Modern Bath Abbey overlies the site of what was one of the largest cathedrals in medieval England. Now its remains, together with traces of the Anglo-Saxon monastery that preceded it, have been brought to light once more. Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy, Bob Davis, Cai Mason, Bruce Eaton, Sophie Clarke, and Marek Lewcun explain.
The city of Bath is famous for its spectacular Roman remains and Georgian architecture – but in the medieval period it was also home to one of the largest cathedrals in England. Constructed between the 1090s and the 1160s, this soaring religious building would have been an imposing sight, yet by the beginning of the 16th century its once-grand walls lay in ruins, and its remains today lie beneath Bath Abbey. Now, though, traces of the long-lost cathedral – as well as the Anglo-Saxon monastery that preceded it – are being brought to light once more through excavations by Wessex Archaeology.
The opportunity to investigate came thanks to the Bath Abbey Footprint project, a £19.3 million Heritage Lottery Fund initiative to repair the Abbey’s collapsing floor; install a new eco-friendly heating system using the same hot springs that inspired the Romans to build their great temple to Sulis-Minerva and propelled the city to prosperity as a fashionable 18th-century spa town; and to provide new and improved facilities for local residents, worshippers, and visitors alike. Excavations are due to continue until late in the year, but the works have already uncovered a wealth of evidence to illuminate over a millennium of religious activity on the site.
Before the Norman cathedral, the site was home to a renowned monastery associated with Anglo-Saxon kings. The first evidence of this institution comes from a 12th-century copy of an earlier charter stating that, on 6 November 675, King Osric of the Hwicce gave 100 hides of land at Hat Bathu (‘the Hot Baths’) to a ‘convent of holy virgins’ headed by Abbess Bertha (a woman who probably came from Francia). It is possible that this subsequently became a ‘double house’ – these mixed-sex but strictly segregated religious centres were not uncommon in the Anglo-Saxon period, and were often overseen by abbesses – or it may have changed into a male-only community, as a later land grant in 757 refers to the ‘brethren of St Peter in Bath’.
A more dramatic change came in 781, though, when King Offa of Mercia claimed much of the monastery’s land for himself, effectively making Bath into a royal manor. But while this grab might suggest a decline in the religious community’s fortunes, Offa is also credited with building the ‘wonderfully wrought’ (as it is described in a charter of 957) minster-church of St Peter, possibly recycling some of the conveniently to-hand masonry from the collapsed Roman temple and bath complex of Aquae Sulis.
This church was later chosen by King Edgar (a great-grandson of Alfred the Great) for his coronation in 973, yet, despite the monastery’s apparently exalted status, until recently its physical remains have remained elusive. Antiquarian investigations of the 18th and 19th centuries were more interested in uncovering Roman Bath than recording the medieval remains that they dug through, but we do know that at least some elements of Anglo-Saxon architecture were uncovered, including stone window frames, fragments of ornately carved masonry, and a (probably 10th- or 11th-century) lead plaque marked with a cross that commemorates a ‘sister of the community’ called Eadgyth.
It was not until the 1990s that significant traces of the monastery began to emerge: excavations by Bath Archaeological Trust uncovered part of an extensive cemetery lying to the south of the present abbey. Radiocarbon dating of three of the 20 excavated burials placed them in the 8th or 9th century, and now Wessex Archaeology’s recent work has uncovered further Anglo-Saxon graves containing the remains of adult men and women, as well as juveniles.
Discovered in the abbey vaults 3m below street level, these included two rare ‘charcoal burials’: a funerary rite that involved placing the body or coffin on, or covering it with, a layer of charcoal. This practice may have been associated with purification, Senior Osteoarchaeologist Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy suggests: ‘During this period, cleanliness of both the body and spirit were potent religious concerns, so charcoal might well have been chosen for its absorptive powers – not necessarily to prevent the corpse from polluting the surroundings, but also to protect the “clean” remains from the “unclean” cemetery soil. Charcoal, like ash, was also symbolic of purity and penitence, in these instances perhaps relating to the mourners as much as the deceased.’
The discovery of two examples of this rare grave-type presented a valuable opportunity to record them with the latest techniques available, including creating a 3D model of the graves for future analysis. If these people were members of the monastic community, Wessex Archaeology has also uncovered the remains of structures that the Anglo-Saxon individuals may have recognised in their lifetime. The foundations of two small but well-built structures, with plaster coating their internal faces, were uncovered during the recent work. Both are apsidal (semi-circular) in shape, and may represent the eastern ends of buildings; such constructions are sometimes found in high-status Roman structures, as well as in Anglo-Saxon and Norman churches and chapels.
In this case, it is thought that the structures may be early medieval in date: they overlie Romano-British deposits and pre-date two burials that are likely to date from the medieval period, while these buildings are also located in an area that is likely to have been open ground (the Norman cloister garth) from the mid-12th century onwards, suggesting that they are probably earlier than this. It is hoped that further dating evidence will emerge in the course of the excavations that will allow the team to investigate the structures’ relationship with the adjacent cemetery and determine if they did indeed form part of the Anglo-Saxon monastery.
If the monastery had achieved high status during the Anglo-Saxon period, the aftermath of the Norman Conquest propelled the site to new heights. These changes came at the hands of John of Tours, who was appointed Bishop of Wells in 1088 and, two years later, reportedly bought the entire town of Bath from William II (William Rufus) for 500 marks of silver. John promptly moved the bishopric and its see from Wells to Bath and, eager to improve his new lands, he launched an extensive rebuilding programme, including replacing the minster church with a huge new cathedral.
So ambitious was this construction that, by the time of John’s death in 1122, only the cathedral’s ambulatory had been completed. The project was struck by a number of setbacks, including a devastating fire in 1137, but by the 1160s it was finally finished. The result would have been truly awe-inspiring to Anglo-Norman eyes. Bath cathedral was one of the largest in England, surpassed only by Ely, Norwich, and Winchester. It is thought to have measured more than 100m in length – today, the present abbey sits comfortably within the outline of its nave. But how much of the cathedral’s fabric has survived to the modern day?
In fact, Wessex Archaeology’s excavations revealed that much of the 16th-century abbey’s foundations are made from reclaimed Norman masonry, and in some cases walls rest directly on top of the cathedral’s remains. A reused pillar capital could be seen forming part of the base of a pier for a later column, while other fragments of Norman architecture were recovered during the investigation. Some of these were decorative features, including an unusual – and rather personable – head carved out of Bath stone, which may have been part of an elaborate corbel, supporting the base of an arch. Many such carvings of this period depict saints or other holy figures, but it has been suggested that this example – which represents a bearded man with a distinctive large nose – may have been a portrait, or even a self-portrait, of one of the individuals involved in the cathedral’s construction.
Bob Davis, Senior Buildings Archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology, agrees that the figure is more likely to be a mortal mason than a celestial subject: ‘The carved head has strong features and is depicted with a full beard, large nose, protruding eyes, and prominent eyebrow ridge. It lacks the refinement of other such carvings – the eyes for instance, are simple bulges, while the nose may appear broken. It was probably originally to be found at the base of an arch or corbel, and although many such medieval head carvings depict saints and clergy, some may depict the masons who actually worked on the cathedrals and abbeys. This character lacks the detail of a saint, and his strong features suggest that he may be a manual worker.’