Many of today’s visitors who flock to Bath in the west of England do so because of Jane Austen. The great novelist (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, etc.) lived in Bath (although she never really liked the city), and you can still walk through streets of beautiful Georgian houses, perfectly preserved since her day.
But Bath is older than Jane Austen. Much older; its origins go back to Roman times. It was the Roman invaders who first discovered the waters that give the city its name. They built great square communal baths, which can still be visited and are fed by the natural springs that pour forth the water famous for its healing properties.
Centuries later, the fashionable people of Austen’s day flocked here to drink the water, take rest cures, and enjoy a social life of dances and dinners, music and gossip. And they did plenty of building: The Pump Room, central meeting place for the fashionable and the famous, still welcomes visitors for tea served with elegance and style.
Bath has one of the finest abbey buildings in England, magnificently restored as part of a Millennium project in 2000. The building today is owned and used by the Church of England, but for Catholics, there is much to see that is of interest and importance. This city, first developed by the Romans in about the year A.D. 60, has evidence of Christianity from about the time of A.D. 270-300.
The first Christians here would have been Romano-Celtic: Catholic, loyal to Rome, worshipping in Latin, conscious of belonging to a universal Church. Later, after the Roman withdrawal from Britain, the pagan Angles and Saxons arrived, and there was a major battle, the Battle of Dyrham, in which the Saxons captured Bath.
But these pagans were converted in their turn, and by 676, there was a Christian convent in the city. By the middle of the next century, Cynewulf, king of the West Saxons, granted land to monks to build an abbey here.
Bath Abbey was, and still is, dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul. It has a special resonance in English history because it was here that Edgar, the first effective king of all England, was crowned in the year 973 in a great ceremony at which Sts. Dunstan and Oswald took part. Today, a plaque in the floor commemorates this and notes that Queen Elizabeth II and the duke of Edinburgh came here in 1973 for a service to mark the anniversary.
Just a few years later, in 980, St. Elphege became abbot here. His feast day is this week, on April 19. By now, Bath Abbey was of major significance in the life of the nation. Elphege’s own life, however, was not an easy one. Appointed archbishop of Canterbury, he took up new responsibilities in London and would later meet his death there, martyred by savage Viking raiders when he refused to renounce his faith after he was captured by them. He was slaughtered at Greenwich on the River Thames, where a church is dedicated to him.
After the Norman Conquest, the Saxon abbey that Elphege knew was rebuilt on a grander scale. Then there was another major rebuilding in 1499. This is substantially the building that we see today, but, of course, it ceased to be an abbey in 1539 when, under Henry VIII, all of England’s abbeys and monasteries were forcibly closed, the monks driven away, and an era of persecution of Catholicism began.
What saved the abbey as a building? It was needed as a parish church, and at the beginning of the 17th century, its roof was restored and repair work carried out — everything had been stripped away under Henry — so that it could be used for Anglican services.
Then came the era of Bath’s greatest fame: the 18th century. Among those who knew Bath Abbey was Richard “Beau” Nash, who was master of ceremonies in the heyday of the city’s fashionable social life; a wall tablet commemorates him. Another who worshipped here was Isaac Pitman, inventor of Pitman’s shorthand.
Today, you can gaze up at the magnificent vaulted ceiling that dates to the early 16th century. You can trace an older history in the St. Elphege chapel or visit the chantry chapel of William Birde, the abbey’s last prior. You can also note an American link: The U.S. senator and land developer William Bingham died in Bath in 1804 and is buried in the abbey.
Link to the Past
You will find little trace of the long-ago monks whose presence created this whole building and who were the custodians of its message. But you will find that somehow you can feel a bond with them if you kneel and say a quiet prayer, knowing that the walls echoed to their chants and to the words of the Mass and Daily Office long ago.
The restoration work carried out from 1991-2000 has revealed a building of huge beauty, of which local people are justly proud and which has its unique place in Britain’s history. And the story isn’t over yet: Every visitor who comes here is part of it, and those who use the building for its real purpose — prayer — are part of a link that goes back to the Roman Empire itself, that same empire into which Christ was born.
While you are in Bath, drop in to one of the city’s Catholic churches (St. John’s in South Parade, St. Mary’s in Julian Road and St. Peter and Paul out at Combe Down). Pray that one day all Christians in England will be in union with Peter’s successor in Rome.
Joanna Bogle writes
12 Kingston Buildings
Bath BA1 1LT
Planning Your Visit
Bath Abbey is open for visitors Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Sundays from 1-2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. It is closed for visits during Anglican service times. The Vaults Heritage Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tower tours throughout the day take place daily, except on Sunday. The abbey will be closed from June 29-July 2 inclusive.
Bath Abbey can be reached by rail from London (Paddington) in about two hours: Take the train to Bath Spa. There are also buses from London (Victoria coach station). By car: Follow the M4 or A4, but note that car parking is difficult in the city.