History of Bath

Mother Earth Travel > United Kingdom > Bath > History

Bath owes its name, its history, indeed its very existence, to the hot mineral waters that rise at the King's Spring and two others nearby, never varying in temperature or quantity, producing 500,000 gallons of 120 degree Fahrenheit water per day (that's 6 gallons a second, 360 per minute, 21,000 per hour, and more than 182 million per year) since ... well, a very long time ago indeed.

Prehistoric Bath
As one of the world's most beautiful and romantic cities, it is fitting that the story of the founding of Bath is a suitably romantic fairytale - which has the added cachet that it may even be true! It's the story of making a silk purse from a sow's ear, of making an exceedingly beautiful and beneficent spa from a steaming, noisome swamp. And it all started with the Swineherd-Prince: Bladud, son of Hudibras (and later on father of King Lear), was exiled from court with a disfiguring skin disease, and (as exiled princes do) became a swineherd. His pigs also contracted a skin complaint, and he noticed that when they wallowed in a foul hot muddy area their skin cleared. No fool, Bladud, quickly started to wallow too. His skin cleared, he returned to court, had numerous adventures that have nothing to do with Bath, and when he became king he built his capital at the site of the miraculous hot mud baths, calling it after himself (Bladud - Bad-Lud or Bath-Waters). It was also known as Caerbrent, or Caer Ennaint - the City of Ointment. Later Saxon names included Bathancaester ('the Baths') and Hat Batha ('Hot Baths'), but the Romans called it:

Aquae Sulis
We have little evidence of pre-Roman Bath, but give a Roman half a million gallons of hot mineral water a day, and you can be pretty sure he will build a bath. Roman love of a hot soak and their acknowledged engineering superiority were all that was needed to turn the 'steaming swamp' into a civilised and civilising city. Within 30 to 40 years after the Roman invasion in AD43 the springs were controlled and walled in, the mud hardened and beautiful Mediterranean style stone buildings rose out of the former morass, using the beautiful honey-coloured stone from the surrounding hills, and lead from the Mendip mines for pipes and the reservoir and the Great Bath. They made baths and temples and theatres and palaces and villas. It all lasted for some 400 prosperous years. Then, with the dissolution of the Empire and foreign invasions, it sank back into the mud, lying now some 10 to 15 feet below the present city, and in the fullness of time other cities were built over it. What has since been discovered is a source of wonder to archeologists and historians, and makes a trip to Bath even more exciting to the ordinary tourist, because the remains of the Roman Baths, dedicated to the goddess Sul Minerva, are unsurpassed in this country. A note on that Goddess: the early Christian church wasn't the first to assimilate pagan holidays and gods into their own religion - the Romans wisely amalgamated their Minerva with the local Briton goddess, Sul , and it is from Sul that Aquae Sulis took its name.

Anglo-Saxon Bath
Indifferent builders themselves, the Saxon invaders were impressed by the Roman ruins at Hat Batha, and concocted legends and epic poems round them, inferring that they were the work of giants long vanished from the earth. There was an Anglo-Saxon nunnery founded near Bath around the mid 600s, which disappeared again, and then the monastery of St Peter was founded, possibly by the great Mercian King Offa around AD 755. It is also possible that St Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, later archbishop of Canterbury, was the influence behind Bath Abbey becoming Benedictine. Certainly it was Dunstan who consecrated Edgar the very first king of all England at Bath on Whitsunday, AD 973, indicating that the Abbey Church in Bath was of great importance by that date. Two asides on that ceremony: there was at the time no set ritual for a coronation, and portions of Dunstan's ceremony are still part of the coronation to this day; and the citizens of Bath continued to hold a ceremony at Whitsun when they elected one of their number 'King of Bath' and it was this title which was awarded to Beau Nash in the 18th century.

Medieval Bath
The Norman conquest only served to underline the importance of Bath, when William Rufus, son of the Conqueror, appointed his own chaplain and physician, John of Tours as Bishop of Bath. Under the Royal Charter of 1088 the Bishop proceeded to replace the Saxon abbey with a vast Norman cathedral, and to enlarge the city and restore the baths, building the King's (built around the original sacred spring), Cross and Hot, which were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop, where sick people from all England came for the healing waters. John of Tours also built two baths in the monastery, the Abbot's (public) and the Prior's (private). Pilgrims also sought out the Benedictine priory for comfort and healing in the monastic hospitals, and St John's, founded in 1180, still flourishes as a charitable institution. They said the old came to die and lived instead to astonishing ages. Small and unpretentious by later standards, Norman Bath was extremely important to its age, becoming one of the major wool and cloth centres of England. The elegant and sophisticated Roman resort and spa had become a city of weavers. The city prospered, and kings came to bathe in its waters and play at the gaming tables. But by the reign of Henry IV the city had sunk into dissipation and corruption, Bishops preferred to live at Wells, the Abbey was in ruins and the baths were reduced to stinking cisterns.

Tudor and Jacobean Bath
Something had to be done, and the founder of the Tudor dynasty, Henry VII, gave his support to Bishop Oliver King in his vision to pull down the remains of the Norman Abbey and build a new, smaller, abbey in the English Perpendicular style around 1500. This is the Abbey you can see today, sometimes called the 'Lantern of the West' with its vast clerestories and huge expanses of glass. Henry's granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth I visited the city in 1574, and censured the filth in the streets, but granted a charter that began a new era of civic progress. The waters were again of great medical importance, and the practice of natural bathing grew as distinguished persons were bribed to recommend the waters to invalids of their acquaintance. The five baths were open to the sky and exceedingly dirty, but in daily use, with the Cross Bath reserved for the gentry, where musicians played for them from a gallery, and visitors promenaded round the King's Bath to watch the bathers. During the 16th and 17th centuries Kings and Queens came to bathe in the waters, and Bath was again of first importance as a spa. The Civil War had little effect on Bath, and the Restoration saw the return of Royalty to take the waters, including Queen Catherine, wife of Charles II, who hoped the baths would help her conceive. They didn't, but they had the desired effect on the next Queen, Mary of Modena, who gave birth to the boy who would become the Old Pretender, an event so unexpected and upsetting to the hopes of a Protestant succession that the rumour was put about that the baby had been smuggled into the royal bed in a warming pan and wasn't a legitimate child at all.

Never highly partisan in its politics, Bath was as happy to welcome the new King, William of Orange, called in from the low countries when the Jacobean line proved intransigently Catholic in its sympathies. Bath was a nationally important resort, capable of handling the seasonal influx of patients and tourists and the occasional Royal visit, but its population of 3000 within the medieval walls could not offer much in the way of entertainments, other than the baths themselves, and visitors were charged exorbitant rates for poor accommodation in overcrowded inns. There was no Pump Room, no Assembly Rooms, and only the occasional ball in the restricted space of the old Guildhall. But all this was to change at the start of the Georgian era.

Georgian Bath
In the 1700s, Bath became the rendezvous for Society, and by 1801 its population had increased 10-fold to some 34,000, making it the eighth largest city in England.
There is very little left of medieval Bath, because it was torn down by the men whose vision resulted in the jewel-like 18th Century city we see today; a city of outstanding beauty on a human scale that inspired then, as now, a deep affection. The Romans with the vision and knowledge to turn a hot, stinking swamp into a beautiful and civilised resort are forever unknown to us. But we do know the men who took Bath and remade her in an image that in fact owes a lot to ancient Rome.

First and foremost was Richard 'Beau' Nash, who in his fifty years reign as King of Bath and Master of Ceremonies, turned the city into a centre of fashion, of gaming (which Nash made fashionable for women as well as men) and of manners - in time anybody who was anybody had to be seen in Bath, and the city attracted a veritable 'Who's Who' of 18th century society. A dandy and a rake, who made his money gambling and by presents from women, Beau Nash might seem a strange civic leader, but he also spared no effort to sponsor a hospital of international repute even today for the treatment of rheumatic diseases, and many had cause to be grateful for his kindness. It's almost impossible to overstate his influence - among many other things, he was responsible for the pageant that greeted William of Orange, and persuaded the Corporation to build a new Pump Room. Perhaps more than anything else, Nash promoted a 'classless society' so successfully that during his 'reign' Royalty and mere gentlefolk mixed on equal footing. Nash was, according to Goldsmith, 'the first who diffused a desire for society and an easiness of address among a whole people' and this new openness spread out from Bath so that 'the whole kingdom became more refined by lessons originally learned from him.' So great was his influence that when Beau Nash died in 1761 the entire city mourned his passing.

And his influence on matters of taste and fashion can surely be seen in the movement toward what was both beautiful and useful in buildings, so that he, along with Ralph Allen and John Wood the Elder, promoted the fashion for Palladian building that came to characterise the Georgian city. The spirit of Wood, the architect, and the builders who followed him, created a city whose feeling of cohesion depends on a common material (Bath stone), a common idiom (Palladian style), a common scale and a 'neighbourliness' of building to building - a reflection in stone of the varied but cohesive society that Nash had made. The man whose patronage backed with both money and influence much of this building, and also provided the stone from his own quarries, was Ralph Allen, prototype of Squire Allworthy in Fielding's Tom Jones. Andreas Palladio, of course, was strongly influenced by the buildings of the Greeks and Romans, and so in a sense Bath came full circle, and its Georgian heyday mirrored in architecture, manners and morals the sophisticated, pleasure-loving and somewhat decadent Roman Bath of 1800 years previous.

Nineteenth Century Bath
If the 18th was the century of the glitterati, the 19th was altogether less frenetic and superficial, more earnest, solid and dull. But it uncovered and exhibited the long-forgotten Roman Baths, renovated the Abbey, and still attracted painters and writers such as Cox, Turner and Sickert, Jane Austen, Walter Savage Landor and Thomas Carlyle. There was also the proliferation of charitable societies and education, of shops and residential housing for the middle and working classes, and Bath had to deal with the same problem the 20th century faced - how to reconcile the beauty and excellence of the past with the pressing needs of the present. As in the 20th century, a number of mistakes were made, and these resulted in the creation of the 'Old Bath Preservation Society' in 1909.

The railway and the canal system both touched Bath, of course, and it became more residential and industrial than previously, but generally Bath had a rough time financially through most of the 1800s. Therefore the temporary revival of spas, following the fashion on the continent, was of great economic importance. Gone were the days of merely wallowing in and drinking the waters, however. Now to get the benefit, one had to have it atomised or vaporised or sprayed or jetted, or injected into you or given along with electric shocks! There had to be Inhalation, Humage and Spray Rooms, Needle and Sitz Baths. The old baths were totally outmoded, besides being in 'a state of decay', so the Corporation roused itself and presented the city in 1889 with re-designed King's and Queen's Baths and a new suite in Bath Street, and with these came the fashion for grand hotels. It was while making these new baths that the Roman Baths were revealed, and these were given the Victorian's idea of a suitable Romanesque setting with a colonnade and statues.

Twentieth Century Bath
Along with the excessive 'modernising' of the 50s and 60s, these years also saw the protection of special buildings, the perpetuation of a Georgian style and restriction of building materials to Bath stone for facings as part of an effort to preserve the special atmosphere of Bath. Spa water was bottled and sold as Sulis Water, promising relief from rheumatism, gout, lumbago, sciatica and neuritis and, following the founding of the National Health Service, water-cure treatments were available on prescription. The withdrawal of this service by the NHS in the 1970s and a health scare in 1978 marked the closure of the public baths. The last part of the century saw Bath become a World Heritage site and a major tourist attraction, at a time when interest in the acquisition of art and antiques and of shopping as a primary leisure activity was on the rise. Bath with its multitude of delightful shops selling everything from the finest antiques and works of art to the cheap and cheerful souvenir turned out to be uniquely suited to provide 'retail therapy' where once it provided 'hydrotherapy'.

Into The Future
We started with the hot springs that have been the raison d'etre for the existence of Bath over the millennia, and it is fitting that we end this history with a resurrection of sorts. Bath is due for some new baths to be ready for use by Autumn 2001. This is to be a state of the art spa, with public bathing once more available for the first time since 1978. Incorporating a new roof-top pool from which you can view the cityscape, and the restoration of five important heritage buildings, including the sacred Cross Bath, this will be a real spa, offering a full range of treatments. The project is designed to reconnect the City with it very reason for being - the natural thermal springs - and is intended to revitalise spa culture throughout the UK. It fits perfectly with the world-wide interest in alternative and holistic medicine and therapies and also with the unique history of Bath.

Bath bids fair to be the jewel in the crown of the West Country, if not of Britain as a whole. Jewel-like in the topaz glow of its buildings, built from warm honey-coloured Bath stone. Jewel-like in its bejoux size - a pocket Venus of a city, small and compact but all the better for that - a walker's city, unfolding its delights round every bend and up every tiny cul-de-sac. Jewel-like in its setting, tucked among the hills along the banks of the River Avon. Jewel-like in the abundance of glittering shops, ranging from some of the most mouth-watering antique stores in a country famed for its antiques to the finest fashion emporiums and the most esoteric one-off shops selling beautiful things that cost from mere pence to a king's ransom. Finally jewel-like in the splendour of its incomparable Roman baths, its glorious Gothic abbey, its fabulous Royal Crescent and many other glorious ornaments. Bath is superb - if it were a jewel, it would be a jewel beyond price.