“Bath Abbey seeks to be a “House of Prayer for all nations”, praying with and for needy people locally and all around the world, regardless of their political, ethnic or religious affiliation.” – The Rev’d Canon Guy Bridgewater, Rector of Bath Abbey
For over 1,000 years, a Christian place of worship has stood in the centre of the city of Bath, Somerset. Known today as Bath Abbey, the present-day parish church was built in the 16th century, replacing a Norman cathedral, which, in turn, had replaced a Saxon monastery. The Grade I listed building is one of the largest examples of Perpendicular Gothic architecture in the West Country and the most visited church outside London.
In 675 AD, a French Abbess, either called Bertana or Berta, was granted a plot of land in Bath for the establishment of a convent. In 781, King Offa of Mercia (reigned 757-796) rebuilt the monastic church on the current site of the abbey, which is where the first king of all England, Edgar the Peaceful (reigned 959-975), was crowned. King Edgar encouraged the monks to adopt the Rule of Saint Benedict, a book of instruction written in 516 by Benedict of Nursia (c. AD 480–550). The Benedictine monastery was led by Abbot Ælfheah, now known as St. Alphege (953-1012), who was later killed during a Viking invasion.
In 1087, William II (1056-100) granted the city of Bath to a royal chaplain, John of Tours (d.1122), subsequently making him the Bishop of Wells and Abbot of Bath. Three years later, John transferred the bishopric to Bath Abbey, which was much wealthier than Wells. He rebuilt sections of the monastic church and raised it to cathedral status. John planned to expand the cathedral and dedicate it to Saint Peter and Saint Paul but died before its completion in December 1122.
A fire in 1137 hindered the construction of the cathedral, which was eventually completed in around 1156. After a couple of successful years, during which time Pope Innocent IV (1195-1254) awarded joint cathedral status to Bath and Wells, the building gradually fell into disrepair. By 1499, it was almost in ruins. Oliver King (1432-1503), the Bishop of Bath and Wells, blamed the state of the cathedral on the monks being “all too eager to succumb to the temptations of the flesh”.
In 1500, Oliver King allegedly had a dream in which he “saw the Heavenly Host on high with angels ascending and descending by ladder,” similar to the scene dreamt by Jacob in chapter 28 of the Book of Genesis. The earliest recording of King’s dream was written 100 years later and is largely considered to be a story; nonetheless, the dream is represented in stone on the west front of the cathedral.
King commissioned brothers Richard (b.1506) and William Vertue (d.1527), who were also involved with work on the Tower of London, to rebuild the dilapidated cathedral. They promised, “there shall be none so goodly neither in England nor France” and incorporated the surviving Norman wall and arches into their design. The Vertue brothers specialised in fan vaulted ceilings, which remains one of the most admired sections of the building’s architecture today. Unfortunately, King did not live to see the result, which was not completed until at least two decades after his death.
Due to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the church was deprived of its cathedral status in 1539, and stripped of £4,800 worth of lead, iron and glass. The roofless remains of the church was given to the corporation of Bath in 1572, which struggled to raise funds for its restoration. Fortunately, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) set up a national fund to finance the necessary works and decreed that it should become the parish church of Bath.
The church remained incomplete when the queen died, but James Montague (1568-1618), the Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1608 to 1616, personally paid £1,000 for a new roof. The gesture came after Montague attempted to shelter in the church during a thunder storm, only to discover the building offered no protection. Montague financed the rest of the restoration, which was completed in 1611. After his death, Montague was buried in an alabaster tomb, which remains in situ in the north aisle.
For a couple of centuries, Bath Abbey survived without the need for any building works until the 1830s, when George Phillips Manners (1789-1866), the first Bath City Architect, remodelled the interior. Manners also added flying buttresses and pinnacles to the exterior. In the 1860s, major restoration work by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78) took place, involving the extension of the fan-vaulted ceiling in the nave. Scott also designed the finely-carved pews, later described as “one of the most magnificent and extensive suites of Victorian church seating in the country”. When Scott died in 1878, his pupil, Thomas Graham Jackson (1835-1924), completed the building project.
Bath Abbey is constructed from Bath stone, a form of limestone obtained from the Combe Down and Bathampton Down Mines. The majority of buildings in the city are built from the same material, giving the streets a yellowish tinge. The interior of Bath Abbey features the same stone, but the 52 windows, occupying about 80% of the wall space, bring in enough light to make the walls appear much whiter. In recent years, traces of coloured paint were discovered in the spaces between the fan shapes on the vaulted ceiling. Closer inspection revealed these to be the coats of arms of King James I (reigned 1603-25), Cardinal Adriano de Castello, a former Bishop of Bath and Wells (1503-18), and the pre-Reformation priory.
The nave is 211 feet (64 m) long and 35 feet (11 m) wide, ending in a tall stained-glass window depicting 56 events in the life of Jesus from the Annunciation to the Ascension. The window contains 76 square metres (818 sq. ft) of glass, the majority of which dates to the Victorian era. It was likely designed by Alfred Bell (1832-95), who established Clayton and Bell with John Richard Clayton (1827-1913), one of the most prolific British stained-glass windows manufacturers during the latter half of the 19th century. During the air raids of 1942, sections of the coloured glass were destroyed. A Canadian soldier stationed in the area collected the shards and took them home, where they now form part of a window in Christ Church, Meaford, Ontario. In the 1950s, Michael Farrar Bell (1911-93), the great-grandson of the original designer, repaired the war damage.
On the north side of the Abbey, a 19th-century stained-glass window depicts the coronation of King Edgar in 973. The service was devised by Saint Dunstan, which has remained the basis of coronation ceremonies ever since. Dunstan (909-988) was an English bishop who served as the Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan became famous for the many stories about his dealings with the Devil. Allegedly, Dunstan resisted the Devil’s temptations by holding the Devil’s face between a pair of red-hot tongs. The only evidence of this event are accounts written at least 100 years after Dunstan’s death, including an old folk song:
St Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull’d the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more.
On Ascension Day in 988, Dunstan had a vision of angels who warned him that he would die in three days. Dunstan made the necessary preparations, warning his congregation of his impending death and choosing a place for his tomb. Three days after the Ascension, Dunstan fell ill, and after partaking in Mass from his bed, he passed away. People immediately revered him as a saint, although Dunstan was not officially canonised until 1029. Dunstan was buried in Bath Cathedral, although later reinterred in Canterbury Cathedral. Until he was overshadowed by Saint Thomas Becket (1119-1170), who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, Saint Dunstan was the favourite saint of the English people.
There are over 1,000 memorials inside Bath Abbey, including the aforementioned effigy of James Montagu, the Bishop of Bath and Wells. On the north wall, a memorial stone remembers Admiral Arthur Philip, who founded the state of New South Wales in Australia. Unfortunately, the inscription states Philip founded Australia. Other people honoured with memorials include Master of Ceremonies Beau Nash (1674-1762), Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), Mary, the Countess Dowager of Kintore (d. 1826), botanist John Sibthorp (1758-96), and several military men. In 1958, the most recent memorial was installed to commemorate Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-97), who developed Pitman shorthand.
In 2007, a frieze of 12 wooden angel musicians was installed above the quire screens. The quire, also known as the choir, is where the clergy and church choir sit during services. The screens were installed in 2004 to improve the acoustics. Music in the Abbey is supplied by the large organ in the north transept, which was first installed in 1895.
The earliest mention of an organ at Bath Abbey dates to 1634, but there are no specific details about the instrument. In 1708, another organ was built by Abraham Jordan and modified in 1718 and 1739 by his son. The organ was later moved to the Bishop’s Palace at Wells in 1836. That year, John of Bristol built a new organ, which now resides at the Church of St Peter & St Paul in Cromer, Norfolk.
Norman and Beard, a pipe organ manufacturer based in Norwich, supplied Bath Abbey with a new organ in 1895. Initially, the instrument stood on two steel beams in the North and South crossing arches before being re-erected in a case designed by Sir Thomas Jackson in the North Transept in 1914. On several occasions, organ manufacturers rebuilt sections of the instrument, adding a variety of keys and stops. Eventually, the entire organ was reconstructed in 1997 by Orgelbau Klais, a German firm, who restored it to its original 1895 condition.
The organ is not the only form of instrument installed in the Abbey. Hung in the ringing chamber in the tower are ten bells. Unconventionally, they are arranged from highest to lowest in an anti-clockwise ring around the chamber, rather than in the usual clockwise fashion. Eight of the bells were created in the early 18th century after six of the originals were melted down. The two lightest bells were added in 1774. The heaviest bell, the tenor, was replaced after it cracked in 1869. After installing the replacement, the organist claimed it was out of tune and ordered it recast.
Visitors to Bath Abbey are offered guided tours of the tower, which include viewing the bells in the ringing chamber. Two spiral staircases consisting of 212 steps provide access to the 161 feet (49 m) structure. The first staircase ends at the roof level, and the second reaches the top of the tower, from where visitors can survey the city of Bath.
Bath Abbey is open most days for visitors except during scheduled service times. Sunday services include Morning Prayer, Holy Communion and Evening Prayer. Weddings, baptisms and funerals also take place throughout the year, although burials are no longer allowed in the Abbey due to health and safety. The last burial took place in 1845 before the practice was outlawed in 1853. Approximately 3,800 bodies are buried under the floor. Only the rich could afford this privilege, and the nearer the altar they wished to be buried, the higher the fee.
Between 1583 and 2022, there have been 28 rectors at Bath Abbey. The first rector was John Long, who held the position for a year before Richard Meredith (1559-1621) took his place. The current rector is Reverend Canon Guy Bridgewater, who was appointed in 2018. Other notable rectors of the past include George Webb (1581-1642), who was also Chaplain-in-Ordinary to King Charles II, the philosopher Joseph Glanvill (1636-80), and James Phillott (1750-1815), of whom the writer Jane Austen thought very little.
Bath Abbey is free to visit, although a donation is most welcome. Tours of the Abbey are available to book for a fee of £8 per adult or £4 per child. Tower tours, which last between 45 minutes to an hour, cost £10 per adult and £5 per child. The Abbey gift shop, which is open every day except Sundays, offers a range of products inspired by Bath Abbey, including books, gifts and postcards.