AquŠ Sulis to AquŠmann

Reconstruction of Aquae Sulis by John RonayneIn the late Roman period Christianity perhaps made little headway in AquŠ Sulis (Bath), where the worship of Sulis Minerva was an integral part of its function as a spa. A fourth-century curse tablet thrown into the Sacred Spring provides evidence of divided loyalties. The writer, Annianus, asks the Lady Goddess to retrieve six silver coins from whoever stole them, whether pagan or Christian. Only a Christian would use such terminology. (Pagans did not refer to themselves as such.) Yet Annianus did not shrink from invoking the power of Sulis.(1) If he attended a local church, it would probably have been outside the city walls. Sites for the churches of this new religion generally had to be found on the edges of towns, rather than the established centre. Those with cemeteries needed to be outside the city walls to comply with Roman law.(2) So the churches of St Michael in Broad Street and St Swithin in Walcot are possible sites.(3) Although St Swithin suggests a Saxon origin, in fact the medieval church at Walcot was dedicated to All Saints.(4)

Head of Minerva (Roman Baths Museum)Many pagan temples in Britain seem to have come to an abrupt end around 410.(5) Christian militancy was raging across the empire. Impatient with gradual conversion, militants destroyed temples and cult images. The failure of the pagan gods to wreak a terrible revenge undermined the whole pagan belief system. Who would worship a broken idol? At Uley in the Cotswolds the head of the cult image was hacked off and buried.(6) In Bath the head of Minerva seems to have been given much the same treatment. Also her temple fašades were dismantled and parts turned face down as paving slabs, although the precise date of all this damage is unknown.(7) The Cross Bath could also have been a target. Two Roman carved stones were found tumbled into its spring. One was dedicated to Sulis Minerva, while the other bore scenes linked with Ăsculapius.(8)

Uley is one of two pagan temples within a twenty-mile radius of Bath which were replaced by Christian religious sites.(9) So did a church spring up amid the ruins of the temple of Minerva? The medieval church of St Mary of Stalls was built on the site of the temple precinct and apparently on the same alignment, but the earliest burials in its cemetery are late Saxon.(10) So was a companion temple taken over by Christians? A Roman circular temple probably stood on or near the site of the present Abbey Church.(11) An early church beneath the present one is an attractive possibility. However there would be no compelling reason to convert a temple site if a more suitable building was available nearby. Unlike Roman temples, which were entered only by priests, churches needed to house a congregation. A basilica (assembly-hall) was ideal for the purpose.

The name AquŠ Sulis could have become an embarrassment in the Christian era. A religiously neutral name would be AquŠmann, simply adding the Old Welsh mann (place) to the familiar aquŠ.(12) There is no contemporary evidence of a name-change, but the name occurs centuries later in a suggestive context. Achamanni and Aquamania for Bath suddenly appear in charters of Edgar from 965 to 972,(13) and are never used in later charters. Anglo-Saxon versions occur in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in one place only - the description of the coronation of Edgar in 973. He was crowned in the ancient borough of Acemannes ceastre - the men of this island call it by another name - Bathan. Ăthelweard, a kinsman and contemporary of Edgar, translated this as: in the city called Akimannis castrum by men of old, and by others Bathum for its boiling waters.(14) So AquŠmann appears to be an antiquarian rediscovery favoured by Edgar. Since this had not regained general currency, the chroniclers felt obliged to explain which town was meant. Such a brief and literary revival is unlikely to explain the name Akeman Street for the road to Bath from St Albans.(15) Presumably this road name was adopted in the early Saxon period, while lowland Britain was Anglo-Saxon, but Bath remained British.

Christian ire was not directed against the baths themselves. After the destruction of the temple fašades, the inner temple precinct was repaved and its gateway replaced by a new building, presumably to permit access to the Sacred Spring. It continued in use well into the fifth century and perhaps beyond.(16) The Sacred Spring fed a grand and sophisticated bathing complex. How much of this survived? In a Welsh compilation of the early ninth century, drawn from earlier British sources, 'The hot pool in the country of the Hwicce' was listed among the wonders of Britain: It is surrounded by a wall, made of brick and stone, and men may go there to bathe at any time, and every man may have the kind of bath he likes. If he wants, it will be a cold bath; if he wants a hot bath, it will be hot.(17) It sounds as though the Roman baths were still in use when this was first written. The Romans liked to finish bathing with a cold plunge, so there were both hot and cold pools in the complex. The main spring was indeed surrounded by a wall of brick and stone; the masonry wall had tile bonding courses, characteristic of Roman construction.(18) But so grand a spa could only be sustained by a stream of paying visitors, the product of a wealthy society. The first decades of British independence seem to have brought an upturn in the economy. The imperial tax burden was a thing of the past.(19) But in the decline that followed, Bath would have suffered. Eventually the great baths would have to give way to a more modest spa, operating amid the ruins of once-great buildings. The bustle of shops, workshops and entertainment would cease. Bath would be pared down to its primary function.


  1. R.S.O.Tomlin, 'Voices from the Sacred Spring', Bath History Vol. 4 (1992), pp.16-17.
  2. Dark, p.37.
  3. Aston, 'The Bath region', Bath History, Vol. 1, p.73 and fig.4.
  4. F.Weaver ed., Wells Wills (1890), p.178.
  5. Dark, pp.20, 59-63.
  6. A.Woodward and P.Leach, The Uley Shrines: excavation of a ritual complex on West Hill, Uley, Gloucestershire 1977-79 (1993), pp.70-1, 321.
  7. B.Cunliffe and P.Davenport, The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath Vol.1: The Site (Oxford, 1985), pp.68-75, 114.
  8. J.Manco, 'The Cross Bath', Bath History Vol. 2 (1988), pp.49-50. At that date the cross had not supplanted the chi-rho as the dominant symbol of Christianity, so the first cross from which the bath took its name must have been erected later.
  9. Woodward and Leach; R.Leech, 'The excavation on Lamyatt Beacon, Somerset', Britannia Vol. 17 (1986), pp.259-328.
  10. Cunliffe and Davenport, pp.100, 118, figs. 118, 121.
  11. Cunliffe and Davenport, p.179.
  12. R.Coates, Toponymic Topics (Brighton, 1988), pp.24-37.
  13. Also the genitive form Achumanensi. Two Chartularies of the Priory of St Peter at Bath, Somerset Record Society (SRS), Vol.7 (1893), chartulary.1, nos.23-24 catalogued by P.H.Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: an annotated list and bibliography (1968), nos.735, 785; W. de Gray Birch, Cartularium Saxonicum Vol.3 (1899), no.1185 (Sawyer no.808).
  14. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle trans. Whitelock et al; The Chronicle of Ăthelweard ed. A. Campbell (1962), p.55.
  15. A.Mawer and F.M.Stenton, The Place-names of Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire, English Place- name Society Vol.3 (1926), pp.1-2.
  16. Cunliffe and Davenport, pp.68-75.
  17. J.Morris ed. and trans., Nennius (1980), pp.40, 81; present author's translation. The fact that 'Nennius' places Bath in the country of the Hwicce may simply be his own clarification for a ninth-century audience and so cannot be taken as firmly dating the original after c.600.
  18. B.Cunliffe, 'The earth's grip holds them' in B.Hartley and J.Wacher (eds), Rome and her Northern Provinces (Gloucester, 1983), p.79; B.Cunliffe, Roman Bath Discovered 2nd edn (1984), chap.5.
  19. Dark, p.68.