The cathedral city

William II sold Bath to his physician John of Tours, whom he made a bishop. Bath was to become the new cathedral city of Somerset.

A man of ambition

Plan by Jean Manco of the Norman Priory at Bath

Bath Cathedral Priory in the 12th century (J.Manco)

Bath was at first untouched by the Norman conquest, but dramatic change came on the death of William the Conqueror in 1088.As a royal town Bath was ravaged in the struggle for power between his sons. The victor was William Rufus, who inspired little love. He treated bishoprics as plums to reward obsequious personal service. Among those so favoured was his physician and chaplain John of Tours. As well as becoming Bishop of Somerset, John was made Abbot of Bath and bought the city. His aim was to move the see from Wells, a tiny village then, to the walled town of Bath. John was a man of large ambition. He had great plans for Bath. But these did not include the Saxon monks there. They were not sophisticated enough to please him. So it is not surprising that John came under attack. He was accused of being silly, unstable and prone to drink. The huge sums he made as a physician did not endear him to those who had taken a vow of poverty. Views of him changed as his vision took shape.

He initiated a hugem rebuilding programme. Up and down the land great cathedrals were rising. John would not be satisfied with less. He laid out the whole south-east quarter of the city as a cathedral priory. Beside the priory John built himself a palace. Perhaps he envisaged creating a cultural centre like Tours. He certainly enjoyed the company of learned men and gradually gathered a band of scholarly monks. The hot baths were not neglected. John almost certainly rebuilt one of them and possibly all three. As a physician he would have been interested in the reputed healing powers of the waters.

The name Abbey Green is a reminder of the monastery that once stood here. Visitors entered through a great gateway at the east end of Abbeygate Street. They would have found themselves in a bustling courtyard where Abbey Green is now. Around it would have been the priory kitchen and brewhouse, stables and workshops.

The King's House

King John maintained a house in Bath from at least 1201. The royal lodgings were within the priory precinct, near the hot spring, which became known as King's Bath. Henry III was a keen builder and spent far more than his father on the royal lodgings. He particularly liked to decorate the royal apartments in green spangled with gold stars. A building south-east of the King's Bath was later known as the Star Chamber, so that could well have been the king's house. When Henry came to Bath in July 1256, he could not resist a little horseplay. On his orders one of his knights was thrown into the bath fully clothed. Clearly Henry enjoyed the amenities, but Edward I declined to maintain a house for such fleeting visits. There are no more references to the royal lodging after 1276.

First published in Bath Through the Ages, Bath Chronicle 1 March 1999.

Further reading

Jean Manco, The Buildings of Bath Priory, Somerset Archaeology and Natural History vol. 137 (1994 for 1993).