Oliver King's Dream

Bath Abbey west frontSo Bath was part of a Tudor surge in monastic building. What was to raise it to the crest of the wave was the astonishing decision to rebuild the whole cathedral. Oliver King was appointed Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1496, but his role as Secretary to Henry VII kept him out of the diocese until 1499. In July that year Bishop King visited Bath Priory and was not impressed by what he found. There was idleness and women were allowed into the precinct at unseemly hours. There was feasting out of the refectory. (What did I tell you? It was a lot jollier elsewhere.) Worst of all, the church was utterly ruined, which King ascribed to the negligence of the prior. The shock may have hastened Prior Cantlow's end, for he died in August and was replaced by William Birde.

The story that King was inspired by a dream is one of those delightful legends that one cannot disprove precisely, but it has the smell of cod. The story emerges a century after King in the writings of Sir John Harington. Now the Elizabethans had a passion for symbolism. They admired what they called 'subtle devices'. The mark of a cultivated man was the ability to read the coded messages of something like the west front of the Abbey Church. The main motif is the ladder that appeared to Jacob in a dream, stretching up to heaven, with angels and Christ in majesty at the top. This is entirely biblical and appears on other ecclesiastical buildings, but could have suggested a dream theme. (For those unfamiliar with the story, Oliver King is supposed to have dreamt of this ladder. If he did, it was a pretty unoriginal dream!) Oliver King's rebus - the olive tree and crown - was recognised by Sir John, but also interpreted as Tudor peace. This was just the sort of ingenuity Elizabethans delighted in. So instead of the west front being inspired by a dream, it seems that the dream story was inspired by the west front.

However, it makes an apt metaphor. Bath presented Oliver King with an opportunity granted to few men - to create for himself a magnificent monument and a route to heaven. The new cathedral would praise the Lord on a grand scale and it would echo to the prayers of monks for their benefactor. Oliver King was a devout man of his age. He believed in the power of prayer to hasten the souls of the departed out of purgatory into heaven. He had already created a chapel for himself at St George's Chapel, Windsor, where he was a canon. However, monks dedicated their whole lives to God (in theory), so their prayers were sought-after as the most direct line to the Lord. King had castigated the monks of Bath for their decadence, so did he really believe that they had the same spiritual authority as their predecessors? If actions speak louder than words then he did. He intended to be buried in his new cathedral, although for centuries the bishops had been buried at Wells.

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