Planning a New Cathedral

Plan of Bath Priory at the Dissolution However, a new cathedral would be a massive undertaking. Bishop King took a year to turn the matter over in his mind and consult powerful and expert friends. In October 1500 he wrote to the new prior about rebuilding the church. He had decided that a large chunk of the priory income should be devoted to it. Monastic belts would have to be tightened. To sweeten the medicine King declared that he intended to raise funds himself. That, he said, would make it possible to do in a few years what could scarcely be done in a hundred by the priory alone.

His plan was a smaller church, just covering the area of the Norman nave. That was understood long ago. What is astonishing is how many secrets this important building has kept over the centuries for us to unmask in the last few years. Bath Abbey 2000 inspired me to make a study of the Abbey's past through its fabric and its records, financed by the British Academy. Meanwhile Nimbus Conservation staff uncovered surprises as they stripped away the grime and the Bath Archaeological Trust unearthed parts of the monastic layout. It has been an exciting time.

Lady Chapel in Gloucester Cathedral (Mark Fiennes)The east end of the Abbey has come in for a good deal of criticism, aesthetically. It has a blank look about it. Happily I can retrieve the reputation of its Tudor architects. It was not designed that way. A peculiarity of the Abbey is that the eastern ends of the choir aisles extend out beyond the east window. Where were they going? Smith's view of Bath around 1568 shows the Abbey Church with a Lady chapel. That is no surprise, really. We know that the new cathedral had a Lady chapel, and it would be very odd not to have it in the same position as before. We can only guess what it looked like, but perhaps the wonderfully light and delicate Lady chapel of Gloucester Cathedral conveys some idea. It was built just a few years earlier than Oliver King's cathedral. The cult of the Virgin Mary was still in full force.

Bath Priory at the time of the Dissolution Another new discovery underlines this. On the turrets of the west front are the statues of 12 saints, which have hitherto been neatly explained as the 12 apostles. But down by the door are larger statues of Peter and Paul, patron saints of the priory. Peter of course was the leader of the apostles. Unless he was duplicated above, that would leave a gap for someone else. But who? Sally Strachey of Nimbus thought even at first sight that one of the figures had a subtly feminine air. Once she set to work on it, stripping away the cement of Victorian restorers, she could see long hair elegantly looped back into the nape of the neck and a jewelled crown. It could only be the Virgin Mary who had gazed down so long unrecognised.

Section of Bath Abbey by John Carter 1798So we would expect a Lady chapel, but what about the odd arrangement of the cloister? Why was the north cloister not skirting the church as usual? Why was the dormitory not linked to the south transept? The problem for Bishop King was that the cloister had already been cut down. If he did not want to knock down the dormitory, he would have to fit the transept of his new church around it somehow. That in turn pushed the north cloister into an unconventional position.

The cloister doors are still there to be seen in the Abbey. Nowadays one leads into the shop and the other into the vestry. How do we know that they are cloister doors? The Tudor arches show that they are original features. They open outwards. It would be a poor piece of design if they had originally swung out into the open to be soaked with rain, so clearly they led somewhere under cover. But the most telling feature is the way that they sidle up to one side of the bay they are in.

Drawing of the south side of the Abbey Church in 1755 (British Library)Inset view of Bath Abbey from Joseph Gilmore's map of Bath 1694 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)Originally the rhythm of bays on the south side of the church was broken by the claustral ranges. A drawing made just after the Abbey House was taken down shows clearly that the range was wider than the normal bay, while the cloister alley was narrower. Once the ranges were gone, the bays could be regularised and the windows over the old cloister doors widened, leaving the doors off-centre.

For years the western cloister door led into the garden of the Abbey House. We can see it on Gilmore's view of the Abbey in 1694. Dr Robert Pierce was the lessee of the house at the time. He was one of the spa doctors of the period, who lodged wealthy patients in their own houses near the baths. Pierce could offer a unique advantage - this private entrance to the Abbey, particularly useful, he said, for brides that limped.

The Jacobean vestry was built onto the eastern cloister door. Beside it Gilmore shows a small door rather inaccurately. In fact it was a blocked Tudor door and the bay in which it sits has no plinth, since it was once an internal wall. Because of the higher level of the Tudor church, this door would have led almost directly into the first-floor dormitory. (The present door is a 19th-century replacement.)

Continue to Building of Vertue.