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Short History of Bath in Somerset


Best Built City in All England

Bath lies on the River Avon, twelve miles outh-east of Bristol. It has a crater-like situation with a sunward aspect that combines with the surrounding Cotswold Hills to produce a unique character. It has been described as the "most nobly placed and best-built city in all England".

The city is popularly said to have been founded by the mythical British King, Bladud in 863bc. However, this character appears to be the last memory of a Celtic god of that name, possibly associated with Sulis, whose sacred hot springs have made Bath so famous. The Romans later identified this lady with there own goddess of wisdom, Minerva and built a vast religious complex around her sacred pool, whilst adding a more practical series of extensive Roman Baths at the same time. The city became a popular pagan pilgrimage centre with large numbers of hotels for visitors from across the Empire. It soon also became a centre for commerce and trade: a cosmopolitan settlement, rich in the art and decor which accompanied Roman urbanisation, all protected by a high stone wall. They called the place, Aquae Sulis.

After the Roman military left Britain and the administration collapsed, the British appear to have tried to carry on their urban living under a local official who quickly installed himself as King. He, no doubt, sent troops to the famous Siege of Mount Badon which seems to have taken place nearby and at which Saxon advancement in Britain was halted for a generation. However, not long after the British defeat at Dyrham (AD 577), Saxon influence in the area began to grow. The Kings of the Hwicce in Mercia founded a nunnery amongst the ruins of the Roman Baths in AD 680 and, by AD 973, having been transferred to Benedictine monks, it was influential enough to host the coronation of King Edgar of Wessex.

Bath's first charter was granted in 1189, confirming, like Winchester, considerable privileges for the city and assuming the existence of a corporation. Subsequent documents followed in the 13th, 14th & 15th centuries. A seal was issued in 1249, but the city was not formally incorporated until 1590. It held various fairs and became in important commercial centre once more when the wool trade was flourishing in Medieval Somerset. The local cloth, "Bath Beaver," was known throughout the country and Chaucer makes his 'Wife of Bath' exceed the cloth-weavers of Ypres and Gaunt in her skill.

The main feature of Tudor Bath is the great abbey church, entirely rebuilt not long before the Dissolution. As a single complete construction, it is one of the finest examples of Perpendicular architecture to be found in the country. It is especially noteworthy for its great west window and is sometimes called the "Lantern of the West". It survived demolition as one of the twin seats of the local Bishop, but the resident monks and their associated good works disappeared. King Edward VI's foundation of the local free grammar school relieved some of the hardships thus inflicted on the townsfolk. However, with the decline of the cloth trade, Bath fell into a low period in its history. The baths were badly kept, the city lodgings were poor and the streets beset by footpads.

It was not until the 18th century that the city entered its 'Golden Age'. The baths became popular once more and the city was transformed into a fashionable health resort. This resurgence was linked with building work undertaken by architects such as the two John Woods, Ralph Allen and Richard Nash. A grand architectural scheme included Queen square, the Royal Crescent and the North and South parades. The Assembly Rooms became a fine gathering pint, made famous in the pages of Fielding, Smollett and Burney.

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