From Austerity to Luxury

Still the huge cathedral became something of a white elephant as later bishops moved back to Wells and created a magnificent cathedral there. Bath cathedral came a poor second and the priory with it. The occasional bishop gave a thought to Bath. Bishop Thomas Bekynton (1444-1465) paid for a new dormitory for the priory, although he built far more in Wells.

Prior Cantlow in stained glass at the Church of St Catherine near BatheastonSo Bath Priory was thrown back on its own resources. In Somerset Bath ranked second only to the enormously wealthy Glastonbury. Even so, massive rebuilding schemes could be hard to fund. John Dunster was Prior of Bath just after Bekynton's time. To rebuild the refectory he raised over 666 by various means including the sale of corrodies. A corrody was food, clothing and shelter. The priory should have been granting corrodies to its servants. Selling them was frowned on, but was a way to raise capital in return for supporting the corrodian for life. This left the priory burdened for many years. After Prior Dunster moved on in 1482 to become Abbot of St Augustine's, Canterbury, his successor, John Cantlow, was so incensed by the parlous state of the priory finances that he actually took his former prior to court. The case provides a fascinating insight into monastic life as we enter the Tudor age. Believe it or not, Dunster had carried away with him choice items of priory plate, pleading that he needed them to curry favour with the monks of St Augustine's. What had happened to spiritual values?

Bath Priory be-eth in great poverty for many causes declared Prior Cantlow, including the 'sudden ruin of...most of the church'. This was probably no sudden catastrophe, but the result of years of neglect, as both bishops and priors gave their minds and their money to other priorities. Despite his complaints Prior Cantlow did just the same. He rebuilt St Thomas a  Becket at Widcombe, the chapel and hospital of St Mary Magdalen in Holloway, the chancel of St Catherine near Batheaston and very probably the manor house there as well, which he seems to have used as a private retreat.

Abbey House from Joseph Gilmore's map of Bath 1694 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)Nor was he at all secretive about it. He left his name, his arms, or even his portrait on all his known buildings. His eagle badge can be seen in St Catherine's Chapel. That badge also appeared on the Abbey House. Also known as the prior's house, this was the west range of the priory, which survived until 1755. In the early days of monasticism the heads of houses slept and ate with the other monks, but gradually they drew apart, building their own private quarters, which were often above the cellarium, as in Bath, giving them their own entrance to the church. Gilmore drew the west side of the Abbey House in 1694. While the ogee door at ground level looks 14th century, the upper storeys, with their magnificent oriel windows, have all the hallmarks of the Tudor period. Clearly Prior Cantlow had excelled himself in the improvement of his own quarters.

Monastic austerity was a thing of the past. That was one of the reasons for the growing disenchantment with the monasteries. They absorbed a huge proportion of the nation's wealth, but to what purpose? Were they still powerhouses of prayer? The monks had grown fat, their leaders worldly. Cantlow's complaint that Prior Dunster had impoverished the priory was countered by the acid comment that since Cantlow rode around with 18 mounted retainers in livery, he couldn't be all that poor! Great monastic houses owned huge tracts of country; abbots and priors came to behave like other magnates, with pomp more visible than saintliness. We can see with the benefit of hindsight that it was a world whose days were numbered, but at the time there was no cloud on the horizon. The power of the monasteries was as yet unchallenged. The battle of Bosworth in 1485 had brought an end to draining civil war. With Henry VII holding firmly onto the throne, the monasteries could build in confidence.

The plan of the prior's lodging can be deduced from Gilmore's view. The ground floor would have been the priory storehouse. Above we are looking for the hall, great chamber and chapel that documents tell us the prior had. Probably the visitor would go up the outside stair and find himself in a screens passage, with the prior's great hall on the right. At the far end there would have been a dais where the prior sat in state, lit by the smaller oriel window. Beyond this would have been the prior's great chamber, with the larger oriel window. The curious window above the medieval door perhaps lit a private staircase. The chapel is easily picked out - the wing at right angles to the range had an ecclesiastical air and the correct east-west axis. The prior lived like a lord. It is not surprising that his house was easily converted to a lay mansion. Notice the small door beside the staircase. There was a door in roughly the same place on the other side of the range. Originally it was probably the passage through from the infirmary to the cloister, so that the walking wounded could join their brethren filing into the church for prayers.

Detail from Savile's map of Bath c.1600On the earlier view of Bath by Savile you can see a late medieval crocketted chimney where we would expect the prior's main rooms. In early periods the only heated living rooms in a monastery were the warming house and infirmary, but by Tudor times, abbots and priors were looking after their own comfort. To be fair, they also spread cosy domesticity through the monastery. On the south side of the Abbey House was the parlour. Parlour was from the French, meaning that monks could talk there with people from the world outside. In earlier periods it tended to be just a cold, dark, comfortless passage between the court and the cloister. This was a more cheerful Tudor replacement with a battlemented bay, built by Prior Cantlow.

Elsewhere it was the same story. At Cleeve Abbey in Somerset, where numbers had declined, a smaller refectory was rebuilt on a new site at the end of the 15th century. Cleeve belonged to the Cistercian order, which had once been notable for its austerity and rigour. The first Cistercians scorned the pomp, rich diet and ornate architecture of the older orders. Their Tudor successors had no such qualms. Inside the refectory is a fine timber roof, decorated with angels. In this comfortable room the monks could keep the table for which they became famous.

Shortly afterwards a new gatehouse was built at Cleeve by Abbot Dovel. On the outer side he inscribed a welcoming message: Gate be open, shut to no honest person. That was as it should be. It was part of a monk's vows to be hospitable to the stranger, but this had its temptations. By this time it was common for monks to prefer the richer fare of the guest hall to that of the refectory. Instead of silence and scriptures they could have gossip and gaiety. The monastic ideal of communal living was being eroded in bed and board. The concentration of so many religious on their own comfort did their image permanent harm.

Continue to The Dream.