Nurturing hope for over 900 years
The church of St. Michael’s Without, so called as it originally stood ‘without’ the walls of the medieval city of Bath has stood on this site for many centuries as a place of Christian worship. The building you stand in today is the fourth on this site, dating from 1837 and was consecrated just 5 months before Queen Victoria came to the throne. But what of it’s predecessors?
The First Church (?? – 1370)
There is no record of the building of the first church and little detail of its appearance, other than that it was situated outside the North gate. What we do know is that in 1137 much of Bath, including the Abbey, was destroyed in a great fire and subsequently rebuilt by Bishop Robert who was also in charge of the city’s defences. Dedicating a church to St. Michael was in keeping with the belief that the Archangel stands guard over places where the devil is likely to cause trouble. Perhaps the hope was that a St. Michael’s just outside the entrance to the city would prevent further disaster befalling it…
The Second Church (1370 – 1738)
The second church was built sometime between 1370 and 1400, incorporating parts of the previous building and subject to many additions and alterations over the years. Originally thatched, the roof was eventually tiled and a Lady Chapel was added. Inside it was characteristic of churches of the period, full of decorative adornments, altars to the Saints and many paintings. It had a large candelabrum of fifteen lights, a bell tower with six bells and was surrounded by a walled churchyard.
Left: This section of William Smith’s map of Bath (1588) shows St. Michael’s Without at the top, with the churchyard wall visible.
We can gain some insight into what the life of the church was like even in the 1300s from our Churchwardens’ Accounts which date from 1349 (we believe they are the oldest in the country!) and are kept at the Somerset Records Office. From them we see that, prior to the Reformation, the church owned considerable property from which it received regular rental income, “Rent received from Roger Toukere for a house in Frogmorlane (now New Bond St.)”. It also paid rent, including land tax and regular amounts to the Cofferer of the City, which are recorded in minute detail. The records do fail however, to make any mention of the black Death which was sweeping the country at the time!
During the 1400s St. Michael’s gained a reputation for its liturgical plays and went to some expense in providing food and beer for the players, as well as producing props –“To William for staining divers utensils required for the…plays 3s” , “And to John Fowler for carrying a tombstone from the cemetery..”
Then came the Reformation…in keeping with the new religious climate the high altar was pulled down and lime wash applied in the empty space. Many of the adornments were sold off and the money put towards the new communion table. The major parts of this work are shown in the Wardens’ Records as having been completed “againste the queens majesties comynge”, a visit by Elizabeth the First in 1574.
Along with three other churches, St. Michael’s within the walls, St. Mary Stalls and St. Mary’s within the North gate, St Michael’s Without was annexed to the Abbey as part of the Consolidation Act. Largely due to the loyalty and dedication of its parishioners it was the only one of these to survive, in the charge of Curates who were approved and appointed by the Rectors of Bath. However, it was another 260 years before the position of Rector of St. Michael’s was revived.
The Third Church (1738 – 1835)
By 1730 the second church was in very poor repair and too small for its growing congregation. Prompted by the Archdeacon of Bath’s proposal that money to rebuild it should be raised the, architect John Wood himself produced a design and said, if he were to be given all the money collected and all materials from the old building, he would cover any remaining expenses himself. In return he requested that pews be reserved solely for the use of his tenants in the newly built Queen Square. The parishioners rejected this idea in total, wishing the building to remain for parish use only!
The money was eventually raised, mostly through voluntary subscription and the church constructed over a four year period, according to designs by John Harvey, a stone carver. Whether a case of sour grapes or not we cannot be sure, but Wood is said to have remarked,
“The very journeymen workmen…declared that a horse, accustomed to the sight of a good building, was so frightened at the odd appearance of the church that he would not go by it till he was hoodwinked.”
It was an unusual design…the chancel faced South and the congregation entered behind the Communion table. Towards Broad St. and Walcot St. the walls were rounded and facing Green St. was a double window with semi-circular arches and panelling above. There was a square tower with a belfry and the interior had an arcade with square, Doric, pillars and flat ceilings.
Despite it’s apparently unpopular appearance the third church is associated with several famous people. The actress Elizabeth Linley was baptised here – she later eloped with playwright Richard Sheridan from the Royal Crescent. The parents of the poet Lord Byron, Captain ‘Mad Jack’ Byron and Catherine Gordon were married here. The latter unfortunately ended badly after ‘Mad Jack’ squandered his wife’s fortune and subsequently abandoned her and their infant son.
The Fourth Church Due to structural defects and the fact it had, once again, become to small for the expanding parish population the third church was demolished in 1835 and construction of the present building began in the same year. This was not before time! As early as 1812 meetings were called to consider enlarging or rebuilding the church, noting that 500 sittings were scarcely sufficient for a parish of over 3000. The decision to build a new gallery or a new church took 20 years but when it finally came, much satisfaction was taken in the plan to build entirely from voluntary subscription and to increase free sittings for the poor.
The building was designed by George Manners, in the early English style and thought to be based partly on the Lady Chapel in Salisbury Cathedral. The tower, including lantern and spire is thought to be the tallest of its kind in Bath at 180ft. We still have a peal of eight bells, most transferred from the previous building, having been cast in 1757 though the seventh was recast in 1912. They are still very much in use by our own ringers as well as visiting groups from all over the country and abroad.
Much credit is due here to Revd. John East, curate from 1833 and Rector from 1843 until his death in 1856. Under his leadership the new church widened its activities and opened a school in Broad St. which operated from 1841 until 1913.
After East’s death the life of St. Michael’s seemed to lose some momentum and the congregation began to dwindle towards the end of the 19th century. ‘Salvation’ came with the appointment of new Rector Henry Heard in 1894. Heard was full of energy and a belief that a church must serve its wider community and he did much to revive its missional activities as well as the more social side of church life. In addition he undertook a major reordering project, removing the old galleries to create the place of light and space you see today. He had the old pulpit removed and the box pews replaced with those you see today at the sides of the building. The Good Shepherd window is dedicated to his memory.
The costs of this project were largely met by a generous benefactor named Ellen Taunton-Little and it was also she who paid for the building of the church hall, now a restaurant, in Walcot St. The Jesse Window, which depicts the family tree of Jesus, was installed in 1912 as a memorial to her and it seems fitting that it is our largest and most colourful window.
More Recent Times
After being used as an air raid shelter and surviving the bombing of Bath during WW2 little changed within the church until the 1980s when the crypt was opened and converted to a space still used for a huge range of activities including counselling, AA meetings, meals for the homeless and work with children and young people. In 2007 a second reordering was completed, led by our then Rector, Martin Lloyd Williams. This gave us the mezzanine level, cafe, removed the pews to create a flexible space and ensured full disabled access. We are now open 7 days a week, offering fellowship and hospitality, serving our church family, hosting concerts and events and welcoming tourists. In all this we strive to keep Jesus at the heart of all we do and remember the foundations on which our church is built. After more than 900 years St. Michael’s Without now stands in the heart of the city it was once outside….our story continues…