The visit of Bishop Oliver King from Wells in 1499 began a transformation of the Bath Priory. The monastic establishment was judged to be morally lax and the medieval church was decaying rapidly. Legend has it that a message came to the Bishop in a dream:
“Let an olive establish the Crown and let a King restore the Church”
Bishop King set about reorganizing the Priory and decided to pull down what was left of the old Norman church and build a smaller one, the present Abbey, in its place.
It was to be the last of the Perpendicular Gothic Churches of England to be built, and was called “The Lantern of the West” because of the great expanse of 52 glass windows. Today, the Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Paul has some of the finest fan vaulting in the country and is second only to Westminster Abbey in the number of intricate memorials adorning its walls. The story of Bishop King’s dream is depicted in the masons’ art on the West front. The King, Henry VII, can be seen above the main West door. On the pillars either side there is a Bishop’s mitre above an olive tree, surrounded by a crown. This is known as a ‘rebus’, a pictorial representation of the name.
The Dissolution of the Church
The 1534 Act of Supremacy allowed Henry VIII to take the place of the Pope as Head of the Church of England. In the following year, Thomas Cromwell sent out commissioners to report on the revenues and righteousness of the monasteries. Bath escaped the initial suppression thanks to a series of well-timed bribes. However, Bath Abbey was eventually surrendered to the Crown by Prior Holloway and the monastic establishment was dissolved in 1539. The Priory had given monastic property to local landowners so that the Crown could not confiscate them.
After the remaining valuables had been conveyed to the King, the church was offered to the city for 500 marks. However, this was refused and the building was gutted. Looters removed the bells and sold the lead from the roof, the glass from the windows and the wood from the pews. The shell was sold to a private landowner and left to ruin.
It was eventually returned to the city as a gift in 1572 and some attempt was made to restore the derelict church. Peter Chapman, a soldier from one of Bath’s great families, undertook initial efforts of renovation. Elizabeth I aided the cause in 1573 by authorizing a nation-wide collection over seven years to pay for reroofing and reglazing. She decreed that the Abbey should become the Parish Church of the City, causing the demise of all the other churches within the city boundary, consequently, Bath has no medieval churches.
The Rise of Tourism
The restoration of the Abbey was mirrored by the renovation of the Baths. In 1576, John de Feckenham built a Poor Folk’s Hospice adjacent to the Hot Bath, funded by the Corporation. The King’s Bath was embellished in 1578 and again in 1624. The New Bath was built in 1576 to provide cooler facilities for bathers. It was renamed Queen’s Bath after Queen Anne of Denmark (wife of James I) visited in 1613 and 1615.
The 16th Century was a time when Bath began to embrace what we now know as the ‘tourist trade’ in preference to the woollen industry. As well as the attraction of the Baths, sports became popular with the many visitors. The land south east of the Abbey was made into a bowling green and to the east of Kings Bath were five Real Tennis courts.
The middle and upper classes congregated in the west of the City, where the wind from the Mendip Hills blew away the urban pollution. The Abbey Church House and Westgate House attracted Royalty and the fashionable. Even St. John’s Hospital embraced this new trend and turned over some of its almshouses to be used as lodgings for the visitors.
The very buildings of Bath began to change. In the early 17th Century, a decree was passed that “every person that hath a thatched house shall not mend his house with thatch, but shall repair it with tyle or slate”.
In 1552 a Charter granted the Mayor and citizens of Bath all property previously owned by the Priory in the city. This enabled the establishment of King Edward’s School.
On 4th September 1590 Queen Elizabeth I laid the foundation for the present structure of local government. The Charter of Incorporation to the City of Bath confirmed the existing system by granting the Corporation Mayor, Aldermen and City Councillors authority over the city including the power to make by-laws and to prosecute offenders.
Bath in the Civil War
In 1642 Bath became a Parliamentarian garrison and the following year Sir William Waller, commander of the Parliamentary forces in Bath, and Sir Charles Hopton, commander of the Royalist forces, fought the Battle of Lansdown. A stone monument marks the site where the Royalists triumphed, despite suffering heavy losses. Following the battle large numbers of troops descended on Bath. The 2000 inhabitants were overwhelmed as their homes and supplies were looted
The Path to Greatness
It was not until the restoration of the Monarchy under Charles II that Bath was given the impetus for regeneration. During his reign gaming was introduced and accepted on a large scale, paving the way for Bath to emerge as a gaming capital during the 18th century. The King brought his wife, Catherine of Braganza, to patronize the Baths, in the vain hope that this would produce his first legitimate heir.
Mary of Modena, wife of James II, had more success. She visited Bath in 1687 needing an heir to the throne, and following her visit gave birth to a son. To celebrate this event, the Duke of Melfort had a large, baroque styled cross, with cherubs adorning the top, erected in the centre of the Cross Bath. The ornate cross was taken down later when the country became Protestant. One of the cherubs can still be seen today, standing with an arm outstretched above a shop at the bottom of Milsom Street.