The rise of the spa

The support of Queen Elizabeth encouraged the rise of Bath as a fashionable spa.

Improving the Baths

The King's Bath from John Speed's map of Bath, based on that of Henry Savile c.1600As the cloth trade declined, Bathonians realised that the thermal waters could be a stream of gold. The physician William Turner, Dean of Wells, sounded the clarion call to recognise their glorious potential. The baths had changed little since the medieval period and were simply open pools with seats in niches around the sides. They had no changing rooms and no system for draining the pools for cleaning. Turner's book on the baths in 1562 urged improvements. Commenting acidly that while there was money enough for cock-fighting, tennis, plays and other idle pleasures, 'I have not heard tell that any rich man hath spent upon these noble groat these twenty years.'

He suggested the segregation of the sexes and of bathers with infectious skin diseases. It took time and a certain amount of pressure from national government, but from the 1570s the city was prepared to invest in improvements. Beside the King's Bath the city fathers built a new bath for women, later known as the Queen's Bath. Other improvements were achieved by private donation, as Turner hoped. All the baths were given changing rooms, sluices and decorative centre-pieces.

Royal Patronage

As visitors began to flock to the spa, the city reshaped itself to accommodate them. A large church was needed to house the swelling congregation. The former priory church was an obvious choice. Its owner, Edmund Colthurst, was willing to give it to the city. But the queen's consent was needed. Would she agree to give up her patronage of the city's smaller churches and allow the citizens to create a new, united parish? Elizabeth was prepared to be generous. In November 1572 she gave permission. There remained the problem of finance. In April 1573 Elizabeth issued a warrant for collections to be made for seven years nation-wide towards the restoration of the Abbey Church.

The queen reinforced her support by visiting Bath the following year. Although the favourite seasons for spa bathing were Spring and Autumn, the queen chose to come in August. Needless to say the city exerted itself to welcome her. Buildings were smartened up. The Abbey Church was decked with greenery. Choristers were borrowed from Wells and a preacher brought in to give the first sermon in the Abbey (though restoration work had barely begun.)

Elizabeth was escorted by a large entourage. The queen was never on holiday and state business went on as usual during her stay. There was a meeting of the Privy Council in the city. So Elizabeth's visit not only set the seal of royal approval on the rising spa. It introduced her courtiers to the Bath waters. Some were to become major city benefactors. Others simply felt the waters did them good and came back for more. Their custom turned Bath into a fashionable resort.

Elizabeth conferred her final blessing on the city in 1590, when she granted Bath a charter. This gave authority over the city to a corporation - mayor, aldermen and city councillors. It was the foundation for the present system of local government.

A Fashionable Spa

Abbey Church House (photo Simon Doling)The company at Bath was glittering. The Queen's favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, came four times. Sir Walter Raleigh could scarcely keep away and urged his friends to meet him here time and again. Grand lodging houses and inns sprang up for this exalted clientele.

What is now called the Abbey Church House was one of the grandest. Houses around the baths were much sought after by Elizabethan physicians competing for wealthy patients. The Abbey Church House had a particular asset - a private bath drawn from the Hot Bath. It was built by Dr Robert Baker around 1590 and lodged members of the royal court. It was so badly hit in the Bath Blitz that the whole west front is a post-war restoration, but the great chamber of his house is still there, with its panelling and elaborate chimney-piece.

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

Further reading