The Reform of the Abbey

Alfred's descendants inherited the patronage of Bath Abbey. Athelstan and several of his successors arranged for the Abbey to celebrate the anniversaries of their deaths by the gift of alms to the poor.(1) In 1535 that custom was laconically noted as alms distributed to various paupers and lepers...from the endowment of Kings Athelstan, Edgar, Ethelred and Edwy and many other founders,(2) which is probably the source of the misconception that Athelstan founded a leper hospital in Bath. Athelstan did give several books to the Abbey, including a copy of The Acts of the Council of Constantinople, inscribed King Athelstan gave this book to God and to the holy mother of Christ and to the saints Peter and Benedict in the monastery of...Bath.(3)

The dedication to St Benedict is curious at this date, suggesting that Bath had already adopted the Rule of Benedict, but it may simply be that this note was added a few years later. A stricter form of monasticism was reviving across the Channel, but in England it had a mixed reception by the Crown. In 944 King Edmund granted refuge in Bath Abbey to Flemish monks expelled from St Bertin for refusing to live to rule.(4) Edmund did appoint the reformer Dunstan Abbot of Glastonbury, but Dunstan was exiled by Edmund's son Edwy.(5) The young King Edwy held witans close to Bath in 956 and 957, which drew his attention to local affairs and produced a spate of charters.(6) His reaction to the city crept into them: one refers to the hot springs and another to the marvellously built monastery.(7) Under Edwy, Bath remained a royal eigenkloster, ruled by his chaplain Wulfgar. However, Edwy's brother Edgar admired and supported the reformed monasticism. On his accession he recalled Dunstan, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 961. Saxon cross head discovered at Bath (Photo RCHME, Crown copyright) Dunstan brought the monastic revival to England, encouraging the adoption of the Rule of St Benedict, with its emphasis on poverty, chastity and communal living.(8) In the following years Bath Abbey was presumably reorganised on Benedictine lines, with communal buildings around a cloister and the monks ruled by an abbot. William of Malmesbury tells us that Edgar, delighted by the grandeur of the place, enlarged it after his manner.(9) It was probably not designed for a huge community; in 1077 there were eighteen monks including the abbot.(10) Saxon cross-fragments found in various places in Bath probably date from around this period.(11) The early years of the reformed monastery were not without problems, some mercilessly recorded by the biographer of St Ælfheah (Elphege). Ælfheah left Deerhurst monastery for a hermit's cell near Bath, where he attracted followers much against his will. Once a monastery large enough to house them was built, he withdrew again to a solitary life and provision for the community was delegated to a suitable prior, presumably Æscwig, Abbot of Bath in 965 and 970. However, lapses in discipline all too often required Ælfheah's personal attention. He had to chastise those slipping out at night for drunken revels, or reluctant to forsake all personal property. This may explain why Ælfheah was also styled as Abbot of Bath over the same period as Æscwig.(12) Ælfheah was later appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, but his name was long remembered at Bath. St Alphege's Well on Lansdown, just north of Upper Weston, may be a clue to the location of his hermitage.(13) Centuries later Bath Priory was still giving ten bushels of wheat a year to their tenants in Weston, called St Alphegis grist as hath been used in tymes past,(14) perhaps the saint's recompense for their kindness to a hermit.

The reformed abbey had powerful supporters. On one of Dunstan's rounds of encouragement and exhortation, he visited the place where hot springs burst forth from their hiding place in the abyss in steaming droplets, a place which the inhabitants call Bathum in the vernacular.(15) Edgar was a generous patron of the monastery, as were some of those close to him,(16) and in 973 he chose Bath Abbey as the setting for his splendid coronation by Archbishops Dunstan and Oswald.(17) But on 8 July 975, Edgar died suddenly and was succeeded by his young son Edward. Resentment of Edgar's generosity to the monasteries emerged into the open. Ælfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia, disbanded several monasteries within the diocese of Worcester. According to Leland, he expelled the monks of Bath for a time. Since Bath was in Wessex by then, that seems unlikely. In any case anti-monastic feeling gradually wore away after the accession of Ethelred in 979.(18)


  1. Two Chartularies, chart.2, no.808.
  2. Valor Ecclesiasticus, Vol.1 (1810), p.177.
  3. S.Keynes, 'King Athelstan's books' in M.Lapidge and H.Gneuss eds., Learning and Literature in Anglo- Saxon England (Cambridge, 1985), pp.159-64.
  4. English Historical Documents Vol.1, p.318.
  5. E.John, 'The age of Edgar' in Campbell ed., The Anglo-Saxons, p.185.
  6. At Cheddar, Soms. in November 956 and Edington, Wilts. in May 957. S.Keynes, The Diplomas of King Aethelred 'The Unready' 978-1016 (Cambridge 1980), pp.59-61, 67.
  7. Two Chartularies, chart.1, nos.5, 18 (Sawyer nos.610, 643).
  8. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; English Historical Documents Vol.1, nos.234, 238.
  9. Willelmi Malmesbiriensis de Gestis Pontificum, p.194.
  10. Two Chartularies, chart.1, no.4; translated by D.A.E.Pelteret, Catalogue of English Post-Conquest Vernacular Documents (Woodbridge, 1990), no.78.
  11. Hinton, 'Saxon finds' in Cunliffe ed., Excavations in Bath 1950-1975, pp.140, 180.
  12. 'Vita Elphegi' in [Warton ed.], Anglia Sacra (1691), Vol.2, pp.122-42; D.Knowles et al., The Heads of Religious Houses 940-1210 (Cambridge, 1972), p.28.
  13. Aston, 'The Bath region', pp.80-81.
  14. British Library Harl Ms 3970, f.31; Calendar of Patent Rolls: Elizabeth Vol. 5 (1966), p.358.
  15. Memorials of St.Dunstan, p.46; translation Leslie, p.23.
  16. Two Chartularies, chart.1, nos.20, 23-25 (Sawyer nos.694, 737, 777, 785); D.Whitelock ed. and trans., Anglo-Saxon Wills (Cambridge, 1930), nos.8, 9 (Sawyer nos.1484-5).
  17. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; The Historians of the Church of York and its Archbishops, ed. J.Raine, Rolls, pp.436-38.
  18. E.John, 'The return of the Vikings' in Campbell, p.192; Itinerary of John Leland ed. L.Toulmin Smith (1907-10), Vol.1, p.143; Keynes, Diplomas of King Aethelred, pp.169-72.