Take a journey through centuries of local crime and conspiracy, meeting villains of all sorts along the way—cut-throats and poisoners, murderous lovers, assassins, prostitutes and suicides. Among the many tales of wickedness and despair the author records in this fascinating book are:
- Robbery and revenge in Roman times
- The brutal uncertainties of Bath in the dark ages
- The highwaymen, gamblers, and duelists of the Georgian period
- The Victorian underworld and its notorious cases of prostitution, infanticide, and murder
- Outbreaks of mob violence
- Political corruption
Kirsten Elliott’s chronicle of the history the town would prefer to forget is compelling reading for anyone who is interested in the dark side of human nature.
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Dark Deeds and Dark Ages
A catalogue of mysteries from Bath's earliest days
The Hot Springs of Bath have attracted human beings ever since the Stone Age. And where there are human beings there is human nature – with its light and its dark sides. When did the first theft or the first murder take place in the valley which became Bath? Did some primitive hunter, hungry after a bad day's hunting, steal a bone from a more fortunate fellow? And did that hunter, in rage, pick up his flint-tipped spear and run it through the thief? Or did the mysterious presence of the springs mean that this was always a place of healing and worship? We may never know, unless an archaeologist turns up evidence of a violent death. But here are a just a few mysteries and unanswered questions from Bath's earliest days. Some are mysteries because we do not know what happened, and the facts are open to different interpretations. And some are odd because they show that the nature of crime changes. Who could ever have thought that death would be meted out to monks singing in the wrong way? Or that an interest in science would have to be kept secret?
Whatever happened to Vilbia? – an unsolved mystery of Aquae Sulis
Over the years, our picture of Roman Bath, or Aquae Sulis as it should properly be called, has changed. We now know that it was much larger than was previously thought, with suburbs laid out around a well-planned, spacious, city centre. In one part of Bath, still a fashionable area, were large villas; another part of Aquae Sulis was busy with shops and craft workshops, just as it is today. Despite the strict regulations of Roman rule, there were almost certainly crimes of all types – and many remained unsolved. We know this, for when all else failed, the aggrieved victims would make a trip to the temple, and toss curses into the Sacred Spring.
These curses were addressed to the goddesses closely associated with the spring, the Celtic Sulis and the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva. They were scratched on lead, sometimes written backwards, although why this simple coding device was used is unclear. They were then rolled up and thrown into the waters.
The main crime seems to have been theft. Docca, for example, bemoans the loss of five denari, while Annianus, who thoughtfully provides the goddess with no less than eighteen suspects, has had six silver pieces removed from his purse. Others seem to have lost items, such as towels, jewellery, and cloaks, whilst at the baths. Should the goddess recover the items, the givers usually donated them to the goddess. Perhaps this was an indication of the fact that they did not expect to see them again. Sometimes they even donated the criminal.
'To Minerva the goddess of Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood,' runs a typical complaint. However, theft was not always the problem. It is fairly easy to imagine that a full-scale family row involving a bit of double-crossing of the relatives lies behind the following outburst:
Uricalus, Docibsa his wife, Docilis his son and Docilina, Decentinus his brother, Alogiosa: the names of those who have sworn at the spring of the goddess Sulis on the 12th of April. Whosoever has perjured himself there you are to make him to pay for it to the goddess Sulis in his own blood.
But strangest of all the curses is the one which was the first to be discovered, in 1880. Even today, there is still vigorous discussion about what it means. The translation is sometimes explained as follows:
May he who carried off Vilbia from me become as liquid as the waters. [May] she who obscenely devoured her [become] dumb, whether Velvinna, Exspereus, Verianus, Severinus, Augustalis, Comitianus, Minianus, Germanilla or Jovina.
The words are scratched on to lead in the right order, although each word is reversed. This makes it extremely difficult to follow, especially as there are no gaps between the words. Worse still, the tablet is damaged, with some words missing.
In 1988 RSO Tomlin made a careful assessment of these Bath curses. Having first toned down the translation from 'she who has obscenely devoured her' simply to 'she who has stolen her,' he noted some unique features of the curse – the request to make the culprit liquid as the waters occurs nowhere else. More importantly, no other curse relates to the theft – or perhaps we should say abduction – of a woman. He therefore queried whether Vilbia was a personal name or simply a hitherto unknown word for an object. This had been done before – one suggestion had even been that Vilbia was a misreading of the word for napkin, but Tomlin dismissed this. Instead, he tentatively suggested the word was a misreading – or miswriting – of fibula, a bracelet. No record exists of another Vilbia, although there is Vellibia, which is strikingly similar. So far, so good. But his final reason for believing that Vilbia was not a person is charming but naive. 'Common sense also suggests that the 'short list' of subjects would be shorter, and all men at that,' writes our gentle academic. Not, one has to say, necessarily. Besides the obvious assumption that Roman sexual tastes could be very eclectic, there is a more sinister answer. Could Vilbia be a child? Is this an intimation of a paedophile ring? There is yet another possibility, again assuming Vilbia to be a child. It was easy for Romans to be divorced. Is Velvinna, the first named suspect, perhaps the child's mother, whose ex-husband had kept the child against her will? Have she and a group of her friends seized Vilbia back? The anger behind the desire that the thief turns to water suggests that whoever or whatever Vilbia was, the person who wrote the curse deeply regretted the loss.
Perhaps one day another inscription will surface with the word Vilbia. We may then know whether this was indeed a person, or simply some obscure object which had been stolen. Until then, academics and visitors alike will continue to puzzle – and argue – over this unsolved mystery from the past.
The murder of Minerva – how to get rid of a goddess for good
Sulis Minerva may have ruled the springs for 300 years, but in 391 AD Christianity became the official religion. The old deities were declared pagan, the temples were destroyed and the statues of the gods and goddesses were pulled down and thrown away. In Aquae Sulis, however, Minerva had been very highly regarded, and she was, after all, not just any minor goddess but the daughter of Jupiter. Just pulling down her idol might not be enough to make her go away. And since she had been instrumental in helping the city's citizens to curse other people, it was decided that she would have to be killed off properly. The crime came to light in 1727, when some workmen, excavating a sewer in Stall Street came across a gilded head. Although some people think it may be Apollo, it is generally thought to be the head of Minerva, and is the cult statue from her temple. Microscopic examination of the head shows that it was hacked from the body – Minerva, in fact, had been murdered. The goddess had been got rid of for good.
The lady in the oven – the crime that wasn't
When the Romans left Britain, and the Saxons, Angles and Jutes swept across the country they had so long coveted, rule of law broke down in many places. Because so little is known of this period, we call it the Dark Ages. We are reliant on archaeological evidence to tell us what the troubled times were like. But the evidence is not always clear, and interpretations may change. Take the case of the lady in the oven.
In 1984–5, Bath Archaeological Trust had the opportunity to dig in Abbeygate Street, right in the heart of the old city, just south of the Abbey. There was much excitement when a skull was found in an oven, and even greater excitement when evidence showed that it was the severed head of young woman. The immediate assumption was that it showed, to put it in Professor Barry Cunliffe's sober words 'a decline in civilized standards of living'. It was not unreasonable to assume this. The monk Gildas, writing in the sixth century, described the Saxon invasion as a fire of vengeance, with cities destroyed, in the streets of which were 'fragments of human bodies ... with no chance of being buried save in the ruins of the houses.' This fitted precisely with the mysterious skull. Moreover, there was some evidence of local destruction. The Roman villa at Box had been destroyed by fire, and bodies had been thrown down a well at the villa at North Wraxall. In recent times, however, archaeologists have become wary of leaping to sensational conclusions, and by 2002 Peter Davenport, one of Bath's leading archaeologists, was suggesting that the head was possibly simply a disturbed medieval burial. It's another strange story to which we may never know the answer.
How did a Viking lose his sword? – another puzzle from the past
In 1980, an excavation was carried out by archaeologists along the north side of the city wall, between Upper Borough Walls and New Bond Street. The most exciting find was made by a workman when the trench was being filled in. He spotted a sword – and a rather unusual and magnificent sword it turned out to be. What surprised everyone was that it was Viking and not Saxon. It dated from about the tenth century and was made of steel which was still sharp. The steel had been given a black patina in order to show up an inscription inlaid on one side and decoration on the other. The pommel was inlaid in silver, and it was still in its fur-lined wool and steel scabbard. It clearly belonged to someone of very high status – but how did it get there? The Vikings occupied Bath in the early eleventh century, but even after a good night on the mead, the Viking's favourite tipple, it is unlikely that a Danish chief would be so careless as to drop his sword in the town ditch. Perhaps it had been kept over the centuries as an heirloom and then lost – but once again we are faced with the problem of how it came to be in the ditch outside the city wall. The only other solution is that at some stage, in some skirmish by the city wall, before the Vikings arrived in the city in force, its owner was killed and the sword fell unnoticed. It may even have been through several hands, both Saxon and Viking, in this way. So next time you stroll past the shops in New Bond Street, remember that men fought and died where today fashion and furniture jostle for our attention. Of course, you may be able to think up a better story ... .
Slaughtered for singing the wrong song – how the Saxon monks of Glastonbury died for their music
It was tough being a Saxon. Hardly had the Saxons seen off or merged with the Danes, when along came the Normans, and took all the plum jobs. This included all the top appointments in the monasteries and abbeys, and many of the new men had firm ideas on how the churches should be run. It was bad enough for the Saxon monks at Bath in having John de Villula as their new bishop. He considered them boorish and uneducated, even though they had been producing beautiful, clearly written manuscripts. But for the monks at Glastonbury it was much worse. The new Abbot, Thurstan, decided he would have everybody singing in the French style, and introduced the liturgy from Fécamp. Now Glastonbury was an iconic church to the Saxons. It was associated with figures such as St Dunstan, St Patrick and Joseph of Arimathea. The Saxon monks saw no reason why they should give up years of tradition, and went on singing the old liturgy. Thurstan knew it was also act of defiance against the French masters. He was nothing if not determined. He persisted in trying to outlaw the Saxon liturgy, but without success. Despite all his threats and edicts, the Glastonbury monks kept right on singing the wrong song. Eventually, in 1083, angered by this stubborn action, he threatened them with the death penalty. He stationed archers in the nave, near the high altar, picking out those recalcitrant monks who ignored his French music. Three died and several were injured. Even William the Conqueror acknowledged you couldn't treat monks like that, and removed Thurstan. However, his son, William Rufus, reinstated him, and Thurstan was still Abbot of Glastonbury on his death in 1101.
Malingering monks, a battling bishop, and a prior with a secret – a collection of less than Christian clergy
If anyone should have been setting the populace an example of good behaviour, it was surely the monks and clergy associated with Bath's principal church, the Abbey. But this was not always the case. Comments were made on several occasions that the monks' behaviour was not in accordance with the rules laid down by the Church. When Oliver King, appointed Bishop by Henry VII, came to the city he found more feasting than praying, and we are told that women were found in the precincts at inappropriate hours. When Henry VIII sent down his commissioners to assess the church during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, matters were even worse. The commissioner, Dr Layton, wrote to Thomas Cromwell that the monks were 'worse than any I have found yet in buggery and adultery, some one of them having ten women, some eight, and the rest fewer'. At least they were not at war with other monks. During the twelfth century, after John de Villula moved the seat of the bishopric from Bath to Wells, there was a power struggle between the two monasteries, with everything from political manoeuvring to open warfare. Finally they reached an agreement that it should be a double diocese, with the cathedral at Wells, but not before one bishop, Bishop Joscelin, had actually removed the name of Wells from his title altogether, signing the Magna Carta as Bishop of Bath and Glastonbury.
At least Bishop Joscelin was religious. The same could not be said of Bishop Savaric, whose activities were at best Macchiavellian and worst downright thuggish. In 1172, as a young priest, he had been fined £26 3s 4d for stealing a bow from the king's foresters. A peasant could have been executed for this, but Savaric, the cousin of the Holy Roman Emperor, got away with it. Just eight years later he was archdeacon of Northampton. Preferring fighting to preaching, he went off on the Crusades with Richard I in 1189, but was elected Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1192. He did not take up the post until a year later, being involved in negotiating Richard's release from captivity by the Emperor. Savaric played a cunning double game here, and got the king released, but only on condition that Richard wrote letters to influential people proposing that Savaric become Archbishop of Canterbury – a letter Richard smartly repudiated once he was safely back home.
When Savaric did return to England, it was the unhappy monks at Glastonbury who were in trouble again. They had never approved of the bishops of Bath and Wells having the right to interfere in their monastery, and Savaric made it clear that he intended to do just that. They appealed to the Pope, but Savaric won the case, and retaliated by beating the monks he knew had opposed him – one died. Once the monks had capitulated, Savaric decided to behave more graciously, granting money to Wells and Glastonbury, and protecting Bath from the collection for Richard's ransom. Despite all his string-pulling and bullying, however, he never rose any higher than Bishop of Bath and Wells.
Prior Gibbs is not only the last in our list – he was also the last prior of Bath. He had a dark secret which would have got him into all sorts of trouble had it been widely known. He was an alchemist. Today this is hardly a crime, but in a society dominated by church rule, this was a very dangerous secret indeed. Alchemy is not just the fore-runner of modern science – it is a philosophy, and not one that sits easily with Christianity, particularly a belief in the trinity. As late as the early eighteenth century, Isaac Newton felt impelled to keep his alchemy and his Unitarianism something known only to a few, for some of his acquaintances had been imprisoned for their beliefs. We know about Gibbs (or Holloway as he also called himself) thanks to the inquisitive Elias Ashmole, who could never resist a good story. He wrote about a mysterious tincture found in a wall at Bath Abbey, belonging to the last Prior of Bath Abbey, who had received it through an intermediary from George Ripley. Prior Gibbs had hidden it in a wall of the Abbey during the time it was suppressed, but on returning a few days later could not find it again. This Prior passed on his secret to Thomas Charnock, another alchemist. Ashmole takes up the story in his own words:
Shortly after the dissolution of Bath Abbey, upon the pulling down some of the walls, there was a glass found in a wall full of Red Tincture, which being flung away to a dunghill, forthwith it coloured it, exceeding red. This dunghill (or rubbish) was after fetched away by boat by Bathwick men, and laid in Bathwick field, and in the places where it was spread, for a long time after, the corn grew wonderfully rank, thick and high: insomuch as it was there looked upon as a wonder. This Belcher and Foster (2 shoemakers of Bath, who died about 20 years since) can very well remember; as also one called Old Anthony, a butcher who died about 12 years since.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths in Bath"
Copyright © 2007 Kirsten Elliott.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Dark Deeds and Dark Ages,
Chapter 2 Ramblers and Gamblers,
Chapter 3 'The Child was Born Dead',
Chapter 4 The Mob on the March,
Chapter 5 Murder Most Foul,
Chapter 6 Deadlier than the Male,
Chapter 7 No Way to Treat the Lower Orders,
Chapter 8 Fighting Fair and Square,
Chapter 9 The Mind Unbalanced,
Chapter 10 The Wellsway Pit Disaster,
Chapter 11 Two Unresolved Mysteries,
Chapter 12 Bath Detectives,