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The Mythical History of Bath

Updated on October 7, 2015
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Bath - The Tourist Attraction

The City of Bath, in the South West of England, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in England with both British and international tourists alike. It is probably best known for its Georgian architecture and buildings made out of cream Bath stone as well as its connections with Jane Austen. Many of Bath’s attractions revolve around its Georgian connections, such as the Assembly Rooms and the Royal Crescent but it has a much longer past. Bath also has a strong connection to the Ancient Romans and many people visit the city to see the Roman Baths. Though the city, like many other English cities, has its roots with the Romans and the Celts in the 1st century AD, Bath is fairly special in that there are several local legends about how the city was founded. Many local people living in the Bath area are already aware of the city’s mythical past, but tourists to the area may be interested to learn the local legend.

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Bladud, King of the Britons

According to local legend, the founder of the City of Bath was a King of the Britons called ‘Bladud’ who, if he did exist, would have lived and ruled in the 9th century BC - although there is some debate with experts and historians over this. It is possible that there was a King Bladud but over the years the tale of his life and achievements has inevitably been exaggerated and added to - mostly in the 17th century. The story goes that when Bladud was a young man his father sent him to study in Athens, Greece but while there the young prince contracted the contagious condition of leprosy. Throughout history those suffering from leprosy have been shunned and Bladud was no different. Upon returning to his father’s court, Bladud was banished by the horrified king. Other versions of the story claim that Bladud was imprisoned but managed to escape. Either way, before he left his mother gave him a golden ring which would prove his identity if he ever managed to cure himself of the disease and return to court.

Statue of Bladud in the Roman Baths
Statue of Bladud in the Roman Baths | Source

Pigs & Springs

The banished prince was forced to find work as a swineherd but due to the contagious nature of his skin disease he ended up giving leprosy to the pigs. Scared to tell the farmer that had hired him, Bladud fled with the pigs across the river. The river that he crossed was supposedly the River Avon and brought Bladud to the area where Bath now stands. The area was made up of marshy and boggy ground and one of the pigs in Bladud’s herds became stuck in the mud. While trying to pull the animal free Bladud also became covered in mud. When the pig was freed, the prince realised that the warm mud had cured both himself and the pig of their skin condition. This story has some variations depending on the teller, in a different version some of the pigs rolled in the mud to keep warm and Bladud realised that the pigs that did this were not afflicted by leprosy. He was then able to use the mud to cure himself. Once cured, he returned to his father and proved his identity with his gold ring.

King Leir & His Daughters
King Leir & His Daughters | Source

The Founding of Bath

Bladud ruled as King of the Britons for at least twenty years and during his reign he founded the City of Bath because he felt that others should be able to benefit from the springs’ healing powers as he was. The new settlement was dedicated to ‘Sul’, a Celtic healing goddess associated with hot springs and according to legend, Bladud then lit undying fires in the new settlement in her honour. Bladud was killed, the myth claims, when after constructing wings for himself, he tried to fly by jumping off a temple roof but fell and broke his neck. He was succeeded by his son Leir, whose life story was told (and altered) by William Shakespeare in ‘King Lear’.

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Aquae Sulis

In less mythical history it is highly probable that people were living in the Bath area around Bladud’s time. Evidence has been found for very early human activity in the Mesolithic period (around 10,000 - 5,000 BC) but Bronze Age barrows (from c. 2,500 - 800 BC) were also found in the 18th century. The more historically accurate origins of Bath are Roman and Celtic. The springs in the area where the Roman Baths were built were likely to have initially been a Celtic shrine to ‘Sul’ - like in the legend. When the Romans arrived in Britain they called the place Aquae Sulis (or the ‘waters of Sul’) but used it as a temple for their goddess Minerva.

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Roman Settlement

The temple to Minerva was built in the 1st century AD (around 60-70 AD) and further development in the area followed over the next few centuries. The area eventually became a settlement and various buildings were built - including temples and bathing houses. The Romans built three types of baths using the springs and each had a different temperature - the calidarium (hot), the tepidarium (warm) and the frigidarium (cold). The peak of Roman occupation in the Bath area was likely around the 3rd century AD. The settlement had grown so much that defensive walls had to be added to Aquae Sulis. By the late 4th century and early 5th century AD, the Roman Empire fell into decline and the Romans left Aquae Sulis, letting it fall into ruin and become absorbed by the silt. The area, however, likely remained a small market settlement for local people in the following years and eventually evolved into the City we know today.

Bath & The Roman Baths

A markerThe Roman Baths -
Roman Baths, Stall Street, Bath, Bath and North East Somerset BA1 1LZ, UK
get directions

The location of the Roman Baths and the city of Bath in general.

The Pigs of King Bladud

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