The floor of Bath Abbey has been subsiding into underlying ‘soft pockets’ for a number of years. As part of the HLF supported Footprint Project remediation work is now underway; the ledger stones are being lifted, the underlying deposits are being stabilised and new ecologically sustainable underfloor heating is being installed.
Below the ledger stones there is a 1 m thick rubble layer known as the ‘Scott layer’, after Sir George Gilbert Scott who oversaw the 1860s restoration. Within the Scott layer are dumps of material that were removed from the church fabric during the restoration works. In this layer we have been finding Norman architectural masonry, decorated Tudor plasterwork and finely worked Georgian marble. Together, these artefacts are enabling us to piece together what the different phases of Bath Abbey’s superstructure looked like and how it was decorated. Fragments of painted Tudor plasterwork have been recovered from within and below the Scott layer. Stylistically, it is likely that these originate from the heavily moulded and highly decorated Tudor ceiling. There are two images surviving that record this ceiling prior to its replacement in the 1860s. The first is dated 1750 and was inscribed ‘by James Vertue of Bath for Charles Noel Somerset, Duke of Beaufort’. The second is in colour and was drawn by W. Nillington on stone but is undated.
Historic images are reproduced by kind permission of Bath Abbey Archives.
Both show an ornate (probably) plaster over wood barrel-vaulted ceiling with a double row of roundels containing quatrefoils or tudor roses down the central apex, interspersed with coats of arms. Two sets of elongated lozenge-shaped panels connect the central ridge with the walls. A painted masonry fragment found during the excavation confirms some of the colours used on the ceiling.
The appointment of Bishop King in 1496 had led to renewed investment in what was, at the time a semi-ruinous Cathedral. Sometime between 1499 and 1502, he set about rebuilding the church in an ambitious and distinctive new style and, by the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII (in the second half of the 1530s), the building was substantially complete although not yet consecrated (Davenport 2002, 165–6).
Bishop King had commissioned the ceiling of the choir to be constructed to a design by William and Robert Vertue, who were renowned architects specialising in fan vaulted ceilings during the early 1500s. They were also responsible for Henry VII's Chapel in Westminster Abbey as well as St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. It is likely that King intended the vaulting to continue into the nave, but this plan appears to have been abandoned, probably for reasons of cost. During the 1860s restoration Scott replaced the existing timber and plaster roof of the nave with the fan vaulting originally envisioned, in effect completing the intended Tudor design.