THE CITY of Bath does not rise up in the imagination as a place or prayer or ecclesiastical power. There were Romans of the pagan sort who drank disgusting hot water from out of the ground for their Latin stomachs and English rheum.
There is a gap in the public memory until we come to the preposterous. There was Beau Nash who ran the Assembly bails and bullied polite society.
The hot water and the new buildings which are superb, though classical, made it fashionable and the place is remembered for tiresome women with ringlets and immoderately high waists. for ever putting each other in their places and chasing unattached baronets with a view to marriage.
Yet it was a place with a great Abbey that merged into the bishopric of Bath and Wells. Here St. Alphege was Abbot for a time until he became Archbishop of Canterbury and was beaten to death by drunken Danes with the bones left over from their dinner.
Here St Dunstan. also an Archbishop of Canterbury, crowned Edgar King of England. Dunstan practically ran the country and did it very well. Edgar was murdered at Curie Castle and Dunstan crowned his successor. Ethelred the Unready and reproved him for Edgar's death.
He was retired to Canterbury where he prayed and taught school. As much as any man he founded England. Bath has had its great and holy moments. Its monk also had some pious brawls with the canons of Wells. But this is to cut a very long story short.
Nowadays about 6 pc of Bath are Catholic which is not much, but then so elegant a city has not had refreshing showers of Irish Catholics. It is well endowed with churches. One of these is St. Mary's which celebrated its centenary earlier this year. It was consecrated in 1881 on a slope above the city.
The diocese bought the site for Ll.870 and the foundation stone was laid by Manning's great opponent Archbishop Errington who stood for the old. artistocratic ways. He behaved well in defeat and retired to he a parish priest. Manning's ferocious supporter in Rome, Mgr. Talbot, went potty. Si. Mary's is a fine. unskimped Gothic revival building. The church was designed by Dunn and Hansom. Despite his many buildings. Hansom is best remembered for his one horse cab of slightly risque reputation.
In 1942 St Mary's was damaged in one of Hitler's "Baedecker raids". There exists a daunting photograph. a snap really. of a long. long trench whose bottom is covered with coffins, shoulder to shoulder.
There is also another of the Catholic procession come to give the graveside absolution. the cross. the candles. the altar boys, the group of priests and Monsignori. Its very familiarity is the horror.
Another church, St. John's was put out of action and its priest and his housekeeper killed. They have smartened up St Mary's for the centenary without spoiling it.
Another Bath Church is that of St. John's. It too was designed by the cabman Hansom. It does not look as if it were injured in the war. It stands in a park near the centre of the city, and its tall. sharp spire is a landmark in the city.
They too had a centenary, but way back in 1%3. They invited a number of distinguished Catholic laymen to it and they included Evelyn Waugh, Lord Longford (Pakenham then) and me.
What with one thing and another I was almost famous in those days, but already beginning to fade.
I can remember a splendid High Mass on the other side of a great rood screen from the DCLs.
Then we who were invited walked to the city banqueting hall. splendid with pillars and gold leaf. Mr Waugh was in one of his moods and only said "(sacred expletive deleted) I could do with a drink." Even I could discern no pub between church and hall — poor town planning.
I was put at the top table which faced the hall which seemed to be crowded with young priests. I was put between Mr Waugh and an Abbot. It was a difficult.though a memorable luncheon. We got a sort of monastic least day's ration of red wine — which isn't much.
From somewhere about his person. Mr Waugh produced his famous tortoiseshell ear trumpet. like some early air raid precaution machine. he moved this about as if in search of enemy aircraft. And he said absolutely nothing. Though he glared a good deal.
Out of pride rather than abasement I said absolutely nothing to him. The Abbot on my other side turned out to be a Trappist who had lost the habit of talking.
Frank Longford, far away down the table. made a witty and loving speech. Someone thanked all the right people including Archbishop — Bishop King who was a patient of my father and had a livid red scar on his forehead which was in my father's care.
He was vastly loved, bearded. and his picture at prayer with lather's scar in place appears in one of the windmvs of St. Peter's Church in Winchester. The Mayor was thanked, the caterers were thanked. I think even I was thanked.
Down in the body of the hall the level of noise rose pleasantly.. I think they were getting Fleet Street rations of red wine and my wife was having a ball with the priests.
Meanwhile we magnificent three sat in silence, in a private tnagnum silentium.
We must have looked very odd. I would not have missed it for a witty insult from Mr Waugh or a plenary indulgence from the Father Abbot. I went back to London well content.
My wife too did not complain. It is sad I remember the hall even better than the church. There are other churches too in Bath. One of these is part of Prior Park School and has an extraordinary story.
There was a young man called Peter Augustine Baines (17871843) who in 1804 was one of the first four novices to be professed a novice in a remote little mansion near Ampleforth. The small Benedictine community had settled there after their postFrench revolutionary wanderings.
He was brilliant and vigorous. He attracted about 80 boys, aristocratic and middle class, to the school at 50 guineas a head.
He was then sent to the Benedictine mission at Bath. Some English monks had also to serve as parish priests and still do. By 1829 he was Vicar Apostolic of the Western District. England was divided into four districts each with a Bishop, men who had no real Sees or trains to their robes.
He had a great idea. He would buy the vast Palladian mansion, Prior Park, which at the top of flights of fantastic stairs lords it up on a hill over the lordly city in the valley. It had belonged to the wonderously benevolent squire. Ralph Allen, and it was for sale.
He wanted to use it as the bishop's residence, the diocesan seminary and a school. But how to staff it? Just r the road was the Benedictine priory and school of Downside. The monks would do nicely.
He wanted them to stop being part of the English Benedictine Congregation and transfer themselves and their loyalty to the bishop and Prior Park.
Despite episcopal bullying. Downside said 'No. Had he not been a bishop. Baines' behaviour then became underhand and semi-criminal — in the cause of the Church.
So he tried Ampleforth. Gradually the title to much of Ampleforth's property was secretly transfered to the name of the prior and his associates. It was a brilliant conspiracy.
He had gone up to Ampleforth and enlisted on his side the Prior. Sub-Prior and Procurator — all the top officials. All the resident community except a sub-deacon agreed to join him.
Baines bought Prior Park in 1830. He told all the Benedictines that they were not real monks for canonical reasons which was unsettling. Downside still said No despite the fact that he deprived the priests of their priestly faculties. The Pope was appealed to. He wholly backed the monks. Bishop Baines said that the Pope's sanatio or total support of the monks was not obligatory.
The three Ampleforth officials went to Bath. They took nearly 40 fee paying boys, much property and left their House with debts up to £10.000.
It took Ampleforth at least a generation to recover and when I was a small boy it was still considered bad taste even to mention the name of Baines.
The surviving community and the monks on mission seer to have been reconciled by Dom Augustine Clifford, son of the seventh Lord Clifford of Chudleigh.
He was stopped going to Baines by the English Cardinal Weld in Rome. He was "the Cardinal of the seven Sacraments" from Lulworth.
His wife died. His children were well provided for. He became a priest and rapidly became a gentlemanly, independently minded Cardinal.
Bishop Baines built a splendid classical chapel at Prior Park. He felt quite justified before God in what he haa done. There is a portrait of him in full Roman fig, looking princely in a fur lined tippet and a splendidly tufted hair-do. He was said to be a marvellous preacher, despite the fact that he had a North Country accent and used to weep in the pulpit before the faithful in the pews had a chance to get going.
He was proud for the Church and as extravagant as a duke. Indeed Rome told him to stop spending until he had made a serious dent in his debts.
Prior Park is now a lay school with Bishops Alexander and Murphy O'Connor as trustees. The last Benedictines, from Downside left the Bath Mission in 1931. They built St. John's and they paid on the nail for it. The last Four incumbents were known as the Last Four Things.