Anglo Saxon Bath – The Ruin

In the history of Bath and indeed Britain, there are few texts surviving that provide a contemporary account of the ‘look and feel’ of a place during the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Exeter Codex (Exeter Book) is one of the best works of Anglo Saxon Britain, compiled some time in the late 10th century . It is a mix of riddles and poems, many existing for centuries in spoken form, before being written down.

The Exeter Book contain a poem that describes Bath during this period. It is called “The Ruin” or “The Ruined City” and is thought to be a description of Bath by an early Anglo-Saxon Christian. The writer may well have been a post Battle of Dyrham Saxon “invader”, seeing Bath for the first time. The poem references the red Roman curved roof tiles that are now displayed in the Roman Baths.

Here are two translations, the first by Chauncey B. Tinker and the second by Jack Watson.

‘Wondrously wrought and fair its wall of stone,
Shattered by Fate! The castles rent asunder,
The work of giants moldered away!
Its roofs are breaking and falling; its towers crumble
In ruin. Plundered those walls with grated doors —
Their mortar white with frost. Its battered ramparts
are shorn away and ruined, all undermined
By eating age. The mighty men that built it,
Departed hence, undone by death, are held
Fast in the earthâs embrace. Tight is the clutch
Of the grave, while overhead of living men
A hundred generations pass away.
Long this red wall, now mossy gray, withstood,
While kingdom followed kingdom in the land,
Unshaken âneath the storms of heaven — yet now
Its towering gate hath fallen. . . .
Radiant the mead-halls in that city bright,
Yea, many were its baths. High rose its wealth
Of hornèd pinnacles, while loud within
Was heard the joyous revelry of men —
Till mighty Fate came with her sudden change!
Wide-wasting was the battle where they fell.
Plague-laden days upon the city came;
Death snatched away that mighty host of men. . . .
There in the olden time full many a thane,
Shining with gold, all gloriously adorned,
Haughty in heart, rejoiced when hot with wine;
Upon him gleamed his armor, and he gazed
On gold and silver and all precious gems;
On riches and on wealth and treasured jewels,
A radiant city in a kingdom wide.
There stood the courts of stone. Hot within,
The stream flowed with its mighty surge. The wall
Surrounded all with its bright bosom; there
The baths stood, hot within its heart. . . . ‘

This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed. Often this wall,
lichen-grey and stained with red, experienced one reign after another,
remained standing under storms; the high wide gate has collapsed.
Still the masonry endures in winds cut down
persisted on__________________
fiercely sharpened________ _________
______________ she shone_________
_____________g skill ancient work_________
_____________g of crusts of mud turned away
spirit mo________yne put together keen-counselled
a quick design in rings, a most intelligent one bound
the wall with wire brace wondrously together.
Bright were the castle buildings, many the bathing-halls,
high the abundance of gables, great the noise of the multitude,
many a meadhall full of festivity,
until Fate the mighty changed that.
Far and wide the slain perished, days of pestilence came,
death took all the brave men away;
their places of war became deserted places,
the city decayed. The rebuilders perished,
the armies to earth. And so these buildings grow desolate,
and this red-curved roof parts from its tiles
of the ceiling-vault. The ruin has fallen to the ground
broken into mounds, where at one time many a warrior,
joyous and ornamented with gold-bright splendour,
proud and flushed with wine shone in war-trappings;
looked at treasure, at silver, at precious stones,
at wealth, at prosperity, at jewellery,
at this bright castle of a broad kingdom.
The stone buildings stood, a stream threw up heat
in wide surge; the wall enclosed all
in its bright bosom, where the baths were,
hot in the heart. That was convenient.
Then they let pour_______________
hot streams over grey stone.
un___________ _____________
until the ringed sea (circular pool?) hot
_____________where the baths were.
Then is_______________________
__________re, that is a noble thing,
to the house__________ castle_______

Bath Abbey – 11th century relics, Stigand and John of Tours

During the years running up to the invasion by William the Conqueror in 1066, the abbey in Bath had been expanded.
King Edgar, according to the historian William of Malmesbury (c. 1095 – c. 1143) “delighted with the magnificence of the place, as well as because he was crowned there, had enlarged the abbey”.
In Edward the Confessor’s reign (1042 -1066), just before the arrival of the Normans, the abbot of Bath was Vlward.  However, one of the most interesting characters of church history, Stigand, was to to be successor to Bath’s riches, something he was very good at.
Stigand was an English churchman who served six successive kings: Cnut; Harold Harefoot; Harthacnut; Edward the Confessor; Harold and William I – “The Conqueror”). He made himself rich (possibly at the churches expense) and was a power broker, being excommunicated by several popes and finally deposed and imprisoned in Winchester. He served the Norman William I as doctor and advisor. When William I went to Normandy, he chose to take Stigand with him – maybe because he did not trust him to be left behind!
At the time of the Norman invasion, part of Bath abbey’s power lay in it’s relics. There is an expansive list in the Corpus Christi manuscript, which includes: bones of St. Peter, part of Jesus’ cloak, heads of St. Bartholomew, St. Lawrence and St. Pancras; the knee of St. Maurice; ribs of St. Barnabus; an arm of St. Simeon; part of the cross; the vest of Christ; the cloth in which Jesus’ body was wrapped; the hair, milk and part of the dress of the Virgin Mary; part of the pillar to which Jesus was bound; part of the cross of St.Andrew, Part of Jesus’ tomb, parts of St. John the Baptist; the sponge and sandals of Jesus; part of St. Samson’s back and some hair of Mary Magdalene. This was a powerhouse of relics for Bath to have. Relics meant pilgrims and pilgrims meant money.
In 1088 Bath and the abbey were caught in the uprising of Bishop Odo against William Rufus (William II). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that Bath and it’s surrounding countryside was plundered and maybe much of it’s relics were lost. However, it seems that the king seized Bath and granted it to John de Villula (John of Tours) who moved the See of Somerset from Wells to Bath. John may have paid for this privilege. He seems to have got the whole place, lock, stock and barrel. The charter from King Rufus says “to God, and St. Peter in Bath, and to John the Bishop and his successors, the whole of the city of Bath, in free alms, with all its appurtenances, to hold and possess in as free and honorable a manner as he himself held any city in England, together with it’s mint and all the accustomed rights…with the toll-money arising as well in the fields as the woods, as well in the market as the meadows and other lands, that with the greater honour he may fix his pontifical seat there”. John of Tours is said to have purchased Bath for 500 marks of silver. In this way, Bath passed back into the hands of an entrepreneur, looking to maximise his return. He demolished the old St. Peters church and is said to have built a new monastic church in Bath “with a great and elaborate circuit of walls”. The current Bath Cathedral is not the one built by John and only covers part of the site that John’s St. Peter’s did.
Apparently John was harsh to the monks in Bath when he arrived – he thought them stupid. He took lands of them but gave them back later – after they had become a bit more educated in John’s eyes. John himself was a skilled doctor, who learnt his knowledge practically. Willliam of Malmesbury says he was “a very skilled doctor, not in theoretical knowledge, but in practice.” John seems to have taken up expanding the library in Bath and widening the resources for the education of the monks. On his death bed John returned to  Bath all that he had gained and then some, gifting more estates that he owned. He is said to have been buried in his St Peters church. Later in Henry VIII’s time, the historian Leyland reports seeing the sepulchre of John of Tours, covered in weeds and laying in a state of disrepair. However John de Villula’s legacy was more lasting in the history of Bath.

The Ancient Roads of Bath

By virtue of Bath’s important location at the crossing point of the River Avon, it was always well connected by road. Before the Romans arrived and built their own infrastructure, there were a number of roads that already connected Bath to trade and commerce across ancient Britain and beyond. Trade and travel enriched Bath’s history and prosperity. It also helped get it’s name as a place of special significance to the Celts and later the Romans.

The Sweet Track

Thirty miles west of Bath are the Somerset Plains. Here, around 3838 BC, were built some of Europe’s earliest discovered wooden causeways. The Somerset levels are now drained wetlands but they would have been largely underwater. The causeways connected prehistoric lake dwellings with small islands and the mainland. Its construction is well engineered and designed to be constructed and maintained easily. The track itself is planks of oak, ash and lime. It has rails and pegs made of hazel and alder. The separate components were assembled on dry land then put in place. The rails (which were long poles) were laid end to end and fixed in place with cross placed pegs. The planks were then wedged into place on top of the pegs and the whole construction could then be manoeuvred into place. The prefabricated parts meant that miles of track could be constructed. Along the route there are finds of pots and the odd weapon which may have been offerings to the gods of the water (similar to those found in Bath’s spring).

The Sweet Track - Somerset - courtesy of The British Museum

The Sweet Track – Somerset – courtesy of The British Museum

Jurrassic Way

Bath was connected by a ridge way track to the Jurassic Way, a major ancient route that runs between Stamford in Lincolnshire and Banbury in Oxfordshire. The ridge way track was later known as the Bath Herepath (military road) by the Saxons and it is named in a charter of Bath Abbey in 963 AD. The Jurassic Way predates the Saxons and the Romans but we can only speculate on how old it is. Perhaps it is contemporary with the Sweet Track?

Western Trackway

The Western Trackway was another pre-Roman ancient road that ran from Carlisle in Cumbria to Gloucester.  At Gloucester it split either side of the River Severn and ran through Sea Mills in Bristol (the Roman port of Abona/Abonae) ending in Exeter in Devon.

Via Julia

The Via Julia is a Roman road. It was an important military and trade route, running from Silchester (Calevero Atrebatum), an important military centre, westward through Bathford. Julian Road in Bath still references the Via Julia. It then runs past the Lansdown Roman camps, past Bitton and onward to Abone/Abonae (linking with the more ancient Western Trackway). It then passed across the Severn at Aust (known to the Romans as Traiectus Augustus) and on to the Roman headquarters in Wales at Caerleon (Isca Silurum), home of the second legion.

Via Julia, Neston House, Roman Road from Bath

The Via Julia at Neston House, East of Bath. The course is along the tree line.


The Portway runs North of Bath and connects with Swainswick, the Hill fort at Hinton and past the later Roman camp at Sodbury up to Gloucester where the Severn crossing is. It’s antiquity can be seen through the large number of tumuli that follow it. There are many earthworks and barrows along its path. It marks the line along the Cotswolds that was a defensive and commercial route for many thousands of years. On the west side are the hill forts, ancient forests and uplands of the Cotswolds. On the east are the low lands, once marshy and impenetrable that lead to the River Severn and across to Wales.

Hinton Hill Fort near Bath - the old track, just off the Portway

Hinton Hill Fort near Bath – the old track, just off the Portway

Fosse Way

This Roman road was very probably built on more ancient tracks that provided trade North to South. The Romans developed it to run along the Roman frontier from Exeter to Lincoln. It served as a military route but was always a rich trade route. Somerset and further west had lead, coal and other metals. Wales to the west had gold and silver. These would have always been traded up and down the Fosse Way and by boat. The name “Fosse” may have developed from the ditch that the Romans are said to have dug alongside it. From the south, the Fosse Way enters Bath via the Holloway and may have crossed the river were the old mediaeval bridge was. There were probably crossings at Clevedon Bridge in Bath and Bathhampton, all well guarded by the Romans. The road ran up through Walcot and out via Batheaston to proceed up Bannerdown, onwards to the left of the current airfield at Colerne and onwards.

Fosse Way, Towards Colerne, north of Bath

The Fosse Way, towards Colerne, north of Bath




















The South Road to Poole It is known that Bath was already trading with Roman Gaul in 55 BC but the links to the south Coast around Poole were much older. There is clear evidence of Bronze Age trade with Europe. The worlds oldest seagoing boat was found at Dover on the south coast. There are many bronze age finds in Britain of material bought in from the continent and  Bath’s roads are an important part of the infrastructure that existed and shaped Bath’s history, shape and purpose.

History of Bath’s Roads – East through Bathford Via Julia, The Old Coach Road and the A4

To get a sense of the original state of the roads from Bath to London, and the difficulty of traversing them, you have only to walk the old coach road that rose up from Bathford to Kingsdown. Bathford is a village a few miles east of the city of Bath and once carried all the main routes East and so to London.Bathford Hill was a difficult climb that every traveler to and from Bath from London had to make. It is a mile and a half directly to the top and rises nearly 500 feet. The Oolitic limestone shelf that Bathford village sits on becomes a very steep escarpment.

The old coach road starts up Bathford Hill and turns left down Ashley road which now turns into a dirt track.

Ashley Road, Bathford - Old Coach Road 2

The old coach road as it is today, climbing Ashley Road up Bathford Hill





















The route continues across a stream where you can still see the original Oolitic Limestone pavement, required to stop the coaches becoming stuck in the mud from the spring.  As you reach a field the track turns right and ascends till it reaches Wormcliff Lane. Here it turns sharp right and climbs a very steep section. It meets Lower Kingsdown Road and proceeds straight uphill, onto a footpath that emerges onto the golf course just by the 1930’s Chapel building.

Ashley Road Bathford - Old Coach Road

Oolitic Limestone road surface to stop the coaches slipping in the mud




















Queen Anne, during a visit to Bath at the turn of the 18th Century, is said to have got stuck and nearly rolled backwards, as her carriage attempted the ascent of Bathford Hill.

Wormcliff Lane - Bathford

The steep section of Wormcliffe Lane meets Lower Kingsdown Road

In his 1871 History of Bathford, Henry Duncan Skrine (from Warleigh Manor in Bathford) remembers “the heavy coach, pulled by four bang-tailed bays” that would convey his family up Bathford Hill.

Horses would have been kept in the field behind Ostlings Lane (still known by some locals as Horses Lane) and the Bradford Road to take coaches up the Bathford Hill. At the top the horses seem to have gone as far as stables at “Jockey” (The Old Jockey Farm in the village of Bluevein) and returned back down to Bathford. The land on the fields close to Bathford is known as “horselands”. It was thought to have been where the Roman Cavalry exercised but the name probably came later. It is however close to the site of Roman buildings and a high status Roman Villa.

Of course, the Roman’s needed to ascend this hill as well. They chose a different route. You can still see the course of the Roman road on Ordinance Survey maps. It runs east from Bath, through Batheaston and is usually labeled the Fosse Way on this stretch. At the bottom of Bannerdown it splits between the Fosseway and the Via Julia which continues through Bathford. The Via Julia is an important east/west Roman road that ran to the ancient port of Sea Mills near Bristol called Abona /Abonae by the Romans. The exact route of the Roman Via Julia through Bathford is not know. 19th Century writers such as H D Skrine report that it ran up Court Lane and directly up the hill. Mr Skrine remembers seeing the Roman road, several feet below the level of the land but reports that it was so slippery and dangerous that it was filled in by a local Major Pickwick to protect pedestrians. Others believe it ran up through what is now Dovers Place.

Between the Fosse way and the Bathford lies the A4 London/Bath road, following the valley but this started as a very local road. It was not till around the mid 18th century that the toll road from London to Bristol was altered to pass through Bath and the London/Bath Road that is the A4 got it’s name. The first tollroads were intoduced into Bath in 1707 – not surprisingly by Queen Anne (perhaps after her eventful trip up Bathford). The money from the tolls improved the road and allowed mail to arrive and be delivered quicker from Bath. Before the turnpike improvements, a letter from Bath in 1684 took about 3 days going via a postal office in Marshfield (north of Bath) on the Bristol Road.  Journey times during the Turnpike era fell with the improvements from 2 days in 1752 to 38 hours in 1782 and 18 hours by 1836. Royal Mail coaches in 1836 were able to do the trip in 12–13 hours.Ralph Allen drove some of these improvements when he was post master of Bath between 1719 and 1763.

Attempts were made to improve the road through Bathford including “flattening out” Bathford Hill. At the bottom of the hill you can see that the doors and pavements are not at the same level. Earth was moved to reduce the steepest part of the hill.  But the A4 through Box became the major route to London, as competition for the quickest routes drove road development. The trains arrived in the 1830s and took the mail and delivered much faster transport between Bath and London for those that could pay for it. Bathford even had it’s own small halt.

Here is the course of the Old Coach Road along Ashley Road in Bathford

View Bath History Tours in a larger map