The History of Bath
Three interwoven threads can be traced through Bath’s history: the effects of war; Bath as a place of leisure; and the city’s religious significance. Unusually Bath’s foundation came not from its strategic significance, but because of the hot springs that are still of great importance to the tourist industry today, and it can be argued that of the three threads leisure is predominant.
Legend has it that the future Celtic King Bladud discovered the springs while a swineherd during his banishment for leprosy: the waters cured him and he built a settlement dedicated to the goddess Sul on the site when he succeeded to the throne.
Soon after the Romans invaded they saw the potential of the natural springs and circa 50AD erected a temple to Sulis-Minerva, as ever incorporating local gods in their pantheon. A town grew around this, expanding as the occupiers developed sophisticated facilities with hot, warm and cold baths. Some of this work can still be seen, the Roman Baths rediscovered in 1880.
When the Romans departed in the early 5th century Bath seems to have survived, possibly as a local market centre, and the legendary battle of Mons Badonicus where Arthur is supposed to have defeated the early Saxon invaders around 500AD is placed by some near Bath (though it has numerous other suggested sites). More certainly Bath came under Saxon control after they defeated the Britons at nearby Deorham in 577.
The Christian Church arrived with the Romans, and seemingly survived in pockets locally. In 675AD Osric, a local Saxon King, founded a monastery in the town, a century or so later Offa of Mercia taking control there and enlarging the church. Another 100 years on and Bath was one of King Alfred ’s network of burghs, readied to combat the Danes, its military role in parallel with its economic role as a market town. The importance of Bath in the Saxon era is highlighted by the coronation there in 973 of Edgar , seen by some as first King the English – it was a royal place, as it continued to be so often in its history.
After the Norman Conquest Bath remained a royal possession until 1088, when it was burned during the conflict to succeed William the Conqueror . The winner of that clash, William Rufus , sold the place to his physician John of Tours, made its bishop (once he moved his bishopric from Wells). In time John became one of its great improvers, his work including the construction of a grand church as his cathedral. An equally grand project was initiated by another bishop, Oliver King, prompted to build a great abbey there by a vision in 1499: it was completed just before Henry VIII ’s Dissolution.
Soon after ascending the throne in 1199 King John took a house near the warm springs, which eventually by association became known as the King’s Bath; his son Henry III equally enjoyed the waters. A royal charter had been given to Bath in 1189; Elizabeth I in 1590 granted another, allowing it city status and a mayor at the head of a local council, creating the machinery of government needed to develop the settlement.
Elizabeth’s reign saw another golden era for the spa, the trade associated with it making up for the declining wool trade that had thrived for a time in the medieval period. She visited in 1574, bringing her court, indeed holding a Privy Council there. Many courtiers paid further visits for their own pleasure, prompting the construction of several great inns and houses to lodge rich visitors like Sir Walter Raleigh and Robert Dudley.
The reign of Elizabeth’s successor, James I and VI, saw continued royal patronage of the spa, his wife Anne of Denmark seeking relief from dropsy in its waters, whose medicinal virtues had been extolled in print by William Turner, the Dean of Wells, in 1562; as they were again in 1688 by Thomas Guidott, a doctor practising in Bath. Local entrepreneurs were not inactive either, the waters first being bottled for sale in 1661. Turner had proposed much needed improvements to the spa, whose unchanging waters were filthy; sluices were soon financed and built (with royal encouragement); and the Queen’s Bath added to segregate the sexes.
During the Civil War Bath changed hands twice, first after the costly 1643 Royalist victory at the Battle of Lansdowne; and second after the local commander surrendered to Parliament two years later. But the city suffered far more from plagues than the war, seeing four major outbreaks in the 17th century.
As the 18th century dawned the attractions of Bath changed. The medical virtues of its waters were still acclaimed, and in 1706 a Pump Room was constructed (replaced in 1795); but they became secondary to more fashionable recreations: the first Theatre Royal was built; and in 1704 Beau Nash arrived to preside as Master of Ceremonies in Bath, remaining until his death in 1762. Nash set a tone for the entertainments: music; dances; social gatherings: blending respectability with excitement and innovation. This was surely the heyday for the city, attracting the upper classes in droves, their needs provided for by such men as William Herschel , who arrived in 1766 to teach music and play the organ, but more famously discovering Uranus (called by him Georgium Sidus – George’s Star) there in 1781.
From 1728 when John Wood the Elder began work on Queen’s Square until 1782 when his son, also John, died, the built environment of Bath was transformed into the Georgian treasure-house still seen today: the Circus; the North and South Parades; the Assembly Rooms ; and most elegantly the Royal Crescent were all their creations. Their growing city spread outwards, embracing and including large expanses of greenery.
Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1805, and visited at least twice previously, and she used it brilliantly in her novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey; but when she arrived in 1801 it was to accompany her parents moving there to retire. This reflected the change in the city: it had gone down-market, so the upper classes chased their pleasures elsewhere, making 19th century Bath the Eastbourne of its day. The railways linked it with Bristol and London in the 1840s, but neither industry nor tourism took great advantage of their arrival, the seaside more to Victorian tastes.
During WWII more than 300 buildings were totally destroyed and 400 residents killed in a blitz of the city, but the essential Georgian character survived it and the well-intentioned but clumsy expansion in the post-war period. In 1987 Bath was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, an honour it certainly merits.