A Legend of Combermere
The sound of a tolling bell is said to occasionally be heard coming from the depths of Combermere, and that the bell came from the adjacent Combermere Abbey. There are several versions of how this came about. One is that the bells of Combermere Abbey were dumped in the lake at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The others vary in detail, but broadly follow the motif that the bells of the abbey were being taken to be used in Wrenbury Church, but one of the workmen employed on the job blasphemed, resulting in his death and the loss of the bell. The bells were either said to be still in the abbey, and were being taken down and ferried across the mere, or were already in the mere, and were being recovered. The blasphemous workman was either killed when the bell rolled into the mere, or when it fell back into the lake, or, most dramatically, when a monster rose up out of the water and dragged him down.
Wrenbury has a similar legend. The bells of this church formerly belonged to Combermere Abbey, but were given at the dissolution to one of the Cottons, ancestors of the present Lord Combermere, by Henry VIII., and by him given to Wrenbury Church. There were originally six in number, but one was lost in crossing the lake, when one of the workmen, using some impious expressions, was swallowed up by the water, together with the bell, and drowned.
The sun shone clear on the broad bright mere,
And the menials thronged its shore:
They sought to guide from the deep flood tide
The bells of the monks of yore.
When lo, from the mere, these words of fear
Struck awe to the listeners round;
It seemed from the wave some spirit gave
That supernatural sound.
‘Let none who would sweep these bells from the deep
One word unholy use;
Or his strength shall be vain, and never again
Shall they rise from their watery ooze.
And deep mid the wave shall be his grave,
An undiscovered tomb;
And this smiling shore shall smile no more
Till the fated blast of doom.’
With awe and fear the menials steer
A vast bell to the side,
Till it rests on land, and with eager hand
One grasped its rim and cried—
‘Though earth and air and the waters there,
Conspire with the massive bell;
In spite of them all, it no more shall fall,
I swear by the fiends of hell!’
Scarce had he spoke when with thundering stroke
The crumbling earth gave way,
And the waters swell o’er the holy bell
And the sinful son of clay.
They dragged the mere both far and near,
But their comrade never found;
And their sons still tell of the holy bell
That the impious scorner drowned.
The bells of Combermere Abbey are said to have been removed to Wrenbury Church, and to be identical with those still there.
When Combermere Abbey was handed over by bluff King Hal to the ancestor of the present Viscount Combermere, the last abbot—so saith tradition—flung the bells into the lake, where they may still be heard tolling on the death of their lord.
The legend of Combermere bells is so similar to the one related of Rostherne that one suspects a common origin—a blasphemous workman (let us hope not a monk) invoked diabolical aid when he failed to move one of the bells; the bell moved and with the workman plunged into the mere. There its muffled tones sound from the water from time to time. One version is that the bells were thrown into the mere when the Abbey was looted; but was it ever looted? The last Abbot retired on a pension, like many others who made the best of the disaster which they could not avoid.
A similar legend of bells is found at Combermere, but with a more gruesome ending. When the bells of the Abbey, which now hang in Wrenbury Church, were being moved they were ferried across the water. One of them fell overboard, and the man in charge cursed it as it fell. Instantly, he and the bell disappeared below the surface. Another and more dramatic version of the tale is that an ominous figure rose silently from the water and dragged the unfortunate man to destruction. The indwelling spirit here had evidently been transformed into a demon, invoked by the power of the curse.
At the time of the dissolution when monasteries were being sacked and destroyed, the bell of Combermere Abbey was thrown into the waters of the mere. From time to time, the muffled tones of a big bell is heard coming from the depth of the water. A story attributed to the ghostly sound of the bell is that when asked to help move them to safety, a blasphemous workman refused. It is said that the large bell moved of its own accord, taking the unfortunate workman with it to the bottom of the mere.
This story is similar to the one about the Rostherne Bell, but there are notable differences.
At the dissolution of the monasteries, Combermere Abbey became the property of Sir George Cotton, who had most of the buildings demolished and replaced with new ones. There doesn’t seem to be any record of what happened to the bells, but, as seen above, popular tradition has it that they were dumped in the mere, and that at some later date it was decided to recover them for use in Wrenbury church, or that they were taken to Wrenbury directly at the time of the Dissolution. In the former case the legend differs from the one of Rostherne, for the bells were already in the mere, and had to be retrieved. Unlike Rostherne, the mere was inhabited by a mysterious, and apparently invisible, water spirit, which (in the Egerton Leigh version at least) warned the men not to use an ‘unholy word’ while recovering the bells. What makes this interesting is that any water spirit would presumably be a relic of a pre-Christian belief – evidently its role was adapted to suit the new religion.
The idea that one or more of the bells from the abbey should have been taken to be hung in Wrenbury church is possible, but unlikely. At the time of the Dissolution, Wrenbury church would already have had its own bells (it was in fact run by the monks of Combermere), so there would appear to be no reason for such a move. That they should have been recovered from Combermere – or even simply ferried across it from the abbey – seems to be pure fiction.
As a footnote, Combermere Abbey (the name was retained after its conversion to secular use) is where one of the most famous ‘ghost photographs’ was taken, in the late nineteenth century. The story behind it is that, during the funeral of Lord Combermere, a woman set up a camera for a long-exposure photograph in one of the rooms of the house. When the plate was developed it seemed to show a ghostly figure – believed, needless to say, to resemble the late Lord Combermere – sitting in one of the chairs.