Roland the Alarm Bell

The largest bell in the municipal belfry of Ghent, Belgium—called Roland—signaled the beginning of the Brabant Revolution with its tolling in 1789. The role of Roland as an alarm bell for the liberty of all of Flanders actually dates back much earlier—to 1537.* At that time, present-day Belgium was under the control of Emperor Charles V. And as emperors are want to do, he waged wars to expand his territory. The Flemish cities such as Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp were very prosperous, so Charles V levied heavy taxes on them to fund his agenda. The people of Ghent revolted. Charles V exacted brutal consequences; many rioters were executed. To humiliate the city, he ordered the removal of the Roland alarm bell. Afterwards, the status of the alarm bell took on mythical proportions. It was widely perceived that the emperor himself had chopped up the bell into pieces, although this never happened.

The symbolism of the Roland bell was later used in propaganda in the United States. During the United States’ Civil War, abolitionist Theodore Tilton wrote a poem that urged Americans to fight for the union. And which bell did he use as the symbol for liberty? Well, duh, you say, the Liberty Bell! Actually…he used the Roland bell. Very striking choice. It demonstrates just how powerful the myth of the Roland bell was, even across the big pond.

Roland’s tale and Tilton’s poem demonstrate that bells aren’t always used in preserving peace. A call for liberty can bring one to arms if that liberty is threatened. This poem is especially poignant on the heels of the recent Bells Across the Land event, which commemorated the end of the Civil War through the ringing of bells across the nation. The truth is that while a bell harkened the end of the war, another bell was also called upon to fuel the same war.

The Great Bell Roland
by Theodore TiltonSuggested by President Lincoln’s first call for volunteers

Toll! Roland, toll!
In old St. Bavon’s tower,
At midnight hour,
The great bell Roland spoke;
And all who slept in Ghent awoke.
What meant the thunder-stroke?
Why trembled wife and maid?
Why caught each man his blade?
Why echoed every street
With tramp of thronging feet,
All flying to the city’s wall?
It was the warning call
That Freedom stood in peril of a foe!
And timid hearts grew bold
Whenever Roland tolled,
And every hand a sword could hold,
And every arm could bend a bow!
So acted men
Like patriots then —
Three hundred years ago!

Toll! Roland, toll!
Bell never yet was hung,
Between whose lips there swung
So grand a tongue!
If men be patriots still,
At thy first sound
True hearts will bound,
Great souls will thrill!
Then toll, and let thy test
Try each man’s breast,
And let him stand confessed!

Toll! Roland, toll!
Not now in old St. Bavon’s tower —
Not now at midnight hour —
Not now from River Scheldt to Zuyder Zee;
But here! — this side the sea! —
Toll here, in broad, bright day!
For not by night awaits
A foe without the gates,
But perjured friends within betray,
And do the deed at noon!
Toll! Roland, toll!
Thy sound is not too soon
To arms! Ring out the Leader’s call!
Toll! Roland, toll! —
Till cottager from cottage-wall
Snatch pouch, and powder-horn, and gun —
The heritage of sire to son,
Ere half of Freedom’s work was done!
Toll! Roland, toll —
Till swords from scabbards leap!
Toll! Roland, toll!
What tears can widows weep
Less bitter than when brave men fall?
Toll! Roland, toll!
In shadowed hut and hall
Shall lie the soldier’s pall,
And hearts shall break while graves are filled!
Amen! So God hath willed!
And may His grace anoint us all!

Toll! Roland, toll!
The Dragon on thy tower
Stands sentry to this hour;
And Freedom now is safe in Ghent;
And merrier bells now ring;
And in the land’s serene content,
Men shout, God save the King!
Until the skies are rent!
So let it be! —
A kingly King is he
Who keeps his people free!
Toll! Roland, toll!
Ring out across the sea!
No longer They, but We,
Have now such need of thee!
Toll! Roland, toll!
Nor ever let thy throat
Keep dumb its warning note
Till Freedom’s perils be outbraved!
Toll! Roland, toll!
Till Freedom’s flag, wherever waved,
Shall shadow not a man enslaved!
Toll! Roland, toll! —
From Northern lake to Southern strand!
Toll! Roland, toll! —
Till friend and foe, at thy command,
Shall clasp once more each other’s hand,
And shout, one-voiced, God save the land!
And love the land that God hath saved!
Toll! Roland, toll!

* Information on this bell taken from Luc Rombouts, Singing Bronze: A History of Carillon Music (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2014), 74.

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