Abbess Berta's Convent

On 6 November 675 Osric, King of the Hwicce, granted the Abbess Berta 100 hides near Bath for the establishment of a convent.(1) This land would all have been within his territory, north of the Avon. His charter does not explicitly state that the convent was to be built in Bath. However, Bath would be the likely choice, the city wall providing a degree of protection, as with Osric's similar foundation at Gloucester.(2) Double houses of men and women, presided over by an abbess, were common at this time and it has been assumed that Bath was one such. However, Osric's preamble states his intention to found separate houses for men and women. In the past this has thrown doubt upon the authenticity of the preamble, but scholars now recognise the influence of Archbishop Theodore, who signed the charter. He disapproved of double houses.(3)

Osric's preamble also explains that his primary purpose was to found a diocese, according to synodal decree. This must refer to the synod of 672, which had proposed more bishoprics.(4) The idea would be welcome to the Hwicce, who had presumably been swept into the orbit of the newly-created see of Mercia in 656.(5) In 679 the Hwicce did receive their own bishop, based at Worcester.(6) The cathedral there was dedicated to St. Peter, as was the convent founded at Gloucester by Osric.(7) Presumably the convent at Bath was also St Peter's, like the abbey that came after it. Was there a message here? St Peter was a symbol of the papacy. If the Hwicce had earlier come within the British Church, transition to the Anglo-Saxon Church would be eased by a demonstration of loyalty to Rome.

Also interesting is the Frankish name of the first abbess - Berta. At this time high- born Anglo-Saxon girls were educated at houses like Chelles, near Paris, known for their learning. Or the nuns could come to them. Chelles supplied nuns and books for teaching and the foundation of convents in England.(8) Berta may have returned to France after establishing the convent. A charter in 681 granted land to the Abbess Bernguida (Beorngyth, an English name) and Folcburg (Frankish). Apart from a spurious charter to Bernguida copied from this one, there are no more charters to abbesses in the Bath cartulary.(9)


  1. This charter survived as a copy in the twelfth-century cartulary of Bath Priory: Two Chartularies, chart.1, no.7 (Sawyer no.51). It is accepted by H.P.R.Finberg, Early Charters of the West Midlands (Leicester 1961), pp.172-4, and P.Sims-Williams, 'St Wilfred'. The latter gives the correct dating. H.Edwards, The Charters of the Early West Saxon Kingdom, British Archaeological Reports, British Series Vol. 198 (1988), pp.210-227 argues that this charter has been almost entirely rewritten and does not apply to Bath. That would remove the major obstacle to her preferred view of Bath as a West Saxon foundation, but she fails to explain why in that case Bath came into the possession of the Bishop of the Hwicce.
  2. C. Heighway, 'Saxon Gloucester' in Haslam, pp.365-6, 370-1.
  3. Finberg, Early Charters of the West Midlands, pp.173-4, K.Harrison, 'The annus domini in some early charters', Journal of the Society of Archivists Vol. 4 (1970-3), p.553, and The Framework of Anglo- Saxon History to A.D.90 (Cambridge, 1976), pp.67-9; P.Sims-Williams, 'Continental influence at Bath monastery in the seventh century, Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 4 (1975), p.8, 'St Wilfred', pp.163-74 and Religion and Literature in Western England 600-800, pp.120-1.
  4. Councils and Ecclesiatical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland ed. A.W.Haddon and W.Stubbs, (Oxford, 1839-48), pp.3, 210.
  5. Bede, p.145.
  6. The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester trans. T.Forester (1854), pp.27-8, 423; Finberg 'The Princes of the Hwicce' in Early Charters of the West Midlands, pp.161-71.
  7. Sawyer, nos.70, 74, 77.
  8. Sims-Williams, 'Continental influence', pp.1-10.
  9. Two Chartularies, chart.1, nos. 6, 8 (Sawyer nos.1167-8).