Long before the ice age, Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons lived in the British Isles. The Celts migrated from Europe and, in 50 B.C., were conquered by the Romans, who are thought to have brought Christianity to Britain.
The first evidence of Christian communities appears in the third century, with a church existing at Lincoln as early as the fourth century.
By the 15th century, magnificent cathedrals had been built in all the major cities of Britain and stand today as testimonies of man meeting the challenge to exalt his God. The first known cathedral in Bath was built by the Saxons and later replaced by an immense Norman Cathedral.
Bath Abbey, completed in 1499, was built over the massive Norman ruins, fragments of which can still be seen in an arch in the Gethsemane Chapel and in remains of pillars beneath a floor grille.
As was traditional in European cathedrals, royalty and persons of quality were buried inside the building rather than on the grounds. For more than 300 years, until about 1840, an estimated 6,000 bodies were jammed into shallow graves below the church’s ledger stones. By then, there was no space left and a Victorian Cemetery was opened.
The floor of the building, now more than 500 years old, is beginning to lift and collapse, creating huge spaces everywhere as graves have settled down and left voids.
Charles Curnook, abbey spokesman, said, “We were quite surprised the floor hadn’t collapsed already on us.”
Trial digs made early in 2011 and in 2012 revealed the effect the bodies had on long-term stability of the building.
“We were looking for the foundation walls of the Norman cathedral on which we could lay a new floor,” said Curnook. Instead they found huge voids underground everywhere.
“Underneath one of the medieval pillars there was fresh air, at which point we stopped work. Most shocking,” he said.
Between 1864 and 1874, the Victorians completely transformed the inside of the abbey and discovered the honeycomb of huge voids created by burials shifting and decaying. As a solution, “They basically churned up the graves that were there and broke them up.”
Now workmen are again lifting every piece of furniture in the building as well as the huge grave ledger stones in an attempt to stabilize the ground underneath.
Currently, more than 10 boxes of human remains, including bits of coffin handles, inscribed plaques and lead-coffin lining, have been carefully removed from within the abbey.
The voids will be filled in and human remains found will be reinterred as prayers are said over them.
The spokesman said, “Successive generations have made changes because the Abbey is at the heart of city life and it is now time for this generation to create a fresh footprint.”
The current £18m-project includes the installation of a new under-floor heating system using the city’s hot springs.
Enjoy a tour of the abbey at http://www.bathabbey.org/visiting-abbey/360-degree-tour. Bath Abbey is open to visitors daily for a donation of £2.50 per adult and £1.00 per student, and conducts worship services every day except Monday.
As a visitor to Bath Abbey, a magnificent example of medieval architecture, I hope it remains for another 500 years.