The city of Bath is famous for its Roman remains and Georgian architecture. But what happened in the intervening centuries? And where can you see evidence of medieval Bath today?
Bath In The Middle Ages
The Romans left Britain around 400 CE, and Bath sank into relative obscurity until its re-emergence as a fashionable spa town. We do know that the city was inhabited during the Saxon period. A monastery was established here, and King Alfred the Great fortified the town. However, the Roman baths were not maintained, and they gradually disintegrated into ruins and marshland.
After the Norman Conquest an abbey was built on top of the Saxon monastery. The hot baths were revived, and Bath became an important centre for the wool and cloth trade. The town was granted a market charter in 1189, increasing its wealth and power.
The Medieval City
The Saxon and medieval towns closely followed the Roman layout. The city was a compact walled area, with limited development outside the walls.
Bath City Walls
Although the medieval city walls have almost disappeared, their route is still apparent. The northern and southern boundaries are now marked by the roads known as Upper Borough Walls and Lower Borough Walls. And Westgate Street and Southgate Street indicate the locations of two of the four original entrances to the city.
The walls were demolished in the 18th century and today only three fragments remain. The best known section, on Upper Borough Walls, is mostly a Victorian reproduction, but if you look behind it you will see some medieval stonework at the base. The remains of the East Gate are visible in Boat Stall Lane (behind the Guildhall): this was the gate that led to the river. However, the largest piece of wall is more hidden – you will have to go into the Marks and Spencer’s delivery area close to Old Orchard Street to see it.
The only remnant of the North Gate is the statue of Bladud (the legendary founder of Bath) overlooking the King’s Bath inside the Roman Baths complex.
The Streets Of Medieval Bath
Many of the streets in the old city centre follow the lines of their medieval predecessors. For instance, Bridewell Lane and Parsonage Lane are original routes, and others such as Union Passage and Northumberland Place are substantially based on medieval lanes.
Most of the streets have now been widened and renamed. However, the name of Cheap Street dates back to 1393, “cheap” being an old word for “market”. And there are two places where you can spot original medieval streets. Firstly, there is the road that runs beneath the East Gate. Then there is Slippery Lane, off Northgate (between The White Company and Sweaty Betty). Although you can’t now walk along these roads, they do give you a sense of how narrow and confined the streets would have been in the Middle Ages.
Although it was substantially rebuilt in the 16th century, Bath Abbey is the most important medieval building in the city, dating from 1088. Inside the Abbey the Gethsemane Chapel incorporates an earlier Norman chapel, and recent restoration work has uncovered original medieval floor tiles.
To the south of the Abbey is Abbey Green, which would once have been part of the monastic grounds. Here you can see the location of the old Abbey Gate (now replaced with a modern structure), which is marked with a plaque.
The King’s Bath
The King’s Bath was built in the 12th century, on an earlier Roman site. It is now part of the Roman Baths.
Sally Lunn’s Eating House
Sally Lunn’s Eating House claims to be the oldest house in Bath, built in 1482. In fact, its origins are even older: the earliest floor level dates to around 1150, and Roman remains have been found in the cellar.
Today you can enjoy a meal or afternoon tea in the medieval house. And you can visit the small museum in the basement with its medieval remains, and a 12th century oven.
Outside The City
Although Bath was a walled city, there was some development beyond the walls. A good example is the church of St Michael Without (“without” meaning that it was outside the city). Although the present-day church is from the 19th century, there has been a church on the site for more than 900 years.
One place where medieval remains are still visible is the 13th century Monks Mill in Parade Gardens. This was one of two mills on opposite sides of the River Avon, outside the city but supplying its needs.
Although the Middle Ages in Bath are overshadowed by earlier and later periods, there is plenty to see if you look hard enough.