Bath Abbey is often referred to as the last of the great medieval churches of England – and it was certainly one of the last Roman Catholic buildings of note before the Reformation.
Forty years after they started its construction – on the ruins of a much bigger Norman monastic complex – Henry the Eighth ordered the dissolution of the monasteries and the establishment of the Church of England with himself at the head.
Many of the Benedictine monks in this country fled to Europe and – while the Catholic Church continued to operate here in a very secretive, almost invisible way – it was often subjected to violent persecution.
In the late 18th century a Catholic Relief Act was passed – allowing Catholics to own property, inherit land and join the army. Hardline Protestant mobs reacted in the Gordon Riots in 1780, attacking Catholic property in London AND in Bath.
Other reforms allowed the clergy to set up permanent missions in larger towns – bringing many of the Benedictines back to this country.
Come the French Revolution, and virulent anti-Catholic persecution, the Priory of St Gregory crossed the English Channel to became the first English Benedictine House to renew conventual life since the Reformation.
They came to Shropshire and then moved on to Mount Pleasant at Downside in Somerset in 1814. There, the monastery was completed in 1876 and the abbey church in 1925.
During the 19th century there was also a small monastic school – which grew substantially in 1912 with the addition of new buildings – and in 2005 became a fully co-educational school for boys and girls.
Last year Downside got together with Bath Abbey and St John’s Hospital charity to present a programme of events celebrating one thousand years of Benedictine influence in the city.
It all worked so well they are doing it again. Benedictine Bath will run from Friday, July 8th to Monday, July 18th.
Steve Parsons – who is Project Activity Manager for Downside told me :
Between 1606 and 1795 monks of St Gregory’s, among others from other communities, had been missionary priests in Bath, in secret. Bell Tree House, in Beau Street, was the Catholic HQ, if you like, until the mission was moved to the Mission Theatre on Corn Street.
This building was deemed too small and in 1809 the Catholics bought the Old Theatre Royal and converted it into a chapel which was in use until 1863. Then, the church at St John the Evangelist was opened.
This was run by Downside monks until 1932. Thus, since the Reformation, Bath has always been a Benedictine mission, run by monks of the order, mainly monks from St Gregory’s.
The Benedictine Bath project was started here at Downside as a way of tying in with our Heritage Lottery Funded Beacon of Learning Project, which refurbished the monastic archives and library here and enabled us to open access to the unique collections.
The project is an outreach project for us to get people aware of Downside as well as the wealth of Benedictine heritage in Bath. I approached our partners in Bath; Bath Abbey, St John’s Hospital, St John the Evangelist Church and the Mayor’s Guides.
These are all sites with a link to the Benedictine history of the city, apart from the guides.
The aim is to showcase the hidden history of Benedictine Bath from the foundation of the priory and cathedral to the Reformation. Then on from the Gordon Riots of 1780 – where a man was executed for his part in the riots outside the Hobgoblin pub – to the various missions around the city.
It really is a fascinating and unique history which so many people know nothing about.”
I spoke to Steve in the courtyard of St John’s Hospital where the various bodies involved were meeting to discuss preparations.
Find out more about Benedictine Bath via
In the meantime – as part of Bath Festival Fringe – Downside Abbey Monastery Archives and Library are doing a special day regarding Bath’s connection with the Gordon Riots. The poster with details is below. Get your tickets from Bath Box Office.