Bath Abbey historical notes and photos

Abbey collage
Views of the Abbey from 1890 onwards

“Said by many, and with much reason, to occupy a portion of the site of the Roman Basilica, wholly destroyed during the interval between the departures of the Romans and the Saxon Conquest. On the same, or portion of the same, site the Saxon Cathedral of Offa also stood” (R.E.M Peach “Street-Lore of Bath”).

“King Osric established a convent (in Bath) in 676 and, in 757 King Offa made a grant of lands to the monastery of St Peter, on which the Saxon abbey was built. This was one of the greatest churches in England, of such prestige that it was chosen as the site for the coronation in 973 of the first king of all England, King Edgar.” (History of Bath – Davis & Bonsall)

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Three of the angels on Jacobs Ladder – West Front of the Abbey

The service used for Edgar’s coronation was compiled by Dunstan, who was Archbishop of Canterbury; and formed the basis of all subsequent coronation services, right up to that of the present Queen in 1953.

Saxon Bath was burned and pillaged in a short lived rebellion in 1088 against the accession to the throne of William Rufus. Once Rufus had secured his accession, he appointed John de Villula of Tours  as Bishop of Wells and, a few years later, de Villula gained the monastic holdings at Bath as well. In 1091, de Villula moved the see of the Somerset bishopric to Bath and begun the building of a new abbey church (as well as establishing a collegiate school at which the medieval scholar Abelard was educated). By the time of de Villula’s death in 1122 most of the lower walls of the new cathedral had been built but the majority of the building work was masterminded by his successor, Bishop Robert of Lewes.

Bath was gradually superseded by Wells as a focus of religious life in the late thirteenth century as the bishopric was made a joint see. Due in part to the Black Death, the number of monks fell to twenty one by the end of the fourteenth century. Oliver King was made Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1495 and, on a visit to Bath in 1499, found the Norman abbey had degenerated into a ruinous state. Building started immediately but was not complete by the time King Henry VIII initiated the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. On January 27th, 1539, the site was surrendered to the crown.  The Church Commissioners offered the church to the city for 500 marks (roughly the equivalent of £160,000 today), but this offer was turned down. Similar to the fates suffered by many other great priories and churches during this time, all the valuable parts of the building were taken away, for example the beautiful stained glass windows were ripped out and the roof was stripped for the lead. In 1542 the empty shell was sold, along with the monastery, to Humphrey Colles, who sold it on to Matthew Colthurst.

In 1572 Matthew Colthurst’s son Edmund presented what remained of the church to the Mayor and the citizens of Bath, to be used as a parish church.

However, it was Elizabeth I who made the restoration possible by supporting a national collection to raise money for the work. This was put in hand by wealthy citizens of Bath, and in particular, Thomas Bellot. Bellot was steward to Elizabeth I’s statesman, Lord Burghley, and the executor of his estate. The sick and aged Burghley had visited Bath for its restorative waters at the end of his life. While they failed to restore him, he had become interested in the Abbey as a result of his visit, and so, his executor Bellot knew exactly what to do with his legacy.

James Montagu who was appointed Bishop of Bath in 1608 was responsible for repairing the roof over the nave and aisles. The impressive West Doors were the gift of Bishop Montagu’s brother Henry, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. By 1616 the building was repaired and in use. 

Above notes collated from information on the Abbey website, John Haddon’s “Portrait of Bath” and Davis & Bonsall’s “History of Bath”.

Detail collage
External detail of the Abbey