The bishop's close at Bath reassessed

In a previous volume of this journal, it was proposed that the bishop's palace at Bath was laid out on a modular plan (Chapman, Davenport and Holland 1995). The idea is beguiling, but not supported by the evidence. In fact the case makes an instructive example of the dangers of medieval documentation for the unwary. The problems are briefly discussed here. Full evidence for the location of the bishop's palace at Bath has been published elsewhere and remains valid (Davenport and Lucas 1991; Manco 1994, 80). It is proposed here that the close was laid out between two Saxon streets and so fossilised a part of the Saxon street plan.

The dimensions of the bishop's close

Detail from Map of Bath 1725 for the Duke of Kingston (Bath Library)Measured surveys in the medieval period were rare. We are fortunate that on 27 June 1334 local jurors took the trouble to measure the bishop's close in Bath. A jury had been convened to establish details of the palace and close for the Crown, since the Bishop of Bath and Wells wished to grant the property to Bath Cathedral Priory. The jurors recorded that the area measured at least 270ft by 130ft (82.296m by 39.624m) (PRO C143/231/15). The position of the close is known from deeds of properties adjoining it and the bishop's description. It lay between Stall Street and Bath Priory. A map of the former priory in 1725 shows a rectangular area in the right location, closely fitting these dimensions.

The result of the local inquisition was then delivered to a royal clerk in London, who copied all the details from it into the royal permission to alienate, granted by letters patent. That was standard procedure. To make matters clear the letters patent give the inquisition of 27 June as the source of information. Unfortunately the royal clerk made an understandable error. In the inquisition document the word ducentos (two hundred) was split between two lines. The clerk evidently failed to notice the du, carelessly read centos as centum and so the figures became 170ft by 130ft in the letters patent issued to the bishop (PRO C66/183 m.7; Wells, 1, 473). The bishop duly granted to Bath Priory the bishop's palace and courtyard, for which the prior and convent agreed to pay a yearly rent of £1 (BL Eg. 3316, f.46v; Ralph of Shrewsbury, 291-2, 314), an arrangement which continued until the Dissolution (Valor Eccles, 1, 123). It comes as no surprise that the bishop's clerk simply copied the figures for the size of the property from the letters patent, the document in his possession. So the proposal by Chapman et al that the bishop's close was split into two modules of 170ft by 130ft forming an L-shape cannot be sustained.

Detail of Savile's Map of Bath c.1600John Speed's map of Bath, published in 1610, was used as supporting evidence for the modular theory. It shows the former priory conduit house at the north-east corner of a garden jutting out sharply into Abbey Green, as though forming the base of the proposed L-shape. Again the problem is one of inaccurate copying. Speed's map is a poor copy of a larger, more detailed map by Henry Savile c.1600 (Manco 1993), which shows the property in question further west. In 1616 permission was given to demolish the conduit house and build on the adjoining garden. The dimensions of 64ft by 43ft (19.5072m by 13.1064m) given in the building lease (BL Eg. ch. 5827) correspond as nearly as one can judge with the garden as shown on Henry Savile's map. The lease also included a two-foot wide strip of Abbey Green beside the garden. Unless there was another copying error, it would appear that the house built on the garden was later leased together with a larger part of the Abbey Green to make a private area in front of the house, since in 1720 a new lease granted the property 'except 20ft (6.096m) from the front eastwards' (BL Eg. 3647, f.16).

The royal lodgings

It was further proposed by Chapman et alia that the royal enclosure at Bath also measured 170ft by 130ft (51.816m by 39.624m). There is evidence that medieval kings retained lodgings within Bath Priory beside the King's Bath (Manco 1994, 83), but the royal enclosure is unlikely to have extended so far north that it blocked the major entrance to the cathedral. Chapman et alia based their suggested dimensions on post-Dissolution property boundaries, in particular that of a tennis court, which can be seen on Henry Savile's map jutting out into the churchyard. After the Dissolution, the clear area before a despoiled and disused church would have made an ideal site for a tennis court. It was presumably built by Matthew Colthurst, who bought the site of the dissolved cathedral priory and used the former west range as a grand town house (Manco 1992, 29-31).

The Saxon street plan

In Bath the Saxon street plan was overlaid by the Norman cathedral priory and bishop's palace, but can we discern the pattern beneath. Alfred the Great was apparently responsible for the re-creation of Bath as a borough (Manco, Saxon Bath). Some of the city's medieval streets and lanes fit the pattern of borough planning in his time. Cunliffe (1984, 351-2) extrapolated from those remnants to recreate the original Saxon plan. He assumed that the main Saxon artery ran straight down from the North Gate to a Saxon south gate on the site of the medieval Ham Gate. The northern part of this street - High Street - is still there. The southernmost part was represented in the medieval period by a lane running south from the Abbey Gate to the Ham Gate. However it is now clear that the Saxon main street could not have run in a direct line between the two. The Saxon cemetery of Bath Abbey blocked that route (Bell 1996, 15). So presumably the street swung westwards around Bath Abbey, established long before Alfred. It would have been convenient to adopt the new main street as the western boundary of the Saxon abbey and later of the Norman cathedral priory. Certainly the priory boundary ran along the east side of the lane to the Ham Gate. That is apparent from the map of 1725, which was made for the owner of the former priory site. His property is shown in darker colours.

If the bishop's close was laid out on the other side of the street, that would explain its curious alignment. It would have followed the street swinging westwards around the abbey. For the bishop to lay out his close on a block between two pre-existing streets would have simplified the planning process. It seems that part of the street swallowed up by the close and priory continued to have a public use until 1279. The close had engulfed the Saxon Church of St James. Successive bishops tolerated the incursion of parishioners until in December 1279 Bishop Robert Burnell made arrangements for a new Church of St James to be built outside his close. The nave of old St James's was to be converted into his private chapel. He gave the site of the chancel to the priory, along with two other areas to enlarge the court and the priory gate. This suggests that a strip of land was being thrown into the priory that was no longer needed by the parishioners of St James for access to their church. Prior Walter de Anno converted part of the extra ground into a laundry and built a cellarer's room by the gate. Since he was much engaged with waterworks, he may also have been responsible for building the priory conduit house (Manco 1994, 80-1, 93-4 and fig. 4). All three features survived the Dissolution to appear on Savile's map, by which time they had become attached to gardens within the former close. They form a line where one would expect the main Saxon street on the presumption that the bishop's close used the street as its eastern boundary. In summary, the evidence indicates that the Norman bishop's close at Bath was a roughly rectangular block, probably laid out between two Saxon streets. To the east was Bath Priory. Between the close and the priory precinct ran a way to the parochial Church of St James, probably preserving part of the line of the Saxon main street.

Record sources: published

Ralph of Shrewsbury   The Register of Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, 1329-1363 Somerset Record Society, 1896, 9
Valor Eccles   Valor Ecclesiasticus Temp. Henr. VIII, 1910-34, ed. J.Caley, Record Commission, 6 vols.
Wells Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1907-14, Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Dean and Chapter of Wells, 2 vols.

Record sources: unpublished


First published in The Archaeological Journal vol. 155 (1999)