19 June 2012

Forgotten Cities: Medieval Bath

By Lindsay Townsend
The city of Bath in Somerset, south west England is a world heritage site, famous for its Roman baths and its Regency architecture. I drew on the Roman city of Aquae Sulis and its baths for my historical romance Flavia’s Secret. There is also a hidden city at Bath, the medieval city, parts of which remain even after much has been built over, adapted, added to or superseded by the Regency makeover the city underwent in the eighteenth century.
            We can see the medieval city in John Speed’s 1610 map of Bath. It’s small and walled, with towers and gates. The thermal baths are there, and there are orchards, churches and hospitals. The Abbey is also shown, smaller than in the early Middle Ages when it was extensively added to by Bishop John, who wished to make Bath the seat of his bishopric. This Abbey church was wrecked by fire in 1137 and the whole monastery complex declined, especially after the Black Death in 1439. Later, the rebuilt church occupied only the nave-space of the former Norman cathedral.
            Other medieval buildings of Bath, such as St Catherine’s hospital on Bilbury Lane, the church of St Mary of Stalls and Alsi’s bath have long disappeared, their foundations hidden beneath the later expansion of the city. However aspects of medieval Bath do survive. A section of city walls still stands in Upper Borough and is now protected. Part of one of the ancient gates, the East Gate, remains, close to Robert Adam’s Pulteney Bridge. Many of the Georgian-fronted buildings turn out to have hidden medieval timber frames and structures behind the palladian facades, such as was discovered behind the front of 21-22 High Street. There are medieval cellars, too, such as one in Abbey Church House. The ancient healing place of the Hospital of St John the Baptist, ‘the hospital of the baths’ still partly fulfils its original medieval function.
            I have recreated the medieval city and its baths in my forthcoming historical mystery, An Older Evil, the first of a series featuring Alyson, a widow of Bath.

Lindsay Townsend


Wendy said...

Hi Lindsay, I found your article fascinating and I'm especially interested in the map. I visited Bath in 2006 with my husband and grandson. The baths were more than I imagined they'd be. I thought they had a cetrtain aura especially the section tucked away. Thanks for the reminder. Good luck with your book. I was a poster here too sometime back. Unusual Historicals is a special blog, I was glad to be part of it. We now have something else in common.

Erin O'Quinn said...

Dear Lindsay,

I'm grateful for your article about Bath. It has long fascinated me, especially the way the Romans, when constructing it, subsumed an older, indigenous cult so that the locals would adapt it also as their own. I even read somewhere that the baths are located under the level of the current street.

I remember that in Flavia's Secret you describe the baths themselves, and how even the waters become a sensual part of Flavia's coming-of-age in the protectorship of her "master."

I'm glad to know that you have a forthcoming book set in the same place, Aquae Sulis. I will certainly look for it.

Glad you shared this. Warm regards, Erin O'Quinn

Erin O'Quinn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenny Twist said...

Hi Lindsay. Yet another fascinating post. It's so easy to forget that the old towns still exist alongside or under the surface of the new

celiahayes said...

How lovely - I remember visiting Bath in the summer of 1976 - my brother and sister and I were doing the youth hostel/BritRail Pass tour of England, Wales and Scotland. It was such a lovely city - but all the ancient bits were hidden away.
And the water tasted very odd and unpleasant. No wonder they they thought it was good for you...

Linda Acaster said...

Great post, Lindsay. I thoroughly enjoyed "Flavia's Secret" and you did Bath proud in Aqua Sulis.

I hadn't thought much about mediaeval Bath as it seems wall-to-wall (or Baths to Suspension Bridge) with the Regency period, but you are so right in that later builders added-on and hid away earlier architecture.

I've been in York today researching for the second in my paranormal thriller trilogy. The King's Manor building, which is slap on top of a corner of the huge Roman fortress of Eboracum, has a Tudor facia, yet within the inner courtyard the stonework from the earlier mediaeval abbey buildings are plain to see. While through another courtyard doorway is the (appalling) 1960s-built Archeology block, which I find very ironic.

Thanks for the info on Bath. Next time I visit I'll look with a keener eye.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Fascinating city - enjoyed your post, Lindsay and look forward to your new 'Bath books'!

Gilli Allan said...

Interesting - thank you, Lindsay. We're only 45 mins from Bath, here in Stroud (whose own medieval heart was raised to the ground in the 60s/70s), but we don't visit very often. It's so fascinating to consider what has been built on or over! There'll be little left to see of the times we've lived through, I guess. When we demolish we demolish thoroughly! Pleased to say I live in a 17th century cottage which has only been been added to, many times, over the centuries.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Wendy - thank you, my fellow UH poster!
Erin - thanks so much! I do feel Bath was probably sacred even in prehistoric times.
Hi Jenny - I agree, there are so many fascinating places, 'buried' in our present-dau cities.
Celia - yes, the water is flat!
LindaA - I love York! So much history. Can't wait for your thriller!
Romy thanks so much! my medieval Bath book is coming out in August with Muse it Up Publishing. I go into a lot more about the medieval baths then, and other places.
Hi Gilli - what a shame about Stroud, although there may be places that are still intact. Your cottage sounds lovely!