Offa's Abbey

Coin of Offa (British Museum)The patronage of Bath later belonged to the Bishop of Worcester. However, there is no charter granting Bath to the see, unless we count Osric's hopeful preamble in 675. So the bishop was helpless in the face of a dubious claim by Offa of Mercia (757-96). Offa argued that the see was wrongly holding the inheritance of his kinsman King ∆thelbald of Mercia (died 756), including ninety hides in Bath. The dispute was resolved at the Synod of Brentford in 781, when Bishop Heathored 'restored' to Offa and his heirs 'that most famous monastery at Bath'. In addition to the ninety hides claimed as ∆thelbald's (presumably the 100 hides granted to Berta), the bishop granted thirty hides near Bath on the south side of the Avon, which the bishopric had 'bought at a proper price from Cynewulf, King of the West Saxons [757-86]'.(1)

A puzzling entry in the Bath cartulary may be a mangled record of that purchase. It purports to be a charter of 808 by Cynewulf, King of the Saxons, granting North Stoke to the brethren of the monastery of St Peter in Bath, witnessed by Offa and Archbishop Cuthbert (d.758).(2) Clearly the date should be 757 or 758. But a more serious problem is that North Stoke was not in Wessex. Probably a genuine grant by Cynewulf was later reworked to legitimise the Abbey's tenure of North Stoke.(3) The monks attributed the grant to King Cenwulf of Mercia (796-821),(4) and presumably added the spurious date. If the reference to the brethren was from a genuine charter of Cynewulf, then it is the first record of Bath as a masculine house. Gloucester Abbey also changed from convent (or double house) to monastery after the death of the Abbess Eafe in 757.(5)

Why was Offa anxious to gain control of Bath? The Avon was the dividing line between the rival powers of Wessex and Mercia.(6) The mighty Offa had subdued other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and could call himself King of all the English. From his time the Hwiccian dynasty, never truly independent of Mercia, were termed under-kings or ealdormen.(7) Wessex however showed fight. Offa had defeated Cynewulf in 779,(8) but he may have felt it prudent to guard his borders. The acquisition of Bath would put a frontier post under his direct control. From then until after the Conquest, Bath Abbey was a royal eigenkloster. Offa even gained papal dispensation for his ownership of several monasteries of St Peter, which he had acquired or erected.(9) Probably priests administered the estates as part of the royal demesne. That was a pervasive pattern at the time.

But while Bath lost its independence, it might hope to gain from royal interest. Offa had the means and the vision to build on a grand scale. A substantial monastery at Bath would provide useful accommodation for a royal household constantly on the move. Offa was apparently there in 793.(10) Certainly in the months after Offa's death in July 796, his son held court at the monastery in Bath.(11) So there seems no reason to doubt the word of William of Malmesbury that Offa built St. Peter's, although he was writing centuries later.(12) William was probably relying on information from the last Saxon monks at Bath. Major benefactors would be remembered in the prayers of the community and possibly in inscriptions on the fabric, so the monks could have been entirely reliable. In 957 Bath monastery was described by King Edwy as marvellously built.(13) By that time stone churches were no longer so rare in themselves as to excite such comment, so we must suppose that Bath's was exceptionally fine. The architecture may have impressed simply by the reuse of Roman materials, but it is possible that Offa actually revived Roman building methods in emulation of Carolingian work. He certainly matched Charlemagne in striking coins in Roman style. Offa was the greatest of English kings before Alfred and his dealings with Charlemagne betray a conscious rivalry.(14)

Apart from the church itself, there was probably only a loose grouping of cells for the priests and some communal buildings. But where was Offa's monastery? Saxon burials spread over a wide area south of the present Abbey Church are clearly linked with the abbey. Finds in this area include a tenth-century lead cross inscribed Eadgyvu...a sister of the community. This has been interpreted as a re- interment of one of the seventh-century nuns, but seems more likely to record a benefactress of the monastery. (Patrons had burial rights.) Recently the footings of a substantial Saxon wall have been discovered south of this cemetery, which must be part of the abbey.(15)

Notes

  1. English Historical Documents Vol. 1, ed. D.Whitelock (1961), p.466.
  2. Two Chartularies, chart.1, no.19 (Sawyer no.265).
  3. I am indebted to Dr M.Costen for this suggestion.
  4. Two Chartularies chart.2, no.808, referring to King Cenwulf, father of St Kenelm, i.e. Cenwulf of Mercia, alleged father of the saint.
  5. Finberg, Early Charters of the West Midlands, p.161.
  6. ∆thelweard, p.52.
  7. Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature, p.33.
  8. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
  9. W.Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (Oxford, 1946), pp.29-31.
  10. Mattaei Parisiensis, Monarchi Sancti Albani, Chronica Majora ed. H.R.Luard, Rolls (1872-83), Vol.1, p.356.
  11. J.M.Kemble ed. Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici (1838-48), no.171; no.170 seems to be a poor copy of 171, substituting town for monastery (both Sawyer no.148).
  12. Willelmi Malmesbirienses, Monarchi, de Gestis Pontificum Anglorum, ed. N.E.S.A.Hamilton, Rolls (1870) , p.194.
  13. Two Chartularies, chart.1, no.18 (Sawyer no.643).
  14. R.Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement (1989), pp.126-9.
  15. B.Cunliffe, 'The abbey and its precinct' and D.Hinton 'Saxon finds' in B.W.Cunliffe ed., Excavations in Bath 1950-1975 (Bristol, 1979), pp.90, 138-40; R.Bell, 'Bath Abbey: some new perspectives', Bath History Vol. 6 (1996), pp.14-5, fig.4.