The floor of Bath Abbey has long been in a parlous state, and the abbey itself lacks the most basic facilities to accommodate its community and visitors. Basic as in bathrooms. It has none. With the floor on the verge of collapse, Bath Abbey raised funds from donors and secured a major £10.7 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to repair the floor, install a new heating system, build out the previously unused underground vault space, add all kinds of new facilities from bathrooms to catering kitchens to rehearsal rooms for the choir to a Discovery Center that will showcase the rich history of the church. The total budget for this ambitious project is £19.3 million.
Bath Abbey’s floor is made of 891 memorial stones, more than any other church in England, which made addressing the floor’s rapid deterioration both more pressing and more complex. The stones had to be removed one at a time and carefully conserved. While they were being treated, the unsound surface could be repaired, the new underfloor heating system installed and the memorial stones put back in their original placement. The new heating system, incidentally, will harness the same natural resource that inspired the Romans to build the famous public bath that gave the city its name: geothermal energy from hot springs.
To take full advantage of the unique opportunity to explore the archaeological underpinnings of the church, contractors Wessex Archaeology were brought in to dig through the layers of history underneath the floor. Six and a half feet under the floor, archaeologists discovered the remains of a 13th century floor with brilliantly colored tiles.
The floor is composed of exquisite tiles which are attributed to the Wessex School; a series of designs derived from tiles laid at Clarendon Palace, east of Salisbury. Other examples of these tile designs are known from Bath, Wells, Bristol and Glastonbury.
The three golden lions on a red shield is the coat of arms of the Plantagenet kings. The three red chevrons on a gold shield is the coat of arms of the de Clare family, powerful Norman marcher barons who held the earldoms of Gloucester and Hertford as well as land in both Wales and Ireland. The family line came to an end when Gilbert de Clare, 8th Earl of Gloucester and cousin of Edward II, died at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
The tiles were installed in the largest and most glamorous iteration of the cathedral. The first church on the site was an Anglo-Saxon monastery built in 757 A.D. That was destroyed by the Normans during a rebellion against William II. In 1088, construction began on a new church a much grander scale. The Norman cathedral was so big that the current Gothic abbey could fit in its nave.
By the end of the 15th century that great church was falling to pieces. Oliver King, Bishop of Exeter and Bath and Wells, undertook its restoration in 1500 after being told in a dream “Let an Olive establish the crown, and let a King restore the Church.” He took that to mean that he should restore Bath Abbey and support Henry Tudor’s bid for the throne. The new church was completed in the late 1530s, decades after King’s death and just in time for the next Henry Tudor’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The monastery was indeed dissolved, but the cathedral made it through.
Visitors to Bath can see the archaeologists at work on and under the floor in a couple of weeks. The Abbey will be offering behind-the-scenes tours from September 13th through 15th as part of Heritage Open Days. The tours are free but you have to book ahead of time.
This video shows the new floor tiles on the day of their discovery, August 30th. Cai Mason of Wessex Archaeology gives an overview of the find starting around the 35 second mark.