Jessica Hope delves into the archives and discovers some of Bath’s most illustrious visitors from centuries gone
Bath attracts all kinds of famous and notable people and has done for centuries. From the 17th century onwards, the city began to attract large quantities of people looking for both a cure for their illnesses and the perfect spot to socialise.
The thermal baths presented visitors with the opportunity to ‘take the waters’, as it was once known, in the belief that this would help treat their ailment – and this idea quickly spread among the elite of society, many of whom needed cures for gout or syphilis, or wanted to improve their fertility in order to produce an heir for their family’s fortune, or even for the crown. We reveal just some of the prominent people who have visited the city and the surrounding areas across the centuries . . .
In the 17th century, Bath was visited by two queen consorts looking to take the waters to help with their fertility. In 1663, Charles II’s wife Catherine of Braganza came to the city in the hope that she would become pregnant and secure an heir to the throne.
Unfortunately for Catherine, she never gave birth and so the succession passed to Charles’ Catholic brother, James, whose second wife, Mary of Modena, visited Bath in August 1687 for the same reason.
Unlike Catherine, Mary became pregnant in late 1687. Some people considered this pregnancy only possible because of the queen consort’s use of the thermal spa. Mary gave birth in June 1688 to James Francis Edward Stuart, who later became known as The Old Pretender.
In celebration of this royal birth, the Earl of Melfort commissioned The Melfort Cross to be erected at The Cross Bath, making a clear statement about the belief that the thermal waters must have helped Mary’s fertility. This monument had three columns and a dome, with a cross with a crown of thorns on top, with three cherubs holding the crown, sceptre and orb also adorning it. This was a royal statement of power to those who rivalled James II’s crown.
However, after James and his family were overthrown and exiled in late 1688, this monument was ordered to be dismantled in stages over time. Despite this, one of the cherubs was in fact saved from destruction and later moved to adorn the wall above what is now the Bobbi Brown store on Old Bond Street.
After Charles II’s death in February 1685, Protestant courtiers feared how the succession of the Catholic James II would influence the state of the country. In retaliation, some spoke out and argued that Charles’ illegitimate Protestant son, the Duke of Monmouth, should be made king instead.
In June 1685, Monmouth travelled from Holland to England in the hope of overthrowing his uncle and claiming his crown. Landing in Lyme Regis, Monmouth was determined to take control of Bristol, which was one of the largest cities after London at the time.
Making his way across the south west, Monmouth’s troops secured Keynsham and set their sights on taking Bath. However, Bath was occupied by royalist troops, prepared and ready for battle. With Bath and Bristol seeming too difficult to take hold of, Monmouth retreated to The George Inn in present day Norton St Philip. It is believed that Monmouth stayed at the inn in the days leading up to the Battle of Sedgemoor, where his troops were defeated and Monmouth was arrested and sentenced to be executed. The George Inn continues to run as a pub to this day and visitors are able to stay overnight in The Monmouth Room.
The George Inn in Norton St Philip, c1890, image courtesy of Bath In Time – Bath Central Library. Visit: bathintime.co.uk
At the time when Mary of Modena went into labour with her son in 1688, James II’s Protestant daughter from his first wife, Anne, was residing in Bath. Anne, who suffered from gout throughout her life, believed that the thermal waters might be able to aid her condition. Anne had also just suffered a miscarriage in 1688, so it could be argued that her visit to Bath was also for recuperation.
Princess Anne also came to Bath in 1692, before returning to the city in 1702 after becoming queen. It was during this visit that she performed the ceremony of touching the king’s evil, where Anne touched the necks or heads of 30 people from the local area suffering from scrofula. It was believed that the monarch’s divine authority would be able to cure those with the disease. Anne was the last monarch in history to conduct the practice in this country.
Members of the royal family continued to be drawn to Bath throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1817, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, travelled to Bath to take the waters. Among her entourage was the Duke of Clarence, the future William IV. Both stayed in Sydney Place for several weeks, and today you will find two plaques referring to their visit outside numbers 93 and 103.
While Bath will always have a connection with Jane Austen, there are many other notable authors and poets who have made appearances in the city over the centuries. Charles Dickens became a frequent visitor in the 19th century, first coming to Bath in 1835 as a young journalist – he supposedly stayed at the Saracen’s Head on Broad Street.
Later on in life, Dickens made regular visits to see his friend and fellow writer Walter Savage Landor who lived in St James’ Square. There is a plaque outside Walter’s house, but there is no concrete evidence that Charles actually ever stayed overnight there. However, Charles did stay at the York House Hotel on George Street, which is now a Travelodge.
The people of Bath certainly intrigued Dickens, who may have based his character Mr Pickwick in The Pickwick Papers on the landlord of the White Hart Inn.
Dickens also took inspiration from his visits to the Assembly Rooms and described them in The Pickwick Papers, writing: “In the ball-room, the long card-room, the octagonal card-room, the staircases, and the passages, the hum of many voices, and the sound of many feet, were perfectly bewildering. Dresses rustled, feathers waved, lights shone, and jewels sparkled . . .”
Fellow 19th century novelist Mary Shelley lived in Bath for a few years, arriving in 1816 with her lover (and later husband) Percy Shelley and her stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was pregnant with Lord Byron’s baby at the time. It was during her stay in Abbey Church Yard that she completed arguably her most famous work, Frankenstein, which was published anonymously in 1818.
Romantic poet William Wordsworth visited Bath in the 1840s to witness the marriage of his only surviving daughter, Dora, at St James Church (which was later badly damaged during the Bath Blitz in 1942 and demolished in the second half of the 20th century).
Although there is a plaque outside number 9 North Parade acknowledging Wordsworth’s residence there during his visit to Bath, a letter from the poet from the time of his stay mentions that his address was in fact at number 12.
The Social commentator
During his travels in June 1668, diarist Samuel Pepys spent a few days visiting Bath and Bristol, making note of his experiences and opinions of both cities. Prior to arriving in Bath, Pepys and his wife may have stayed at The George Inn in Norton St Philip, the same inn that the Duke of Monmouth had stayed in before his ill-fated rebellion in 1685.
Upon arriving in Bath, Pepys saw the Roman Baths, noting in his diary “they are not so large as I expected, but yet pleasant; and the town most of stone and clean, though the streets generally narrow.”
The next morning Pepys woke up at four in the morning to visit The Cross Bath. To his surprise, the bath was busy with visitors from the early hours. Reflecting on his visit, Pepys wrote: “. . . methinks it cannot be clean to go so many bodies together in the same water.”
Surprised at how hot the waters could get, he stated: “But strange to see, when women and men herein, that live all the season in these waters, that cannot but be parboiled, and look like creatures of the bath!”
Pepys certainly picked up on the difference in social standings in the city at the time, noting that the King and Queen’s Baths were visited by a mix of people, while The Cross Bath was almost exclusively open to only the gentry.
Pepys seemed impressed by the architecture of Bath Abbey and enjoyed visiting the tomb of Bishop Montagu (the bishop of Bath and Wells from 1608 – 1616), whose tomb you can still see today, yet he was not as enthusiastic about the man giving the abbey’s sermons, writing in his diary that he fell asleep for most of the service.
Pepys and his wife didn’t waste any time during their visit to the west country. They made a day trip to Bristol, describing the city as “every respect another London” – a notion that is often still repeated by present day visitors and residents. Ending his tour of the west, Pepys visited the stone circle at Avebury, before heading back to London.