The wool town

Gradually Bath Cathedral Priory faded in importance as later bishops preferred Wells. The citizens began to assert their independence as the wool trade gave a new vigour to the local economy.

The Wool Trade

The Wife of Bath from the 'Ellesmere' copy of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales c.1400 (Huntington Library, California)Chaucer gave of his best in the rollicking tale of the much-married Wife of Bath. With her gusto in the marriage-bed, her determination to rule the roast, her generous hips and gap-toothed smile, she lives for us yet. But why did Chaucer feel that Bath would breed such an outspoken, independent widow? His fourteenth- century readers would have understood. She represented the rising class of wealthy clothiers. Her cloth, boasts Chaucer, was better than that of the famous cloth-making towns of Flanders. It was a comment on the changing times.

England was in the throes of an early industrial revolution. Instead of exporting wool to Flanders, the English began to make cloth themselves on a large scale. One technical development had a huge impact. The new invention of mechanical fulling by water-power gave the South-west, with its abundance of fast- running rivers and streams, a natural lead in the developing industry.

Bath was in the thick of it. Mills along the Avon which had been used for centuries to grind corn could be adapted, or new ones built especially for fulling. The spinners and weavers worked in their own cottages, not only in the city, but in the villages round about. People often took their name from their trade, so we can see which rose to the top. Among Bath's property-owning citizens in the fourteenth century were Ralph the Dyer, Alexander the Dyer and Richard Tucker. (Tucking was another name for fulling.) As time went on Bath's wealthy burghers became a force to be reckoned with.

Town v Cloister

The burghers had a degree of independence from early days. Richard I granted Bath's merchant guild the right to trade unhindered in 1189. Probably most of the burgesses were guildsmen. From organising their own guild it was a short step to acting as a 'commonalty' headed by a mayor, stamping documents with its own seal. Bath was represented in Parliament from 1268.

The citizens felt strong enough by 1260 to stand up to Bath Priory, the dominating presence in the town. They pressed the priory for clear rights to pasture cattle in Kingsmead at certain times of the year. For more dramatic civic assertion we have to wait until the next century. In 1343 a group of Bath's prominent citizens stood accused of breaking and entering Bath Priory, taking goods and £100 in money. The prior complained that they had assaulted his men so that their life was despaired of. The miscreants included Roger Cryst (a former Mayor of Bath) and his brother Richard. What was going on? The priory was deeply in debt at the time. It owed large sums left, right and centre. So it is all too likely that the prior had borrowed money from the citizens and refused to repay it.

St Catherine depicted in Tudor glass in the Church of St Catherine near Batheaston

Another act of defiance came in 1417. The commonalty ordered the city churches not to give precedence to the priory bells. By long-established custom the monks had rung the first bell in the morning and the last at night. Frantic appeals to the king brought a flow of orders to the citizens to desist, but to no avail. The Prior wailed that his monks could hardly manage the daily round of prayers without bodily discomfort. The dispute was not settled until 1423.

Bath's Patron Saint

Bath adopted St Catherine of Alexandria as its patron saint. Her symbol was the wheel, so she had become the patroness of spinning - a suitable heavenly guardian for a cloth-making town. Fourteenth-century burgesses had to take a solemn oath to observe St Catherine's Day (25 November) and maintain St Catherine's Chapel. The chapel was in the Church of St Mary in Stall Street and the wealth of Bath's clothiers was lavished upon it. The chapel was completely rebuilt by one of the most notable - William Philips of Broad Street. He was one of Bath's two Members of Parliament in 1420 and served as mayor at least four times. He also founded the Hospital of St Catherine.

First published in Bath Through the Ages, Bath Chronicle 1 March 1999.