The Saxons in Bath

Bath is a proud historic city, but, let’s face it, the Romans and the Georgians take all the credit. Mayor’s Guide Steve Pratt fills in some of the gaps by ruminating on what is known about the Saxons in the city from 410–1090. There are periods of scant information interspersed with periods of no information at all, but that makes it all the more intriguing, says Emma Clegg.

The history of Bath in Saxon times is “slippery”, says Mayor of Bath Guide Steve Pratt, due to a dearth of documentation. We can track and trace the history of the Romans and the Georgians in Bath with ease – even if we didn’t encounter it at every street corner – but when it comes to the Saxon period the records are scant and mysterious.

Steve, who describes himself as a ‘heritage interpreter’ rather than a historian is fascinated by the Saxon period, but says it’s frustrating because there are so many blanks. “I have a friend who is a historian and he gave up on the Saxon period strictly because there was nothing new to find – he said it was impossible to do any original research.”

Steve is made of sterner stuff, it seems, but I sense that he rather likes the brooding uncertainty of the Saxon period, punctuated by sporadic flashes of evidence: “It’s particularly dark in the 500s and 600s – no-one is really quite sure what was going on. Various historians have drawn maps of how it might look with the strange ruinous Roman buildings that would have been around. It’s rather fascinating to think of Bath as an almost ruined city. The city stayed inhabited just about all the way through this period, though, whereas London was completely deserted after the Romans left.”

“Bath in this period was under the influence of large tribal groupings such as the Hwicce who were based nearby. This tribe had a close relationship with the Mercians who were very powerful in the 600s. We actually think Bath was under the protection of the Mercian and the Wessex royal family very briefly.”

The Hwicce tribe had a kingdom, of origin unknown, but are associated with the West Saxon conquest of the Cotswold. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explains how the West Saxons took the regions of Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath from the Britons in 577, after the Battle of Dyrham. Then in 628 the Mercians defeated the West Saxons at the Battle of Cirencester and the Hwicce formed a province or under-kingdom of Mercia. They were also closely involved with Bath and the founding of the Abbey.

Other groups within this fractured period were the Germanic tribes of Angles and the Jutes, who invaded Britain during the Roman occupation and again once it had ended – this was documented in The Ruin of Britain by a British monk called Gildas in the 540s.

Then were also the Romano Britons, Celtic Free Britons, the Mercians, Vikings, and the kings of Wessex. Finally Alfred the Great set up a number of protected cities after his triumph against the Vikings in the late 800s of which Bath was one. So thanks to Alfred, Bath’s old Roman walls were reinforced and a settlement was founded.

The city had lots of names over these years, including Bathancaester (‘the Baths’), Badum (at the Baths) and Hat Batha (‘Hot Baths’)

All clear? Well, perhaps not. Steve explains that historians question the use of the term ‘Saxon’ as a period, but says he uses it as a catch-all for 410 to 1090. For his talk at BRLSI on 10 November he divides the period into five chapters (divisions that apparently historians would also dispute). These are Aquae Sulis in Decline (to about 500, after the departure of the Romans), The Poetic Ruin (a city abandoned after the Roman departure), The Start of the Monastery (675-850, from the founding of the nunnery in Bath), Problems of the Vikings, and Alfred the Great and the Royal City.

Now we’ve got categories, it’s all slotting into place (ish). What is clear is that this period in Bath still was defined by its hot springs, because that was its timeless value. The city had lots of names over these years, including Bathancaester (‘the Baths’), Baðum (at the baths) and Hat Batha (‘Hot Baths’), all rooted in its roots as a city of water. The Venerable Bede – an English monk who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) – said that ‘Britain’ (clearly referring to Bath) had warm springs, and from them flow rivers which supply hot baths. In the same era, a Saxon poet described a city where “There stood courts of stone; where a stream gushed in hot rippling floods, a wall enfolding all its bright bosom; baths that heated themselves: how convenient!”

There are some rousing, stand-out names of characters in this period. Take Sweyn Forkbeard, the Dane who came to Bath in 1014 where the western thegns (nobles) submitted to him and gave homage – this, Steve tells me, shows how important Bath was. Despite his memorable name, Sweyn didn’t stay long. “Sweyn Forkbeard only ruled England for five weeks, so it was a cameo appearance,” says Steve.

Even King Arthur is part of Bath’s history, relates Steve. “This was in the 500s when there was a siege of Mount Baden – there’s no certainty about the date or location, but it was around 500. But this is all myth and it’s only traced in written form four centuries later with a story of King Arthur in battle killing 960 men in a charge, or something ridiculous. But it might not even have been in Bath. Mount Baden might have been Solsbury Hill, but it might also might have been Bradbury Rings in Dorset.”

I can understand the frustration of this uncertainty, but there are enough tantalising strands to make you want to find out more, especially if you liked Sky Atlantic’s Britannia or the History Channel’s Vikings. What we can be sure about is that the Saxon period in Bath was a rags to riches story, starting with an abandoned and ruined Roman city with diverse warring tribes and ending as a royal city with the Coronation of King Edgar at the Abbey in 973. Find out more on 10 November.

Iacas: Saxon Bath talk by Steve Pratt, 10 November, 7.30pm–9pm, BRLSI, 16-18 Queen Square, Bath;;