We had to go to the Abbey while we were in Bath. There had been a brief initial look at the exterior before lunch, but we were still talking at full pelt, so had left the visit for a while, stopping to photograph the fountain that proclaims ‘water is best’ as we headed in search of a pub. The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is a curious building with a long history, reaching back to the probable pagan temple that once stood here before Christianity began to make its mark and incorporating Roman columns in its foundations and crypt.
A convent was established in 675AD by Abbess Berta, under the patronage of Oscric, King of the Hwicce, a sub-kingdom of Mercia. Later, the convent became a monastery and in 671, the Mercian King Offa rebuilt its church. A lull in its history coincided with a quiet period for the religious houses, until Edgar became “King of the English” in 959. He was crowned at Bath abbey in 973. Encouraged by the king, the Benedictine Rule was brought to Bath by Abbot Ælfheah, later known as St Alphege.
The Abbey saw the usual ups and downs of English history, from the Norman invasion a thousand years ago through the Dissolutionof the Monasteries under Henry VIII and the Puritan Reformation under Cromwell in the 17thC. In 1539 the church was sold to Humphry Colles of Taunton and stripped bare of its glass and lead was left to decay. Thirty five years later, Queen Elizabeth I decreed that it should be restored via public funding and become the parish church for Bath.
In the early 1800s, the old buildings that clustered so tightly around the Abbey that they touched the walls were demolished and the building had space to breathe. Restoration work began under George Phillips Manners, who added the flying buttresses and pinnacles. In 1860, it was our old friend, George Gilbert Scott, who took over the task of restoring the interior of the church.
There is a solid simplicity about most of the exterior, but the West Front is quite unique. The story written a hundred years later by John Harrington tells that the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Oliver King, visited Bath in 1499 and was horrified to see the once great Abbey in a terrible state and the monks rather too interested in earthly pursuits and pleasures. It is to King that we owe much of what we see today. While he pondered what course to take, he had a dream, seeing the “Heavenly Host on high with angels ascending and descending by ladder”, like Jacob’s Ladder in the Bible… and the ladders now climb either side of the great window. Above it, angels cluster around the feet of the Christ in orderly rows, watched by the saints. It is a fantastic frontage… and if it was any indication of what we might find inside, it was definitely going to be worth a visit…