After the troubles of the Civil War and the restrictions of the puritanical Oliver Cromwell, the nation threw itself into enjoyment.
Bath flourished once more in the gaiety of the Restoration. Courtiers returned to the city, encouraged by Royal visits. Charles II came here early in his reign with Queen Catherine of Braganza. Later the king's favourite mistresses came to take the waters: the Duchesses of Cleveland and Portsmouth.
One royal visit was to have national repercussions. James II's queen conceived a son after bathing the Cross Bath. In fourteen years of married life, the devoutly Catholic Mary of Modena had produced no surviving child; the nation, increasingly unnerved by the king's pro-Catholic policies, had been deeply thankful. Until the Cross Bath worked its miracle. The birth of a prince in June 1688, next in line of succession before the Protestant princesses, was a staggering blow.
Leading Catholics naturally felt rather differently. Elated by the pregnancy, they had confidently predicted a son. Their joy was expressed in marble by the Duke of Melfort. He commissioned a massive baroque 'cross' for the Cross Bath. Redolent of Catholicism, it became an embarrassment to the Corporation within months of its erection. This ornate memorial to a lost cause had three columns supporting a dome with a cross on top. Around the dome were three cherubim. To make sure that the symbolism was not missed, inscriptions dedicated the cross to the Holy Trinity.
Before the year was out James II was hounded out of the country, while the nation rallied to the Protestant William of Orange. The child born to Mary of Modena lived out his life in exile as the Old Pretender. The Corporation waited only until James had fled to the coast before ordering the removal of the inscriptions from the Melfort Cross 'and all other superstitious things'.
The Cross Bath was particularly favoured by the aristocracy. To take the waters there was to plunge into pleasure. The early morning was the usual time chosen. (Pepys rose at four in a vain attempt to be in and out before the crowd.) The bath was then drained down to its pebble bottom at ten or eleven a.m. to fill up again for any evening bathers.
The bathers first changed into bathing costume in their own lodgings. The men wore canvas waistcoats of a sandy colour, edged and trimmed in black, canvas drawers and slippers and a linen cap. The women wore canvas gowns and petticoats, with pieces of lead fixed to the hems to keep them down under the water. Then they were carried direct from bedroom to baths in a type of sedan-chair, small and low with short poles for manoeuvrability, covered inside and out in red baize.
The chairmen would deliver them right into the 'slips' - the rooms opening onto the pool. One was for men, another for women. Going down the steps into the bath, the bather would be met by a bath guide and led to one of the stone seats. There he or she would sit, up to the neck in deliciously warm water. The more diminutive might need a stone 'cushion' to raise the seat.
Segregation of the sexes was the rule. The gentlemen were banned from the ladies' territory and fined by the bath sergeants for any transgression. But in so small a bath, nothing could prevent dalliance. The galleries overlooking the pool were a favourite place for gentlemen to ogle the beauties below and for musicians to serenade the bathers. The Cross Bath was known for fun and frolics. By the end of the seventeenth century bathing had become more of a pleasure than a prescription for health.
First published in Bath Through the Ages, Bath Chronicle 1 March 1999.
Jean Manco, 'The Cross Bath', Bath History vol. 2 (1988)