The New Bishop

In 1088 William Rufus (William II) conferred the bishopric of Wells on John de Villula, a native of Tours in France. Bishop John was a rich and skilled physician and was already the King’s personal physician. He had been the physician to William1 (William the Conqueror) and was present at that King’s deathbed in in 1087. William II may have wished to acknowledge John’s service to his father. Bishop John’s personal wealth in the 1080s derived from his medical attendance to the King and senior nobles.

William II known as William Rufus Illustration from the Historia Angiorum c.1253
Sack of Bath by the Saxons Bath Pageant Official Postcard

Two Abbotts had died a few years apart in the 1080s, leading to the union of the bishoprics of Bath and Wells. Wells was the foremost location from the church hierarchy perspective and Bishop John’s first residence was therefore in Wells. After the consecration, the King made Bishop John a gift of the abbey of Bath and all its endowments. 

Offa, the powerful King of Mercia from 757 to 796, is said to have founded the monastery at Bath – extensive lands in and around Bath were gifted to the abbey church of St Peters in Bath by the West Saxon kings. The Anglo Saxons called Bath ‘Acheman’s Chester’ – the City of Invalids. At that time the gift to the abbey church may not have appeared to be so generous, as in the summer of 1088, Bath had been virtually burnt to the ground in the ‘Sack of Bath’ by Robert de Mowbray, who had rebelled against William Rufus (Hunt, 1893).

It has been speculated that John saw Bath as being in a more advantageous position, accessible by river, with a milder climate (Hunt, 1893). More generally, there was a pattern of establishing the bishop’s residence in the largest town. In 1091 the bishop obtained possession of the city of Bath and paid a fee to Henry 1 to have the transaction confirmed. Bishop John relocated to Bath and the bishopric became that of Bath and Wells, with Bath Abbey becoming the ‘mother church’.

Rebuilding of the abbey, with a planned school, hospital and associated buildings including a substantial bishop’s residence, began shortly after John’s consecration. The scale of the proposed abbey complex was many times more extensive than the current Bath Abbey, encompassing most of the ruined Roman baths and spa baths. It is unclear, due to lack of archaeological evidence, as to whether the planned school and hospital were built. Regardless, there would have been a monks’ infirmary in the buildings that formed the cathedral enclosure surrounding the cloister, though not necessarily the more substantial building planned by Bishop John – that was most likely built by one of his successors (Davenport,2002).

Bishop John’s medical practice

John of Tours learned from his extensive medical experience, rather from studying texts – in modern terminology, this is known as heuristic method.

Hence, probably, his success; he treated his patients by experience and common sense, rather than the teachings of Hippocrates and Avicenna. (Palgrave, 2007).

This heuristic practice is somewhat different from the established medical tradition of following Hippocratic texts in the early medieval period. This teaching explained that the body was made up of four liquids known as the humours; black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Each person had their own humoural make up and it was widely thought that an imbalance led to illness. In relation to anatomy and surgery, the traditional practice was based on the works of the Greek physician, Galen.

The notable historian William of Malmesbury estimated Bishop John as a very skilled doctor, not in terms of theoretical knowledge, but in practice. John had his critics, due to his relative lack of formal learning (Hyde Cassan, 1829), yet he was widely regarded as being successful in his methods. No doubt Bishop John was able to draw on the herbal treatment reference text that was developed at his home city of Tours. 

The bishop was interested in the therapeutic benefits of the warm mineral waters (Cochrane,1994). In the period when he came to Bath, the origin of the water’s heat was not understood and there was a superstitious belief amongst the population that the heat derived from the ‘necromancy of King Bladud’ (Palgrave, 2007).

Illustration of an infirmary in a monastery Image courtesy of

A notable Anglo-Saxon text described the ruined Roman bath complex that Bishop John would have wondered at, including the hot spring source with its walled reservoir, close to the newly built Abbey (Wallis, 2008). The bishop provided two mineral baths for the monk’s use, one being known as the Monk’s bath and the other being known as the Prior’s bath. It is credibly speculated that these had been dug out and made usable – being two of the smaller ruined Roman baths that were within the very extensive bounds of the monastery (Hyde Cassan, 1829). There is speculation that ruins discovered to the north of what is now the King’s Bath were an infirmary for the monks, but there is no evidence for that speculation.

At some point between 1088 and 1100, Bishop John was gifted a house in Holloway, away from the centre of Bath, together with the adjoining chapel of St Mary Magdalene (Manco, 1998). The Holloway, whose name derived from ‘hollow way’, was conveniently close to one of the springs originating from Beechen Cliff. The owner of the house and chapel was Walter Hussey, a tenant of the cathedral priory. The relative isolation of the house, across the river from the medieval city, made it ideal as a refuge for lepers. There are no records of a hospital for lepers at that location until the following century (Manco 1998), but it is likely that Bishop John acted to create that facility after the gift was made.

Bishop John was believed to have imposed a stringent regime on the monks for a protracted period. There was even some dispersion of the Benedictine monks and the introduction of monks from Europe. In time, there was relaxation of this regime and an increased focus on the monks’ welfare including teaching. 

Image of a monk in a monastery library. Image courtesy of Times Higher Education Supplement

Bath monks who were skilled in medicine would attend the sick in the Infirmary (Hunt, 1893). It was likely that one of those monks would have been designated as the Infirmarer and it was also possible that there was a contractual arrangement with a local Bath physician to supply medicines (Somerset Record Society, 1893). The bishop would inevitably have the ultimate oversight of the care of sick or infirm monks. 

Significant change in medical knowledge, mathematics and astronomy during the 12th century was to be brought to this country by learned men who had travelled to the Middle East and returned to promote scientific texts translated from Arabic into Latin (Bartlett, 2003). Bishop John’s renowned hospitality to such learned men meant that he had access to these texts – and to visitors who could expound on their contribution to knowledge.

Adelard of Bath

Adelard, as a young man, was a protégé of Bishop John. He went on to become one of the greatest and most influential scholars of medieval Europe, regarded as the first English scientist. He translated key texts including Euclid, from the Greek and Arabic into Latin and produced original scholarly work in many fields including philosophy, meteorology, astronomy, botany and zoology.

Adelard was born in, or near to Bath, circa 1080 and considered himself to be a citizen of the city. He had major advantages arising from his sponsorship by Bishop John, who is likely to have facilitated Adelard’s period of study at Tours after the younger man had progressed through the learning on offer with the Benedictine monks in Bath. Adelard returned to Bath before setting out on travels through France, Sicily, Greece, and the Arabic speaking countries that we identify as the Middle East. He returned to England after seven years, probably in 1116 (Wallis, 2008), to propagate his acquired knowledge, including advice to England’s rulers. Although Adelard was not a practising physician, he gained knowledge of anatomy. He retained links with Bath, especially in later life, and had a small estate in West Wiltshire. Adelard died in the Bath area in the 1150s..His exceptional talents and pioneering thirst for scholarly knowledge were encouraged by Bishop John, who played a vital role in enabling his intellectual development.

Adelard of Bath, teaching – illumination from manuscript held by Leiden University Library. Image - Creative Commons

Bishop John’s legacy

In due course the bishop transferred the ownership of many of the lands that he had been managing, especially lands that weren’t adjacent to the centre of Bath, to the ownership of the body of monks, thus increasing their income and resources. Part of these lands had originally been owned by the monks – the bishop added considerably more land that he personally owned, as a gift, together with extensive valuable contents of the Abbey. The overall impact was that the monks were enabled to be far more independent. This was very significant in a period when the Abbey was the dominant and influential city institution, being responsible for charity to people in need who would come to plead for alms. Bishop John died suddenly, probably of a heart attack, on 29 December 1122.

One of his successors as bishop was Bishop Robert of Lewes, consecrated in 1136, who was notable for constructing functional buildings within the abbey boundaries including an infirmary (Victoria County History, 1911). Bishop Robert rebuilt the infirmary after a disastrous fire in 1137.A plan of the abbey in 1174 shows the conjectured site of the infirmary, adjacent to the west priory cloister, close to the primary mineral water spring. On this map, an outdoor bath is shown by the infirmary.

Another, later successor, Bishop Reginald Fitzjocelyn, consecrated in 1174, was a cosmopolitan, accomplished and relatively young man. Within six years or so he founded the hospital of St John the Baptist for the poor of Bath, by confirming a grant of land to the hospital of the baths. In the medieval period, the term ‘hospital’ usually referred to hospitality for travellers rather than the modern meaning of medical treatment. But early deeds of St Johns show that the inmates were poor or infirm, or both (Manco 1998). The hospital was built near to the western boundary of the abbey site, beside the two smaller baths. Remarkably, the St Johns Foundation operates to this day in that location, providing alms-house accommodation for older or infirm residents and substantial charitable programmes for people in Bath and North East Somerset.

The monks’ lives as a community were connected with, and yet distinct from, the household of the bishop, began under Bishop John of Tours, with his initially very tough regime, followed by a focus on teaching, organisation, and welfare then, investment and reinvestment of monks’ lands. The community of monks gained a reputation for learning. Bishop John’s renown as a physician would have facilitated that beneficial transition and more widely, created a legacy of lasting benefits for the reputation and status of the medieval city of Bath.




Bartlett R. (2003) England under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075 – 1225, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Cochrane L. (1994). Adelard of Bath, reproduced in facsimile and published by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, Bath, in 2013.  )

Davenport P. (2002). Medieval Bath Uncovered, Tempus Publishing, Stroud.

Dickinson F.H. (1876) ‘Charter of William II to Bishop John de Villula’, in Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society’s Proceedings, Cheston and Cheasley, Taunton.

Hunt, W. Rev. (1893). An Account of the Priory of St Peter and St Paul, Bath, pub. Harrison and Sons, London, and Bath

Hyde Cassan S. Rev. (1829) Lives of the Bishops of Bath, Rivington London.

Manco J. (1998). The Spirit of Care, published by the Hospital of St John the Baptist with the Chapel of St Michael Annexed with St Catherines Hospital, Bath.

Palgrave F. (2007). The History of Normandy and of England Volume IV, Kessinger Publishing, Montana US.

Somerset Record Society (1893) Two Chartularies of the Library of the Priory of St Peter at Bath 1, From the Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, published by the Somerset Record Society. Retrieved from Google Books.

Wallis P. (2008). Bath and Early Science, in Bath and the Rise of Science, edited by Wallis P, published by Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution and the William Herschel Society, Bath.

Victoria County History (1911) A History of the County of Somerset, Volume 2, London.