Underneath the abbey: Uncovering more than 1,000 years of religious life in Bath

14 mins read
An archaeologist excavating the tiled floor of the abbey
Archaeological work at Bath Abbey has uncovered the echoes of centuries of religious life. This elaborate tiled floor dates from the late 13th or early 14th century, and would have adorned the huge medieval cathedral that once stood on the site. (All images: Wessex Archaeology)
Modern Bath Abbey overlies the site of what was one of the largest cathedrals in medieval England. Now its remains, together with traces of the Anglo-Saxon monastery that preceded it, have been brought to light once more. Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy, Bob Davis, Cai Mason, Bruce Eaton, Sophie Clarke, and Marek Lewcun explain.

The city of Bath is famous for its spectacular Roman remains and Georgian architecture – but in the medieval period it was also home to one of the largest cathedrals in England. Constructed between the 1090s and the 1160s, this soaring religious building would have been an imposing sight, yet by the beginning of the 16th century its once-grand walls lay in ruins, and its remains today lie beneath Bath Abbey. Now, though, traces of the long-lost cathedral – as well as the Anglo-Saxon monastery that preceded it – are being brought to light once more through excavations by Wessex Archaeology.

The opportunity to investigate came thanks to the Bath Abbey Footprint project, a £19.3 million Heritage Lottery Fund initiative to repair the Abbey’s collapsing floor; install a new eco-friendly heating system using the same hot springs that inspired the Romans to build their great temple to Sulis-Minerva and propelled the city to prosperity as a fashionable 18th-century spa town; and to provide new and improved facilities for local residents, worshippers, and visitors alike. Excavations are due to continue until late in the year, but the works have already uncovered a wealth of evidence to illuminate over a millennium of religious activity on the site.

The present Bath Abbey from the outside
The present Bath Abbey would fit snugly within the nave of the Anglo-Norman cathedral that preceded it.

Before the Norman cathedral, the site was home to a renowned monastery associated with Anglo-Saxon kings. The first evidence of this institution comes from a 12th-century copy of an earlier charter stating that, on 6 November 675, King Osric of the Hwicce gave 100 hides of land at Hat Bathu (‘the Hot Baths’) to a ‘convent of holy virgins’ headed by Abbess Bertha (a woman who probably came from Francia). It is possible that this subsequently became a ‘double house’ – these mixed-sex but strictly segregated religious centres were not uncommon in the Anglo-Saxon period, and were often overseen by abbesses – or it may have changed into a male-only community, as a later land grant in 757 refers to the ‘brethren of St Peter in Bath’.

A fragment of a stone cross
The abbey site was originally home to an Anglo-Saxon monastery. Only a few traces of this religious community, including a fragment of a stone cross have been discovered beneath the more recent structures.

A more dramatic change came in 781, though, when King Offa of Mercia claimed much of the monastery’s land for himself, effectively making Bath into a royal manor. But while this grab might suggest a decline in the religious community’s fortunes, Offa is also credited with building the ‘wonderfully wrought’ (as it is described in a charter of 957) minster-church of St Peter, possibly recycling some of the conveniently to-hand masonry from the collapsed Roman temple and bath complex of Aquae Sulis.

This church was later chosen by King Edgar (a great-grandson of Alfred the Great) for his coronation in 973, yet, despite the monastery’s apparently exalted status, until recently its physical remains have remained elusive. Antiquarian investigations of the 18th and 19th centuries were more interested in uncovering Roman Bath than recording the medieval remains that they dug through, but we do know that at least some elements of Anglo-Saxon architecture were uncovered, including stone window frames, fragments of ornately carved masonry, and a (probably 10th- or 11th-century) lead plaque marked with a cross that commemorates a ‘sister of the community’ called Eadgyth.

A late Saxon lead plaque
This late Saxon lead plaque commemorating a woman called Eadgyth was also recovered.

It was not until the 1990s that significant traces of the monastery began to emerge: excavations by Bath Archaeological Trust uncovered part of an extensive cemetery lying to the south of the present abbey. Radiocarbon dating of three of the 20 excavated burials placed them in the 8th or 9th century, and now Wessex Archaeology’s recent work has uncovered further Anglo-Saxon graves containing the remains of adult men and women, as well as juveniles.

Discovered in the abbey vaults 3m below street level, these included two rare ‘charcoal burials’: a funerary rite that involved placing the body or coffin on, or covering it with, a layer of charcoal. This practice may have been associated with purification, Senior Osteoarchaeologist Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy suggests: ‘During this period, cleanliness of both the body and spirit were potent religious concerns, so charcoal might well have been chosen for its absorptive powers – not necessarily to prevent the corpse from polluting the surroundings, but also to protect the “clean” remains from the “unclean” cemetery soil. Charcoal, like ash, was also symbolic of purity and penitence, in these instances perhaps relating to the mourners as much as the deceased.’

The frame of a late Saxon two light windows
Further rare traces of the Anglo-Saxon monastery: the frame of a late Saxon two light window found in the area of Bath Abbey.

The discovery of two examples of this rare grave-type presented a valuable opportunity to record them with the latest techniques available, including creating a 3D model of the graves for future analysis. If these people were members of the monastic community, Wessex Archaeology has also uncovered the remains of structures that the Anglo-Saxon individuals may have recognised in their lifetime. The foundations of two small but well-built structures, with plaster coating their internal faces, were uncovered during the recent work. Both are apsidal (semi-circular) in shape, and may represent the eastern ends of buildings; such constructions are sometimes found in high-status Roman structures, as well as in Anglo-Saxon and Norman churches and chapels.

In this case, it is thought that the structures may be early medieval in date: they overlie Romano-British deposits and pre-date two burials that are likely to date from the medieval period, while these buildings are also located in an area that is likely to have been open ground (the Norman cloister garth) from the mid-12th century onwards, suggesting that they are probably earlier than this. It is hoped that further dating evidence will emerge in the course of the excavations that will allow the team to investigate the structures’ relationship with the adjacent cemetery and determine if they did indeed form part of the Anglo-Saxon monastery.

A fragment of finely carved stone
Further rare traces of the Anglo-Saxon monastery: a fragment of finely carved stone, found in the area of Bath Abbey.

If the monastery had achieved high status during the Anglo-Saxon period, the aftermath of the Norman Conquest propelled the site to new heights. These changes came at the hands of John of Tours, who was appointed Bishop of Wells in 1088 and, two years later, reportedly bought the entire town of Bath from William II (William Rufus) for 500 marks of silver. John promptly moved the bishopric and its see from Wells to Bath and, eager to improve his new lands, he launched an extensive rebuilding programme, including replacing the minster church with a huge new cathedral.

So ambitious was this construction that, by the time of John’s death in 1122, only the cathedral’s ambulatory had been completed. The project was struck by a number of setbacks, including a devastating fire in 1137, but by the 1160s it was finally finished. The result would have been truly awe-inspiring to Anglo-Norman eyes. Bath cathedral was one of the largest in England, surpassed only by Ely, Norwich, and Winchester. It is thought to have measured more than 100m in length – today, the present abbey sits comfortably within the outline of its nave. But how much of the cathedral’s fabric has survived to the modern day?

An Anglo-Saxon 'charcoal burial'
This Anglo-Saxon ‘charcoal burial’, one of two discovered on the site, offers insights into a rare funerary rite. The individual had been laid to rest on a bed of charcoal, possibly because of the material’s perceived purifying properties.

In fact, Wessex Archaeology’s excavations revealed that much of the 16th-century abbey’s foundations are made from reclaimed Norman masonry, and in some cases walls rest directly on top of the cathedral’s remains. A reused pillar capital could be seen forming part of the base of a pier for a later column, while other fragments of Norman architecture were recovered during the investigation. Some of these were decorative features, including an unusual – and rather personable – head carved out of Bath stone, which may have been part of an elaborate corbel, supporting the base of an arch. Many such carvings of this period depict saints or other holy figures, but it has been suggested that this example – which represents a bearded man with a distinctive large nose – may have been a portrait, or even a self-portrait, of one of the individuals involved in the cathedral’s construction.

A carved head
Might this characterful carved head represent one of the men who helped to build the Anglo-Norman cathedral?

Bob Davis, Senior Buildings Archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology, agrees that the figure is more likely to be a mortal mason than a celestial subject: ‘The carved head has strong features and is depicted with a full beard, large nose, protruding eyes, and prominent eyebrow ridge. It lacks the refinement of other such carvings – the eyes for instance, are simple bulges, while the nose may appear broken. It was probably originally to be found at the base of an arch or corbel, and although many such medieval head carvings depict saints and clergy, some may depict the masons who actually worked on the cathedrals and abbeys. This character lacks the detail of a saint, and his strong features suggest that he may be a manual worker.’

A pillar capital from the Anglo-Norman cathedral reused in the current Abbey
While much of the Anglo-Norman cathedral has been demolished, its remains can still be found beneath the current Abbey. Here, a pillar capital has been reused as part of the pier for a later column.

The site’s fortunes continued to rise throughout the Middle Ages, with the cathedral and monastic buildings in a constant state of renewal and repair. One particularly spectacular example of these later additions came as a complete surprise to the excavation team: a remarkably well-preserved tiled floor, dating to the late 13th or early 14th century, which was adorned with vividly colourful motifs. Described by the team as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime find’, the surface was discovered beneath the abbey’s Corporation stalls – a series of hand-carved pews close to the high altar – about 2m below the present floor surface. Its tiles are known to have been manufactured at Nash Hill in Lacock, Wiltshire, and the designs are attributed to the Wessex School – a set of motifs associated with Clarendon Palace near Salisbury and the chapter house of Salisbury cathedral, and which are also seen in Wells, Bristol, Glastonbury, and other sites in Bath.

Among the cathedral floor tiles were colourful griffins, birds, fleur-de-lis motifs, and a depiction of what may be abbey buildings, but there was also some rather more elite imagery present. This included tiles decorated with three gold lions on a red shield – the heraldic arms of the Plantagenet kings of England – as well as three red chevrons on a gold shield – the arms of the de Clare family. These were powerful Norman marcher barons who held the earldoms of Gloucester and Hertford, as well as lands in Ireland and on the Welsh border, until the family’s male line came to an end in 1314 with the death of Gilbert de Clare, 8th Earl of Gloucester, at the Battle of Bannockburn. Other clues to their date come from historical records relating to the cathedral itself, says Cai Mason, Senior Project Officer at Wessex Archaeology: ‘Having done further research, we know that Bishop Drokensford arranged for repairs to the cathedral in the 1320s, which fits neatly with when we know these tiles were being produced.’

A spectacular medieval tiled floor near the abbey's high altar
Excavations close to the abbey’s high altar uncovered a spectacular medieval tiled floor. Its motifs include griffins, birds, the fleur-de-lis, and religious buildings, as well as the heraldic arms of the Plantagenet kings and powerful barons.
A Renaissance Italian style carved angel's head
The Renaissance Italian style of this exquisitely carved angel’s head hints at a skilled craftsman having travelled to Bath from the continent in the late 15th or early 16th century.

The floor will be preserved in situ, covered by a protective membrane and a layer of inert sand. Other medieval features came to light during investigations in the vaults below Abbey Chambers, a Georgian building that stands adjacent to the modern abbey and which proved to overlie part of the cathedral cloisters. There, a layer of demolition rubble yielded another of the project’s star finds: a carved head with rather finer features than that of the ‘mason portrait’, this time depicting an angel. After consulting architectural historians, Wessex Archaeology has interpreted the head as a possibly late 15th- or early 16th-century ‘label stop’ – a decorative moulding that, unlike a corbel, was not intended to support anything structural.

Its presence could tie in to a specific period in the cathedral’s life, Cai suggests – it is known that the nearby Prior’s Lodgings and Dormitory were rebuilt in the 1480s, and that they were demolished around the time that the rubble containing the head was dumped. Yet the design of the head itself raises more questions. It is carved in the style of Renaissance Italian naturalism, which is rarely seen in England, and the team suggests that its sculptor may have been a travelling craftsman who came to Bath from the Continent.


The good times were not to last. By the end of the 15th century the cathedral was in a semi-ruinous state, and the newly appointed Bishop Oliver King decided to pull the old building down and replace it with the present structure. Its appearance would be innovative, using the fashionable new Late Gothic style designed by William and Robert Vertue, with the choir boasting one of the ornate fan-vaulted ceilings for which the architects were so renowned – they had also designed such ceilings for the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey, and for St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. Construction was under way by 1502, and the building was largely complete, though still unconsecrated, by 1539. That year, amid the Dissolution of the Monasteries, time ran out, and the abbey was seized by Henry VIII’s commissioners.

The fan vaulting in the ceiling of the abbey
During 16th-century renovations to the by-then ruined abbey, the building was given a grand barrel-vaulted roof. Further restoration work in the 19th century replaced this with the fan vaulting that we see today.

The land was subsequently sold to a private owner who gutted the religious buildings, leaving the nave and transepts roofless, and the site lay in ruins for decades. A turning point came in 1572, though, when Edward Colthurst donated the abbey remains to the city and its structures began to be repaired – efforts that took over 40 years to complete. This included constructing an elaborate timber and plaster barrel-vaulted roof, though this feature has not survived to the present day; when Sir George Gilbert Scott renovated the site in the 1860s, he pulled down the Tudor ceiling and replaced it with fan vaulting. While this might seem like sacrilege, it was an attitude typical of the time, says Bruce Eaton, Project Manager for Wessex Archaeology: ‘The Victorians had a very different approach to heritage than we do now. When Sir George Gilbert Scott pulled down the Tudor ceiling in the 1860s, his intention seems to have been to “complete” the original design, as envisaged by William and Robert Vertue. Thankfully he reused the ornate plasterwork to level up the Abbey floor, allowing us today to reconstruct in detail how the ceiling must have looked.’

Colourfully painted plaster
Colourfully painted plaster was found which once belonged to the Tudor ceiling

Indeed, many traces of the lost Tudor ceiling have emerged during the recent excavations. A 1m-thick layer of rubble (known as the ‘Scott layer’, as it is made up of dumped material dating from the 19th-century renovations) has been found beneath the ledger stones of the nave. Among this, the team found quantities of colourfully painted plaster, as well as fragments of masonry and moulded plaster decorations including a number of sculpted Tudor roses. These fragile finds help to piece together a picture of how impressive the previous ceiling must have looked.

Moulded Tudor roses which once belonged to the ceiling
Although the Tudor ceiling was torn down by George Gilbert Scott, moulded Tudor roses and traces of colourful plaster testify to how impressive a sight it must have been.

The rubble dumped by Scott to level the 19th-century floor also yielded clues to the abbey’s Georgian past. During this period, many of the columns in the nave were decorated with ornate marble memorials to the great and good who came to Bath to ‘take the waters’, but never recovered from their ailments. During Scott’s reordering of the site, though, the plaques were moved to the north and south aisle walls, and to accommodate this change the ornately decorated marble borders of the walls were taken down, ending their days among the buried levelling material. Now, though, these elegant architectural elements have come to light once more, and in large amounts. ‘Vast quantities’ of marble fragments have been recovered during the recent works, sculpted with images including vases, cannons, pistols, daggers, candles, a bishop’s mitre, and a beautifully detailed angel’s wing. In order to record this wealth of imagery, Wessex Archaeology has run training for the Abbey staff, who are now leading a project to document the fragments with volunteers from the local community.

Scott’s restorations also saw the abbey’s Georgian marble memorials moved from the columns where they had originally been mounted to the aisle walls. To accommodate this, the decorative borders of the walls were taken down. A team of volunteers is now documenting surviving fragments of these carvings, including the delicate angel wing shown below.

Finds Supervisor Sophie Clarke describes the project: ‘These intricately carved marble remains, being fairly robust, presented an ideal opportunity to offer an exciting outreach and engagement project, allowing the public to become involved with recording the archaeology of this iconic building. The aim of the training was to upskill existing Abbey volunteers in order to process the marble fragments while meeting Wessex Archaeology standards. The volunteers would then pass on the training to school groups and visitors.’

The fragments have also shed light on how the Georgian monuments were constructed. One of the pieces has the name ‘E Lloyd’ written on its reverse in pencil – but this is not a mason’s signature, Project Supervisor Marek Lewcun explains: ‘It is the identification of the memorial to which the stone belonged, and would have been written in the memorial mason’s yard to identify which components or pieces belonged together when they were dispatched and reassembled in the abbey. There are only two individuals buried inside the abbey itself (as opposed to in the churchyard) to whom the piece can relate: Edward Lloyd, a child, buried 19 December 1740 or, more likely, Ellis Lloyd, esquire, buried 14 July 1757.’

This piece of marble, from a Georgian memorial plaque, bears the name of the individual to whom it was dedicated. The project team has narrowed their identity down to one of two people.

Such discoveries lend a more personal touch to an astonishing array of insights into over a millennium of religious activity on the site of Bath Abbey. With the archaeological work scheduled to run until this autumn, though, this site may yet have more secrets to give up about its previous incarnations.

Satan in the Cathedral?

As well as shedding light on the centuries of religious activity practised by past communities on the site of the abbey, the ongoing project has also uncovered some rather more modern finds – including traces of a Satanist hoax that scandalised the Danish media in the 1970s. While excavating beneath the Corporation pews, Wessex Archaeology found not only the stunning tiled floor described in this feature, but two coins marked with the image of a devil and the words CIVITAS DIABOLI (‘city of devils’, on the obverse) and 13 MAJ ANHOLT 1973 (‘13 May, Anholt, 1973’, on the reverse).

The devil coins found in the abbey

These curious objects refer to an unusual episode when 13 ‘ritual sites’ scattered with strange objects including masks, black candles, and bones were discovered on the Danish island of Anholt. As police arrived from mainland Denmark to investigate, the media was awash with rumours of black masses and Satanic cults. Although the source of the finds was not identified at the time, media interest gradually petered out – but coins like those found in Bath continued to be discovered across Denmark, hidden in churches and museums and sometimes accompanied by a letter claiming to be written by a Satanic high priestess. To-date, almost 400 of these coins have been identified, all marked with text referring to Anholt and 13 May 1973.

It was not until 2013 that an investigation by the Danish newspaper Politiken revealed that the Satanic panic had been a hoax masterminded by Knud Langkow, an office clerk at the National Gallery of Denmark, who had died in 2004. At the time, his niece confirmed that Knud was not a Satanist, and that the hoax was simply a reflection of his dark sense of humour. Why and how two coins reflecting his escapades found their way to Bath Abbey, though, remains an intriguing enigma.

Further reading
For more information on the Bath Abbey Footprint project and its findings, see www.bathabbey.org/footprint and www.wessexarch.co.uk/our-work/bath-abbey-footprint-project.

This feature was published in CA 348. Click here to subscribe


  1. I am so glad this Bath ABBEY floor is being rescued and more information of the re;igious culture. in Mid eveil times.and before.

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