A Building of Vertue

So the puzzles of the plan are explained. But what of the design? Oliver King was among the inner circle of the Royal Court. We may guess that among those he consulted about rebuilding were officers of the royal works and indeed the king himself. After all the monastery was anciently a royal foundation, which made Henry VII its patron. (His statue is on the west front.) The King's Master Mason, Robert Vertue, acted as architect. In January 1503 Robert and his brother William visited the bishop to discuss their design for the chancel vault. Later the same month the foundation stone was laid of Henry VII's new Lady chapel at Westminster Abbey with its great expanse of windows (made possible by ever more daring buttressing) and its glorious fan vault. With royal coffers at his disposal, Robert Vertue could ornament with a lavish hand. We may be loath to admit it, but Bath Abbey is cast a trifle in the shade. When the Vertues spoke to Bishop King, the Westminster chapel was not yet begun. They assured him that Bath's vault would surpass any other: 'there shall be none so goodly neither in England nor in France'. Did they believe it? Who knows. Reading between the lines I sense a certain rivalry. The bishop clearly feared that the royal project might lure away some of his best masons. He was adamant that no mason was to be let off.

The decision to vault the choir at Bath was made when the walls were almost up. Bishop King had been pressing on apace and hoped to have the whole church covered over by the end of that year. The square head of the east window shows that the original intention had been a flat timber ceiling. Notice how awkwardly the vaulting fits over it. The nave was not as far advanced and it was possible to change the great west window to an arched head.

Detail of Henry Savile's map of Bath c.1600

Bishop King remained in Bath for the next six months, anxiously watching over the realisation of his 'dream', but fate was unkind. On 29 August 1503 he died, with the church unfinished and unconsecrated. So Oliver King was actually buried at Wells. He was succeeded by Cardinal Hadrian de Castello. One can judge how far the stonework had progressed in King's lifetime by where the symbols of the two bishops appear. King's arms are fairly low down on the west front, with his rebus not much higher, while at the apex among the angels were once the arms of Castello. Castello's arms are still on the choir ceiling - now beautifully repainted by Nimbus, following a 19th-century colour scheme. His arms are also on the vaulting of the choir aisles. The arms of later bishops are conspicuous by their absence, so clearly the stonework was complete by 1518, when Castello was deprived of the see. However, with Bishop King's support gone, the vaulting of the nave could not be contemplated. The best early views of the Abbey show the stumps of flying buttresses on the nave. They would have had to be cut off when the plan was changed to a timber roof, to avoid their weight pushing in the walls without the compensating thrust of the vaulting.

Apart from the fan vaulting, the outstanding feature of the Abbey Church is Prior Birde's chantry, with its lush and imaginative carving. The filigree design is very much in the style of William Vertue, who would have been the 'consultant' mason at Bath after the death of his brother Robert in 1506.

In 1507 William Vertue was involved in the work on King's College Chapel, Cambridge, which has the finest fan vault in the country, airily suspended above what almost seem to be walls of glass. The carved wooden screen there is interesting. After the masons had departed, the carpenters would move in. The new cathedral at Bath, like the old one, would need a rood screen. Some screens were of stone, like the delicate Tudor one at St George's, Dunster, which was a dependent cell of Bath Priory. However, a stone screen would be more likely to survive the Dissolution, and the screen at Bath did not, so perhaps we should picture something like the one at King's.

The glazing and fitting continued for years. In 1524 wealthy clothier Thomas Chapman left money for the glazing of a window. However, the choir was fully functional by May 1525, when the newly elected Prior Holloway was carried to the high altar, as the custom was, to the sound of a Te Deum with organ accompaniment. It has often been claimed that the cathedral was still unfinished at the Dissolution, but eyewitness John Leland recorded that it was completed by Prior Holloway, who had spent a great deal on the fabric. Leland visited the priory in 1533 and evidently had his information first hand. A faintly recriminatory tone crept into his observation that the remains of the Norman cathedral were unroofed and ruined. Weeds were growing around the sepulchre of its builder, Bishop John of Tours. But that desecration was as nothing to what followed.

Continue to End of the Priory.