The mystery of Bladud

Statue of Bladud beside the King's Bath (Roman Baths Museum)

There he sits, this enigmatic regal figure, presiding over the Bath waters. Almost everyone who visits Bath will see King Bladud in his niche overlooking the King's Bath and read the plaque proclaiming him the founder of this city. But who was Bladud?

Every Bathonian knows the story. Once upon a time there was an prince called Bladud who was barred from the royal court because he had leprosy. The unhappy exile wandered the land as a swineherd and his pigs too became afflicted with the disease. One day, seeing his charges wallowing in some strangely hot springs and coming out cured, he tried the waters himself and his leprosy was washed away. In gratitude he built a city at Bath when he became king.

There is not an item of truth in this tale. (You might have guessed that from the happy ending.) Bath was a Roman creation. But was there a real Prince Bladud? Actually there was. In fact there were several of them.

Perhaps we should start at the beginning. The first person to name Bladud as the founder of Bath was a 12th-century spinner of tales called Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey seems to have been of Welsh or Breton stock and proud of it. Some Bretons came over with William the Conqueror and settled in South Wales, where they must have felt very much at home. The Bretons were related to the Welsh and spoke almost the same Celtic language. They had a common history. This proud warrior race had been subdued by the Romans and then threatened by successive waves of Germannic and Norse invaders. Their hero was Arthur, who had fought back with a vengeance. No wonder Geoffrey of Monmouth wallowed in nostalgia for a golden Celtic past.

Nowadays many people are fascinated by the Celts, with their love of nature and their liquid, swirling art. But those who write about them now have all the resources of archaeology to draw on, not to mention modern libraries. We can lay hands easily on the Classical authors who described the Celts before they learned to write for themselves. Geoffrey lived in times that were harder on historians. We can picture him, a cleric in Oxford, naively searching for the writings of an illiterate people.

He could find little until his friend Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, gave him a 'very ancient book written in the British language'. Geoffrey tells us that he set himself to translate it into Latin. The result was the History of the Kings of Britain, completed about 1135 and an immediate best-seller. Geoffrey traced the royal line from one Brutus of Troy, the imaginary founder of Britain, through a host of supposed pre-Roman sovereigns to Cadwallader, a genuine king of Gwynedd who died in 664 AD. He devoted most space to a detailed and loving treatment of 'King' Arthur, which has ensured the eternal popularity of his book.

The whole thing is a mishmash of history, legend and sheer invention. Where did he get it from? Despite Geoffrey's emphasis on the 'very ancient book', he evidently drew on many sources, including Classical writers, changing and elaborating to suit his purposes. But scholars feel that his key source must have been a manuscript book similar to one now in the British Library. This contains the work of Nennius (c.800 AD), from whom Geoffrey took the legend of Brutus, the Welsh Chronicles, which mention Arthur, and Welsh royal genealogies traced back into the late Roman period. Early Welsh pedigrees were pretty confusing. A whole host of cadet lines could be laid out one after the other without any dates, suggesting to the unwary reader one long line stretching back into the mists of time. One can picture Geoffrey excitedly imagining that he had found a path into prehistory.

But how could he clothe these names in regal grandeur? How was he to build a status for the ancient Britons to rival that of the Romans or Greeks? One ploy was to link vaguely Celtic names with similar-sounding English cities to give them a Celtic origin. Geoffrey's 'Kings' Lud, Leir and Bladud were claimed to be the founders of London, Leicester and Bath. All three cities were actually of Roman foundation. I should explain that Bladud (Welsh Bleiddudd) sounds a lot more like Bath when pronounced by a Welsh-speaker.

Geoffrey did not mention Bladud having leprosy or pigs - those features were added to the story centuries later. He used the description of Aquae Sulis from a 3rd- century Roman travel book - the baths, the temple to Minerva and so on - and boldly claimed that Bladud built it all. For good measure Geoffrey appropriated the Greek myth of the flying Daedalus and Icarus and adapted that to Bladud. Anything the Greeks could do ...

By the time Geoffrey wrote his fictional Life of Merlin around 1150, he had picked up a scrap of local knowledge that inspired a new twist to the tale. He declared that Bladud had named the baths after his consort Alaron. Once again Geoffrey's imagination had played on an intriguing name. In his day the King's Bath was still known by its Anglo-Saxon name, the Bath of Alron, meaning 'the foreign writing' or 'the old writing' - in other words the bath with the Roman inscriptions.

But who was the real Prince Bleiddudd? The name means wolf-lord. Names denoting bravery and nobility were popular among the Celts, so it is not surprising that early Welsh genealogies give us three royal Bleiddudds. Geoffrey himself mentions another two elsewhere in his story, but none of the real and fictional Bleiddudds match up in pedigree. The dark horse is Prince Bleiddudd, lord of Dyfed, celebrated in a delightful 9th-century Welsh poem 'In Praise of Tenby'. His ancestry is uncertain, so I propose we adopt him as our pretended founder. Bleiddudd of Tenby is described as generous and welcoming to poets, so perhaps his spirit will look kindly on the fiction that has flourished around his name.

First published in Bath City Life July 1995.

Further reading

John Clark, Bladud of Bath: The Archaeology of a Legend, Folklore vol. 105 (1994).