The Phoenix (Slowly) Rises

It was not until 1572 that an ambition rose in the breasts of the city fathers to take over what they called the Great Church. Edmund Colthurst, son of Matthew, was willing to sell it to the city. The mayor and burgesses petitioned the Queen. The reasons they gave for wanting to restore the Abbey Church are revealing. 'There is in the spring time and at the fall of the leaf yearly great repair to of noble men, men of worship and others for relief at the baths there and no convenient church...for any company to resort together to hear the word of God preached.' Bath had always attracted visitors, but the city was now on the verge of a renaissance as a fashionable spa. It needed a great church, not simply for its own year-round population, but for the seasonal flood of visitors taking the waters. However, this ambitious project was beyond the city purse, so the city fathers also asked for permission to gather charitable donations for the purpose. In addition they wanted to take over and enlarge St John's Hospital.

The Queen was disposed to be generous. In November 1572 Elizabeth granted to the city the patronage of St John's Hospital and the city churches. Edmund Colthurst was given permission to grant the ruined monastic church to the citizenry, who could restore it as the city's parish church. She followed that in April 1573 with permission for collections to be made for seven years nation- wide towards the rebuilding of the Abbey Church and the enlarging of St. John's. A printed proclamation was issued, to be read out up and down the land. It painted a picture of Bath as the hospital of the nation, deserving the support of all - a shrewd fund-raising ploy. However, people tend to give more generously if they see the need for themselves. The nobility and gentry did indeed flock to the spa and a good many contributed to the Abbey works, but they were not to be rushed. The restoration took 45 years, longer than building the church in the first place.

The date 1573 wrapped round a mullion in the west front marks the start of work. Ten years later the impatient Corporation bribed the vicar-general Dr Aubrey to agree to the consolidation of the city parishes. The Abbey, he said 'is so celebrated, famous, magnificent and capacious that the word of God might be preached...there with greater advantage and dignity than has hitherto been possible in any of the [city] churches'. But he had to admit that the work was unfinished and the parishioners were allowed to continue attending their own churches until the Abbey was truly fit to receive them.

Sir John Harington of Kelston was an enthusiast for the restoration. In 1595 he wrote to Secretary of State Lord Burghley that work on the Abbey was progressing in fits and starts. At least it was more like a church than before, he said, 'when a man could not pray without danger of having good St Stephen's death, by the stones tumbling about our ears'. In 1598 the sick and aged Burghley came to see what the Bath waters could do for him. They worked no miracle and he died that year. But he had become interested in the Abbey, so his executor Thomas Bellott knew exactly what to do with the money Burghley left for pious uses. Bellott spent lavishly on the Abbey both from Burghley's legacy and his own pocket. Harington dubbed him 'Saint Bellott'.

Detail from Savile's map of Bath c.1600Savile's view of Bath shows how far things had progressed by 1600. You can see the remnants of arches jutting from the eastern ends, where fabric had been torn away. With the Lady chapel gone, the east window could be lengthened. Bellott paid for the glazing. The end result contributes to the wonderfully light interior of the 'Lantern of the West'. Money from the national collection paid for a new roof on the choir and repairs to the north transept. But it is obvious how much still needed to be done. There was a gaping hole where the south wall of the transept should have been. It had been shored up temporarily with buttresses by Elizabethan masons, who left a date on one of them, but it was not until 1604 that the money was raised to rebuild the wall. Still there remained the great problem of the nave. The urgent need was a new roof.

In 1608 Harington espied a ray of hope. James Montagu had been appointed the new bishop of Bath and Wells. For his first visit to Bath the following year, Harington wrote a Latin poem on the Abbey, which rang with praises of Bellott's generosity. It did not fall on deaf ears. Montagu became the final great benefactor needed to complete the Abbey restoration. He had already promised the lead for the nave roof from the bishopric's mines on Mendip. The timber was to come from the woods of various noblemen. All that was needed was the money for the workmen. Montagu came up with £1000. The bishop also helped to fit up the nave, while a host of other benefactors paid for the glazing. Some of their coats of arms survive, gathered together in one window.

Other benefactors contributed to new walls at the east ends of the choir aisles. They had probably been roughly sealed when the Lady chapel came down, but now they were rebuilt with doors and windows. The doors are a restrained, Protestant version of the Tudor doors at the west end, which have the symbols of the passion in the spandrels. At the east end one set of spandrels is plain, the other decorated with the initials and fleur-de-lis of the donor, Jeffrey Flower of Norton St Philip.

In 1616 Bishop Montagu was translated to Winchester. The final touch was added to the restoration in the following year. The great west doors were carved courtesy of Bishop Montagu's brother, Lord Chief Justice Sir Henry Montagu. He celebrated the Montagu contribution with their arms and the inscription: Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum est. (Behold how good and pleasing it is.) Just one year later Sir Henry found himself beholding the Abbey in sad circumstances, when he attended the funeral of Bishop Montagu. Despite the fact that Bath Abbey was no longer a cathedral, and in any case Montagu had moved to Winchester, the bishop insisted on being buried in the Abbey 'to stir up some more benefactors to that place'.

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