A Short History of Bath

The city of Bath has a rich and fascinating history, with ties to the ancient Romans as well as the native Celtic tribes. Well-known for its healing waters, it’s a favorite setting for many Regency stories. So let’s take a quick look at its backstory . . .

 

According to legend, Bath was founded by Prince Bladud, father of King Lear, who suffered from leprosy. Banished from his realm, he was forced to herd pigs, who also suffered from a skin ailment. However when the animals bathed in the thermal mud and waters they were supposedly cured—as was a grateful Bladud, who established a city on the site.

Its reputation as a powerful healing spot also attracted the invading Romans, who created a magnificent temple and thermal baths in 50 AD dedicated to Sul, a Celtic River Goddess and Minerva, the Roman Goddess of Wisdom, War and Healing. They named the city Aqua Sulis (the waters of Sul), and today these Roman constructions are still very much in evidence, serving as a popular tourist attraction. In case you are wondering, the temperature of the water when it comes up from the ground is 116 degrees Farenheit and contains 43 different minerals. The main spring produces approximately 240,000 gallons per day, and astonishingly enough, it still circulates through the original Roman plumbing.

The first monarch of Britain, King Edgar, was crowned in Bath over 1,000 years ago. In the Middle Ages, Bath became a center for making woolen cloth. (Regency readers may recognize the term Bath superfine) The industry declined in later centuries, but the healthful hot springs remained very popular. (In the early 1600s, Anne of Demark, wife of James I came seeking a cure for dropsy.) By the mid-1660s, its mineral water was being bottled and sold around England.

For Georgian and Regency readers, Bath really took shape during the 18th century, when a group of rare talents combined to change the architectural and social landscape of Bath, transforming it into a fashionable watering hole for the rich and famous. Architect John Wood the Elder laid the foundation with his creation of Queen Square and The Circus in the early 1700s. His son, John Wood the Younger then designed the famous Royal Crescent and the original Assembly Rooms. Robert Adam followed with the glorious Pulteney Bridge, named after the first Earl of Bath, in 1774.

According to Matthew Hargraves, in his book Great British Watercolors, Bath has been described as “probably the only holiday resort city designed in good taste.” With its rich, golden limestone, elegantly proportioned buildings and lovely gardens, it exuded style and sophistication. Indeed, the author Tobias Smollett had one of his characters call it “an earthly paradise.”

A big part of its social allure was due to the efforts of the legendary Richard “Beau” Nash. From 1704 through his death in 1762, he served as “Master of Ceremonies” for city, overseeing the Assemblies and establishing the rules of propriety for most all leisure activities. He was, in effect, the arbiter of style, and set the “ton” for proper behavior. (One of his decrees was that all balls should end at 11 pm so that people could get their proper rest.) Under his guidance, Bath flourished.

Like the spas towns of today, Bath during the Regency era attracted a well-heeled crowd looking for both relaxation and entertainment. The Pump Room, where people came to take a glass of the mineral water known as “Bath champagne” was de rigeur for a daily promenade. People came to exchange gossip and to see and be seen. In the evening there were balls, assemblies, card parties, and other activities, such as evening picnics in Sydney Gardens. Though the etiquette was a bit more informal than that of London, there were still plenty of rules governing every little detail of daily life. One of my favorite fashion decrees reads: “That no gentleman in boots or half-boots be admitted into the Ball-Rooms on ball-nights, except Officers of the Navy, or of the Army on duty, in uniform; and then without their swords. Trowsers or coloured pantaloons not to be permitted on any account.”

Countless Regency romances are, of course, set in Bath, beginning with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Austen, who lived there from 1801-1806, was not a great fan of the city—she thought it “ a place of vapor, shadow, smoke and confusion.” However, her heroine, Catherine Morland, sees it a little differently: “Here are a variety of amusements, a variety of things to be seen and done all day long, which I can know nothing of there…I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath—I do like it so very much… Oh, who can ever be tired of Bath.” Persuasion, one of my personal favorites, is another Austen book that comes to its conclusion amidst the dancing and promenading of the beau monde in Bath. Georgette Heyer was also fond of Bath as a setting for her stories. Regency Buck and Bath Tangle give a delightful glimpse of life in the city.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick tour through its history!