occasionally paid for the service. There are even recorded instances where the sound of the curfew bell sometimes saved the lives of lost travellers by safely guiding them back to town.
In Macaulay's History of Claybrook (1791), he says, "The custom of ringing curfew, which is still kept up in Claybrook, has probably obtained without intermission since the days of the Norman Conqueror."
In the Articles for the Sexton of Faversham in England it was written of the curfew bell,
- Imprimis, the sexton, or his sufficient deputy, shall lye in the church steeple;
- and at eight o'clock every night shall ring the curfew by the space of a quarter of an hour,
- with such bell as of old time hath been accustomed.
The time of the curfew bell changed in later centuries after the Middle Ages to nine in the evening and sometimes even to ten. To this day in many towns[where?] there is a "curfew" at nine or ten that can be heard throughout the town, which is usually the town's emergency siren - sometimes used as the town's noon whistle.
The English word curfew is from old French carre-feu or cerre-feu. These initial French words later derived into couvre-feu. The word was again later turned into cover-feu in the Norman language after the conquering of the English. Each of these meant to cover the live flaming fire. There was even a metal utensil cover known as the "couvre-feu", normally only found in houses of the well-to-do. It resembled a shield and was used to be put over the live fire when the curfew bell rang. The curfew bell was known as ignitegium or peritegium bell in the medieval low Latin. Daines Barrington shows that in an old Scottish poem published in 1770 the word curfew is written curphour.
The tyranny of William I is described by the poet Francis Thompson,
- The shiv'ring wretches, at the curfew sound,
- Dejected sunk into their sordid beds,
- And, through the mournful gloom of ancient times,
- Mus'd sad, or dreamt of better.
Chaucer writes on the curfew bell as just as a time, not a law:
- The dede slepe, for every besinesse,
- Fell on this carpenter, right as I gesse,
- About curfew time, or litel more.
Shakespeare had unusual times for the curfew bell,
- In Romeo and Juliet, iv 4, he has Lord Capulet saying:
- Come, stir, stir, stir, the second coch hath crow'd,
- The curfew bell hath rung, tis three o'clock.
- In Tempest, v. 1, Prospero says:
- You, whose pastime
- Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
- To hear the solemn curfew.
- In King Lear, iii. 4, Edgar speaks,
- This is the foul fiend, Flibbertigibbet: he begins at curfew
- and walks to the first clock.
In the sixteenth century Bishop Joseph Hall's "Fourth Satire" it reads:
- Who ever gives a paire of velvet shooes
- To th' Holy Rood, or liberally allowes,
- But a new rope to ring the couvre-few bell,
- But he desires that his great deed may dwell,
- Or graven in the chanel window glasse,
- Or in his lasting tombe of plated brasse.
In the play The Merry Devil of Edmonton (published 1608), the curfew was at nine o'clock in the evening:
- Well, 'tis nine a clocke, 'tis time to ring curfew
- Oft on a plat of rising ground,
- I hear the far-off curfew sound,
- Over some wide-water'd shore,
- Swinging slow, with sullen roar...
T. S. Eliot Gus the theater cat ("Old possum's book of practical cats")
- When the curfew was rung, then I swung on the bell!
- Wood/Peshall, p. 177
- Andrews, pp. 228-9
- Andrews, p. 232-3
- Andrew, p. 229 "In England, the curfew law is said to have been made an established institution by King Alfred. When that monarch restored the University which had been founded at Oxford by St. Frideswide, he ordained, among other thoughtful regulations, that a bell should be rung every night at eight, when all the inhabitants of Oxford should cover up their fires and go to bed."
- Wood/Peshall, p. 177 "The custom of ringing the bell at Carfax every night at eight o'clock (called Curfew Bell, or Cover-fire Bell), was originated by King Alfred, the restorer of our University, who ordained that all the inhabitants of Oxford should, at the ringing of that bell, cover up their fires and go to bed, which custom is observed to this day, and the bell as constantly rings at eight, as Great Tom tolls at nine."
- Brand, p. 221 "Although there is no evidence to show that it originated with the Norman Conqueror, it appears certain that in 1068 he ordained that all people should put out their fires and lights at the eight o'clock bell, and go to bed."
- Andrews, p. 232, "Whether he found the law of the curfew still feebly kept up, or whether it had died out we cannot tell, but we know that two years after the battle of Hastings - in 1068 - he ordered fires to be covered at the ringing of the eight o’clock bell, and the people to retire to rest."
- Wood/Peshall, p. 177 "The curfew is commonly believed to have been of Norman adoption. A law was made by William the Conqueror that all people should put out their fires and lights at the eight o'clock bell and go to bed. See Robert Seymour's edition of John Stow's Survey of London, book i cap 15."
- Brand, p. 221 "The custom of covering up their fires about sunset in summer, and about eight at night in winter, at the ringing of a bell called couvre-feu or curfew bell, is supposed by some to have been introduced by William I, and imposed upon the English as a badge of servitude."
- Brand, p. 222
- Andrews, p. 233 The politic Henry I, in 1103, wisely repealed the enactment, modifying the law, which, however, though not compulsory, "settled into a cherished custom."
- Andrews, p. 236
- Andrews, p. 238 "Instances of land being given for the ringing of the bell are at Mapouder, Dorset, where land was given "to find a man to ring the morning and curfew bell throughout the year," and at Ibberton, in the same county, one acre of land was given for the ringing of the eight o’clock bell, and £4 for ringing the morning bell."
- Brand, p. 223
- Andrews, p. 232 "Polydore-Vergil tells us that William, to convert the native ferocity of the people to indolence, ordained that the head of each family should retire to rest at eight in the evening, "having raked the ashes over the fire; and for this purpose a sign should be made through every village, which is even now preserved, and called in the Norman, cover-feu.""
- Andrews, p. 232 "We learn from Du Cange, that the ringing of the couvre-feu, ignitegium, or peritegium bell, as it was called in mediæval low Latin, prevailed generally in Europe during the Middle Ages as a precaution against fire; and this fact is alone sufficient to justify William in reviving and extending the law in this country."
- Andrews, William, Old Church Lore, William Andrews & Company, The Hull Press; London, 1891
- Brand, John et al.,Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar and Provincial Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions, George Bell and Sons, 1901
- Anthony Wood and John Peshall, The Antient and Present State of the City of Oxford: Containing an Account of Its Foundation, Antiquity, Situation, Suburbs, Division by Wards, Walls, Castle, Fairs, Religious Houses, Abbeys, St. Frideswede's, Churches, as Well Those Destroyed as the Present, with Their Monumental Inscriptions, J. and F. Rivington, 1773, Oxford University