The definition of a peal has changed considerably over the years and was one of the motivating factors in the formation of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers in 1891. Currently, for a performance to be recognised as a peal by the Central Council it must consist of sufficient changes (at least 5040 changes on up to seven working bells or 5000 changes on higher numbers), meet a number of other criteria (collectively referred to as the decisions), and be published in The Ringing World.
On typical tower bells a peal takes around three hours to ring; the time depends on several factors including the number of changes and the weight of the bells, which affects the speed of ringing.
In addition to ordinary peals, ringers often ring quarter-peals, which are a quarter of the length of a full peal, making them easier to ring as most quarter-peals take around 45 minutes to complete.
A set of English-style full-circle bells is sometimes erroneously called a peal of bells, but ringers use the term a ring of bells.
Originally a peal referred to a set sequence of changes of any length, now often referred to as a touch. A touch being more than a plain course, but not a quarter of full peal. However, the original meaning is still in use today in call-change ringing. The most famous and frequently rung call-change peal, associated with the Devon Association of ringers, is named 60 on 3rds.
Following the invention of the ringing method known as Grandsire Doubles, the term peal or “full peal” was applied to the ringing of sequences including each possible permutation of the set of bells exactly once. On five bells (Doubles), there are 120 permutations taking about four minutes to ring on tower bells. This is arrived at by the calculation 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 = 120 unique permutations. These figures rapidly increase as more bells are added.
The term "extent" is now preferred to peal in this context, excepting performances on seven bells where the terms peal and extent are now synonymous.
The extent on eight bells comprises 40,320 changes, and would be referred to today as a long length peal. Despite this, it has been successfully rung as a continuous performance both on tower and on hand bells, 17 hours in duration on tower bells.
Relationship of extents and peals
Modern peal standards
Method Ringing peals today consist of a minimum length of between 5000 and 5280 changes, or permutations, depending on the method, and the number of bells.
The first method ringing peal in this modern sense took place at St Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich, in 1715, and was in the method "Grandsire Bob Triples", which is equivalent to the modern Plain Bob Triples.  This is the earliest known record of a “full peal” which was "true" - did not have any repeated changes - and was over 5,000 changes.
There is a long list of rules which been developed since 1890. To be classified as a peal, a performance must be in accordances with rules and decisions of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, allowing them to be recorded in that organisation’s peal records. They must also be published in The Ringing World. The Central Council has two committees which are arbiters of the standards that peals must achieve:
Some key conditions required for all peals
Challenges in ringing a peal
Peals on tower bells can take anywhere from two and a half to over four hours to ring, depending on the weight of the bells. Handbell peals are shorter for equivalent changes. They are both a physical and mental challenge, as concentration has to be maintained for a long period of time, and each individual ringer has to ring their bell without a break.
Composition of peals is a specialized and highly complicated area of change ringing, as it involves composing a peal according to the rules. The "Conductor" of the peal has to:
A peal can fail at any point if there is a mix-up of bells which cannot be put right; this can happen only minutes from the end.
Popularity of 10-bell methods
According to the best available knowledge in 2017, 6,929 peals of Grandsire Caters (on 10 bells) were rung in the 300 years after 11 January 1711. Grandsire Caters was the leading 10-bell method in each decade from 1711 to 1890, but Stedman Caters has proved more popular recently and on 9 July 2010 it's cumulative peal total from 1711 pulled ahead of the running Grandsire total.
Another area of peal ringing is that of long length peals. These involve ringing for far longer than an ordinary peal, up to 17 hours. The difficulties of ringing ordinary peals are magnified in these performances, as are the difficulties of composing them. One challenge to ringers is to ring 'the extent', which on eight bells is 40320 changes. The last time this was rung on tower bells, it took 18 hours.
Raising and lowering in peal
"Raising in peal" does not refer to ringing a peal, but is the process where a band of ringers increases the swing of tower bells from mouth down to mouth upwards while keeping them ringing in rounds. The opposite process is "lowering in peal", where the swing of the bells is gradually reduced until they are at rest mouth downwards, again keeping the bells ringing in rounds throughout.
Quarter peals are also commonly rung, and a popular for service ringing, where a full peal would be time-consuming. These generally meet most of the rules for a peal, but need be only a quarter the length (i.e. at least 1260 or 1250 changes, depending on the number of bells).
Records of peals
Many notable peals are also recorded on peal boards attached to the walls of the ringing rooms in the towers where they took place, and in the peal books of local change-ringing associations.
The Felstead database is an on-line searchable resource for all peal records.