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700-year-old floor discovered by archaeologists at Bath Abbey

By Bruce Eaton

Archaeologists have discovered a stunning 13th century tiled floor during renovation works for Bath Abbey’s Footprint Project. The vividly coloured tiles were discovered around 2 metres below the current Abbey floor level and have not been seen in 500 years. They give a unique glimpse of what the interior of the grand Norman cathedral, which once stood on the site, would have looked like.

Cai Mason, Senior Project Officer for Wessex Archaeology said: “For the archaeologists involved this is probably a once in a lifetime find.”

The trench in which the tiled floor was discovered was excavated during vital repair and stabilisation work to the Abbey’s collapsing floor. The work is part of the £19.3 million Heritage Lottery supported Footprint Project which will also create new spaces and facilities for the community and install an eco-friendly heating system using Bath’s famous thermal spring.

The 700-year-old floor is currently being painstakingly recorded by the archaeologists and will eventually form part of a 3D model encompassing all the excavations within the Abbey.

The tiles will be preserved in situ; covered by a protective membrane and a layer of inert sand before the floor layers are built back up again to their present level.

Charles Curnock, Footprint Project Director, said: “As part of the Footprint Project, we are digging beneath the Abbey in order to save the historic floor which is collapsing. We have been surprised and thrilled by the beautiful medieval tiles that Wessex Archaeology have just found as they dig down through the different layers of history below the floor.

We have always known that before the current Gothic church was built there stood a Norman Cathedral and before that an Anglo-Saxon monastery. Lifting the pews and repairing the floor as part of the Footprint project is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; it will mean that we can maintain and make improvements to this beautiful building, and change how it can be used to better serve the city, visitors and future generations. However, a massive bonus is that it has allowed us to discover important parts of the heritage; things like these beautiful tiles which are being seen for the first time in centuries. If it wasn’t for the work carried out for the Footprint project we would have no idea they were here.”

The floor is composed of exquisite tiles of  late-13th or early-14th century date. The tiles are attributed to the Wessex School; a series of designs derived from tiles laid at Clarendon Palace, east of Salisbury. Other examples of these tile designs are known from Bath, Wells, Bristol and Glastonbury.

The three golden lions on a red shield is the coat of arms of the Plantagenet kings. The three red chevrons on a gold shield is the coat of arms of the de Clare family, powerful Norman marcher barons who held the earldoms of Gloucester and Hertford as well as land in both Wales and Ireland. The family line came to an end when Gilbert de Clare, 8th Earl of Gloucester and cousin of Edward II, died at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Floor discovered at Bath Abbey – photo courtesy Wessex Archaeology

Construction of the vast Norman cathedral began in 1088, following a rebellion against the succession of William II, ‘Rufus’, which had led to the town and the Abbey being ransacked and burned. The new building was on such a massive scale that the present Abbey fits snuggly within the cathedral’s nave.

By the late-15th century the cathedral and the cloistral buildings were described as being in a ruinous state. Beginning in 1502, Bishop King embarked on rebuilding the church in an ambitious and distinctive new style and, although not consecrated, the building was substantially complete by the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in the late 1530s.

Our thanks to Wessex Archaeology for this article. To learn about their research at Bath Abbey and other archaeological projects, please visit their website.

 



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