The Early History of Bath Abbey

Introduction

West front of Bath Abbey
West front of Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey, officially known as the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is a Parish church and former Benedictine monastery in the town of Bath, Somerset.

Bath Abbey holds over 1200 years of history, and over the years there has been 3 churches on the site: an Anglo Saxon church, a Norman cathedral, and the current church.

Primarily Perpendicular Gothic in style, the current church largely built in the 16th century.

It also saw renovation in the 19th century by Sir George Gilbert Scott.

Located on the A36, it is ca. 13 miles from Bristol, and reachable by train from London Paddington, journey time approx.1.5 hrs.

West Front of Bath Abbey
West Front of Bath Abbey

Anglo Saxon Church

It is believed there was an Abbey church in Bath dating from the 7th century, which was part of a monastery that existed alongside a convent founded by an Abbess named Bertana.

The Nave of Bath Abbey, looking East
The Nave of Bath Abbey, looking West

In 781, King Offa of Mercia built a new church on the site dedicated to St. Peter, and in 973 on Whitsunday, the church saw the coronation of King Edgar, the first King of all England.

This coronation service formed the basis of all future coronations, right up to the coronation of today’s Queen Elizabeth II.

One famous Saxon Abbot of Bath was St. Alphege who championed the Benedictine way of life at the monastery and became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1006.

He was killed by Danish invaders at Canterbury in 1012.

Norman Cathedral

Beautiful vaulted ceiling in Bath Abbey
Beautiful vaulted ceiling in Bath Abbey

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, plans were made to replace the Anglo Saxon church with a Norman cathedral, an action that was repeated throughout the country.

John of Tours was made Bishop of Wells in 1088 and was granted Bath Abbey and it’s lands by King William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror.

This enabled him to move the bishopric to Bath, and he began ambitiously building a Bishop’s palace and a huge cathedral.

John of Tours died in 1122, and by this time only the lower walls of the cathedral had been built.

DSC_0177
High Altar, Bath Abbey

His successor Bishop Robert of Lewes completed the building work and the new cathedral was consecrated in the 1160’s.

It is fascinating to know that the present church is only as large as the Norman cathedral’s nave.

The Norman cathedral was 330 feet long, making it nearly as large as Lichfield Cathedral.  It had an elaborate East End and was surrounded by monastic buildings, cemetery and Bishop’s palace.

DSC_0201
Stained Glass, Bath Abbey

You can see traces of this Norman cathedral in today’s church, in the floor of the Alphege chapel, you can view remains of Norman pillars, and the Gethsemane chapel has a Norman arch built into the wall.

During the 13th century, the Bishops preferred Wells and returned the bishopric to Wells.

The cathedral was too costly to maintain by the 40 monks that remained at Bath, and when the Black Death halved their numbers in 1398, it became too arduous and the cathedral fell into disrepair and decay.

Next post… The Current Church of Bath Abbey

Please visit my flickr if you would like to see more photos from my visit to Bath

References
Bath Abbey Website
Wikipedia – Bath Abbey
British History.ac.uk – Bath Abbey
Sacred Destinations.com – Bath Abbey
Wikipedia  St. Alphege
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