By the late fifteenth century, the great Norman cathedral of Bath was in a ruinous state. The task of rebuilding the priory is likely to have begun in the 1480s, but progress was slow, and it wasn’t until after the new bishop Oliver King visited Bath in 1499 that the rebuilding work began in earnest.

In 1500, Bishop King wrote that state of the Abbey was ‘by the negligence of several of the priors’, who ‘have frittered themselves away in pleasure’, rather than repairing or restoring the Abbey. He was equally scathing towards the monks, who he said had caused the ruin of the church due to their slothfulness and over indulgence in pensions, clothing, food and drink. Bishop King provided his own money and resources for the rebuilding, but decided that much of the expense would be met by reallocating a large proportion of the priory’s income. The prior and monks felt the pinch immediately. Their annual income was £480, of which, Bishop King set aside £300 for rebuilding the Abbey.

Bishop King died in 1503, by which date the walls of the chancel had reached roof height and work on the rest of the church was well underway. The new building was elegant and grand, built in the perpendicular gothic style, with a striking and unique west frontage. Following the bishop’s death, work on the church was continued by Prior Birde, who built a monumental chapel for himself within the choir, which allegedly swallowed up his entire fortune and reduced him to poverty.

Subsequent bishops did not, however, share King’s passion for the reconstruction and little aid could now be obtained beyond the precincts of the cloister. Part of the lead intended for the roof was stolen, and the money that had been collected to enable the building work to carry on was intercepted by ‘profane hands and applied for secular purposes’. And so, the Abbey lay unfinished.

When Dr Richard Layton arrived in Bath in 1535 it marked the beginning of the end for the priory and, with it, 900 years of monastic tradition. He arrived in Bath to gather information for his Black Book of Monasteries, ‘The Valor Ecclesiasticus’ , which supplied Thomas Cromwell with a record of the expenditure and income of the monasteries that would justify their dissolution. In his report Layton stated that the prior of Bath Abbey was virtuous, but simple, and not of the greatest wit, but that the monks were ‘worse than I have fownde yet both in bugerie and adulterie sum having of them x women sum viii and the rest so fewer’.

After this damning report the Priory was dissolved in 1539. It was valued at £617 2s 3d. Henry VIII bestowed most of the property of the priory upon his alleged illegitimate daughter Etheldreda, but she died young and the estate passed to her husband John Harrington senior. He tried to sell it to the city at a bargain price of 500 Marks but, fearing the wrath of their king, the city declined. Subsequently, the roof lead was stripped to be melted down and sold. The brass bells, ironwork and window glass suffered the same fate, leaving the building gutted and left open to the elements.

 The first lay person to take a hand in the repair of the church was Peter Chapman. In the 1572 he funded the repair of the north aisle and the east end. The following year Queen Elizabeth I authorized a nationwide collection, over a period of 7 years, to help fund the restoration, but by 1603 only the east end of the church was usable: the nave still had no roof.

The next person to offer significant assistance to the Abbey was Sir John Harrington junior. He was a cousin of the Queen and famously invented a flushing water closet. In 1608 Sir John met with the newly appointed Bishop, James Montagu, in Bath during the prelate’s primary visitation. It is purported that they were suddenly caught in a torrential downpour and Sir John suggested that they take shelter within the Abbey. As they stood in the north aisle of the nave the Bishop remarked that they were still getting wet.

“How can that be,” Sir John replied, “seeing that we are still within the church?”

“True.” said Montagu, “But your church is unroofed Sir John”

To which he replied, “The more the pity, and the more doth it call for the munificence of your Lordship.”

Bishop Montagu subsequently donated the phenomenal sum of £1000 to the restoration project. This generous act galvanised others to donate, and money flowed in. The transepts were provided with fan vaults, and the nave was given a fine plaster barrel-vaulted ceiling, roofed in lead. Roofs were also provided for the nave aisles. They, as we have recently discovered, were also given plaster-work ceilings. Everybody who donated money or materials for the Abbey’s final completion was listed in the Benefactors Book.

The Benefactor's Book, detailing donations for the construction of the Abbey

Unfortunately, there is no record of any plasterers recorded in the Benefactors Book, but we do know who supplied the timber for the roof.

Gilbert, Earl of Shrewsbury, gave 20 timber trees.

Thomas, Earl of Suffolk, gave 50 tonnes of timber.

George, Rives, Dr of Divinity, of new college Oxford, gave a goodly oak that grew upon their manor.

Henry, Hide, of Dynton, in the county of Wilts, gave 3 timber trees.

By Chris Hambleton, Fieldwork Archaeologist 

The next instalment in Bath Abbey's Tale of Two Ceilings, "The Nave", will be released next week!