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.
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