061119.Bath, King: “I Had a Dream!”

November 19, 2006 at 12:32 AM | Posted in Architecture, Bath, Bath Abbey, Cathedrals and churches, Chisel Marks, Conservation, Crowns, cumulus clouds, gargoyles, Ladders, Light and Shadow, Olive Trees, Preservation, Restoration, Ruins, Sculpture, somerset, Stained Glass, stairs, Towers, towns | 7 Comments


Then he [Jacob] dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the Earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

–Genesis 28:12

Firstly, don’t even think of looking up the skirts of these angels: they’re genderless…and God will know if you try. Weekends typically kill viewership so I was going to play it easy but here’s the story on the west façade (although it was briefly mentioned back in the first Hokusai post):

When the former secretary to Henry VII, Bishop Oliver King, came to his new diocese he found the old large Norman Church in a state of grave disrepair and so endeavored to get the King to pay for a new Cathedral.

Owing his ecclesiastical office (See earlier “Investitures Conflict”) to his former secretarial duties and far from being concerned with civil rights in 1499, King had a dream in which angels ascended and descended a ladder from heaven and a voice spoke to him proclaiming: “Let an olive establish the crown and a king restore the Church.” (See the built image here.) I should add that by King, I mean Bishop King. And that the actual king probably responded by having an equally vivid dream in which God told him to let his former secretary pay for it. Anyway, the royal master masons (Robert and William Virtue) were used, which explains the similarity between its fan vaulting interior and that of Cambridge’s King’s College Chapel. It is the last large scale medieval cathedral constructed in England.

It’s all very confusing since not only is there a King, king, Oliver, and olive in this story but the actual king, Henry VII, was eager to shore up his “crown” image since he had just established his dynasty. This Tudor dynasty was born out of overthrowing the “evil” Yorkist Richard III* and ended the War of the Roses (dynastic civil war) by “uniting” the families of Lancaster and York. (Actually, he just married a York and then the happy couple spent their Honeymoon and subsequent marriage executing the wife’s entire family on trumped up charges.) His son was Henry VIII so you can just imagine the mother-in-law jokes of the Tudor Court!

Clearly Bath Abbey wasn’t just a dreamed folly (built) but part of God’s divine plan. God willed a Cathedral there, or rather a new cathedral there (3rd on the site!), or rather a new bi-cathedral there (since the “cathedra” is split with Wells, making it the diocese of Bath and Wells.)

Or as Bishop Jocelin would put it: “…the folly isn’t mine. It’s God’s Folly. Even in the old days He never asked men to do what was reasonable. Men can do that for themselves. They can buy and sell, heal and govern. But then out of some deep place comes the command to do what makes no sense at all–to build a ship on dry land; to sit among the dunghills; to marry a whore; to set their son on the altar of sacrifice. Then, if men have faith, a new thing comes.” (Excerpt from William Golding’s The Spire, 1964…pick up a copy, much better than Lord of the Flies)

And new things did come: Reformation, which made this structure redundant and caused it to be sold at auction a mere three decades after King’s dream.

060927.07.Bath.Abbey.WestFacade.Angels Climbing Jacob’s Ladder to heavenMy favorite aspect of the Jacob’s Ladder is its uninterupted spanning of the windows. And despite their stone wings, the angel’s share a valuable safety lesson with us mere humans: NEVER CLIMB A LADDER WHILE HOLDING ONTO THE OUTSIDE RAILINGS SINCE IF YOU SLIP YOU WILL SLIDE DOWN. (Somewhere on this facade must be the equally famous Nilda instruction: NEVER EVER SHAKE A BABY) God bless the angels and fundamentally basic safety procedures.

There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who stand looking

Woe oh oh oh oh oh
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

Led Zeppelin

 *Please note Paul Trevor Bale left a concerned comment on this ironic characterization that is well worth reading.


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  1. You say Richard III was “evil”, which makes my blood boil, and almost redeem yourself when telling how Henry VII killed off most of the York’s after he married Elizbeth, but still the word is used, and the uneducated general public will not remember the inverted commars. So please, tell the truth about this so often, so much, so unfairly maligned man and king, who is snowy white in comparison to the likes of the two kings who followed him, and was without doubt an altogether better human being than any of the Tudors!

  2. great photos…and wonderful story!

  3. Oh, Sh-t, historians are reading my site…
    (By the way, I’m impressed anyone read that far down. Was it worth it?)
    I deliberately put “evil” in quotation marks to indicate irony, which I followed up with “uniting” in quotation marks and then parenthetically explained the irony there: Henry VII killed off the entirety of the family he united and reconciled. (OK, not entirety since he let one or two flop around before H8 finished the job.)
    However, if you’re referring to postmodern historian research on the subject the humpless Richard III and Tey’s ‘Daughter of Time’ fictional proposal that he was a good uncle, then I should state that four out of five historians surveyed believe Richard III killed off nephews Edward IV and his brother in the Tower.
    The distinction between the demonized Richard and the celebrated Tudors then becomes a Stalin paradox: “”One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.””
    Thank you for your concerned comment. You are certainly right that a warning should be posted to caution off misinterpretations of Bosworth Field implications. But I think your point is that while both kings weren’t swell, one killed off a few little brats and the other committed genocide. (The word clearly dates from the 20th Century but can be aptly be applied since the Tudors deliberately aimed to victimize people of specific ethnic and religious backgrounds.) Again, thanks for your comment.
    Note: if you raise a good point, I respond quickly, despite struggling against a deadline at the moment.
    Out of curiousity, is PTB your real name? And if so which Bond did you work on?

  4. I love the sculptures of Bath Abbey. Have you found some stories about them?

  5. I enjoy your photos. You have a very good eye for light and angle.

  6. You might get tired of hearing about Richard III, but he killed more than “a few brats.” He killed over 20 people during the course of his reign, including his brother-in-law and men who had been the servants of his brother Edward IV and who had rebelled following his usurpation and the murder of his nephews Edward V and Richard, Duke of York.

    Those “four out of five” historians, incidentally, have degrees in history and medieval studies from universities as renowned as Cambridge. The one out of five? More in love with Richard III than with the truth.

  7. Ascensions into heaven on ladders, 7th century on, were part of the ascent of the Christian towards “moral perfection,” each rung being symbolic of a Christ like attribute. John Climacus, for example, illustrated this. The term “fallen” angel, “fallen prophet” must have come from this imagery, where demons cause people to fall. In some art work of the ladder, demons are causing people to fall, while angels seek to protect the ascender on their way towards paradise or heaven.

    Video presentations of early Christianity, etc.

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