There is,and always has been, an especial magic attached to the idea of healing springs. In antiquity they were believed to be the abode of nymphs, or sometimes of a god; in the Middle Ages,a saint was often considered to have imparted his virtue to the waters. Moreover, the spas that have sprung up around them have always been places to which people have gone not only for health, but for pleasure, healing being promoted by gaiety, and gaiety increased by the return of health.
Dancing, music, theatre going, gambling, picnicking, and the joys of love; these are the traditional pleasures of watering places, and there are few cities in which they have been cultivated more assiduously and delightfully than in Bath in the west of England. The legend of this city’s foundation goes back a long way. In the days of Lud Hudibras, king of Britain, who was believed to be the great-grandson of Aenas; his son Bladud became afflicted with leprosy and, flying from the splendors of his father’s court, became a humble swineherd in the oak woods beside the Avon. Here he observed that his pigs, which had contracted his disease, rushed to wallow in the hot, bubbling swamps that lay below the wood, and emerged cured of their affliction; he hastened to follow their example and was likewise healed. He then cleansed the springs and founded the city of Bath.
In Roman times this city, then called Aquae Sulis, was occupied very soon after the conquest, and was probably much frequented during the reigns of Claudius and Nero and especially under Vespasian, Tacitus’s theory being that the use of these waters formed part of Agricola’s subtle plan to complete the conquest of the ”rude and primitive” Britons by softening and enervating them.
”Little by little they were lured to the blandishments of vice, to porticoes and baths, and to luxurious feasts,” thus learning ” to mistake the paths of servitude for the highroad to culture.” The hot and bubbling springs, rich in radioactivity, arose in Roman times from the center of what is now the King’s Bath, besidewhich lay the Great Bath, the smaller Circular Bath, and the sweating chambers, while not far off stood the small temple of Sul-Minerva, in which coal fires burned perpetually. Here, according to the wise policy of Rome, the cult of the local deity, Sul, had not been destroyed but merely merged with that of Minerva, whose owl and helmet may still be seen beneath a shield portraying a fierce and apparently Celtic male gorgon.
After the departure of the Romans and the occupation of the west of Britain by thge Anglo-Saxons in about 577, Bath disappears for a while into oblivion, but by the tenth century it was already the site of a great Benedictine monastery , an in 973 King Edgar was crowned in the Abbey Church. For some centuries the life of Bath centered around its monastery and the building and rebuilding of its great church, but the use of the springs also continued, though the descriptions left of them by patrons suggest that they were much less agreeable than in Roman times.
According to John Leland, during the reign of Henry VIII the baths were promiscuously frequented by patients diseased ”with Lepre, Pikkes, Scabbes, and great Aches,” as well as women seeking an aid to fertility, in water which ”reeketh like a seething Potte continually”. In the times of James I the baths were described as being ” like so many Bear Gardens…People of both sexes bathing by day and Night naked; and Dogs, Cats, and even huma
eatures were hurl’d over the rails into the water.”
Even Pepys, though he enjoyed seeing so many fine ladies, wondered, when he came there in 1668 whether it could be clean ” to go so many bodies together in the same water”, and as late as 1716 the Duchess of Marlborough wrote that she had never seen ”any Place Abroad that had more Stinks and Dirt in it than Bath.”
The streets were dark, narrow and umpaved, the lodgings expensive and dirty, the carriers of the sedan chairs rude, and, if we are to believe Steele and Smollet, the ignorance of the Bath physicians was only equalled by their eagerness to acquire patients. As to diversions, they were extremely restricted. There was no regular entertainment but gambling, the only theatre was a small, airless room, and if the visitors wished to dance, they could do so only upon the bowling green.
All this was changed by the arrival in 1702, in the wake of Queen Anne, of an enterprising young adventurer whose name is permanently linked to Bath’s; Beau Nash. A young man whose chief gifts were a fine taste in clothes and manners, a knowledge of he laws of precedence and etiquette, an authoritative manner, a passion for gambling, and a warm and generous heart. He was soon appointed Master of Ceremonies, and he then rules for forty years, in his three cornered white hat, as the uncrowned king of Bath.
He caused the streets to be properly paved and lighted; he opened with great eclat a new Pump Room and also the first Assembly Rooms, close to the North Parade, in which, according to Lord Chesterfield, he ”looked so fine” on one occasion, in his gold laced clothes, ”that standing by chance in the middle of the dancers, he was taken by many at a distance for a gilt garland.” He inspired the building of a theatre, and later, with Dr. Oliver, of the Royal Mineral Water Hospital.
For visitors he drew up a code of behavior which not only increased their elegance, since no women was allowed to appear in the Assembly Rooms in an apron, nor a man in riding boots, but also improved their manners and morals; dueling and the wearing of swords were forbidden, and scandal was discouraged. If a man appeared in riding boots, the Beau would go up to him and ask whether he had forgotten his horse; he once tore a white apron off a duchess, delaring that she looked like her own waiting woman; and he refused the favor of one more dance beyond the established hours to George II’s daughter, the Princess Amelia. In short, he maintained as Goldsmith put it, that ”altogether ceremony is very different from politeness, no country was ever yet polite which was not first ceremonious.”