Norman Cathedral

In 1088, John of Tours was made Bishop of Wells, which at this time was the seat of the Bishop and home to his cathedral. A few years later John was granted the city of Bath, the abbey and its monastic buildings and lands by King William Rufus and so was able to fulfil his desire to move the bishopric to Bath. As the Bishop of Bath, John by the early 1090s had set in hand an extensive building programme, which included plans for more monastic buildings, a Bishop’s palace, and most importantly, a vast new cathedral to replace the Anglo-Saxon abbey. By the time of John’s death in 1122 most of the lower walls of the new cathedral had been built; but the majority of the building work was masterminded by his successor, Bishop Robert of Lewes. The cathedral was probably completed and consecrated by the beginning of the 1160s.

The Norman cathedral would have been a very different size and shape from the Abbey as we see it now. The present building takes up the space occupied by just the nave of Bishop John’s cathedral. The building would have had a similar cruciform shape, but probably had a much more elaborate east end with additional towers and chapels which would have extended out far beyond the boundary of today’s abbey. Surrounding the cathedral would have been the monastic buildings and gardens, the Bishop’s palace and burial grounds.

The difference in floor levels between the Norman cathedral and the present building means that the evidence for the Norman building is to be found below the floor of today’s Abbey and the pavements outside. In the floor of the Alphege chapel there is a grille through which the remains of Norman pillars can be seen. In the Gethsemane chapel at the north east end of the Abbey, a rounded Norman window arch, built into the structure of the present wall, is clearly visible (depicted above). There are many other remnants of the old cathedral which are not so easily accessible, and can only be uncovered by archaeological excavation. Recent works revealed the remains of a Norman pavement around the south side of the Abbey.

During the 13th century Bath’s importance declined, as the Bishops moved their seat back to Wells. By this time the monastery in Bath housed about 40 monks, who made a living from the wool trade, but it was difficult to maintain the huge cathedral and all of the monastic buildings. After 1398 when the Black Death had halved the monks’ numbers the task became impossible. By the time Oliver King became the new Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1495, the splendid Norman cathedral was in a desperate state of decay.