by Paula Dempsey
While every schoolboy knows the history of the Roman city of Bath, rather fewer will be aware of its history before the arrival of the Latin race. Geoffrey of Monmouth tells that King Bladud built the city of Kaerbadum and later constructed the public baths which gave the city its modern name. He selected Minerva as the tutelary goddess of these baths and lit fires in her honour. His magic ensured the fires never went out or produced any ash; as the fuel burned away the ash turned to stone balls which can still be seen around the hot spring waters. Geoffrey describes Bladud as “a most ingenious man” who interspersed the general governance of his kingdom and the doing of grand projects thereof with the study and teaching of necromancy. Further, he encouraged necromancy throughout his kingdom. Bladud set out, by means of magical operations, to fly “to the upper Region of the Air”. With home-made wings he achieved his goal, flying from Bath to Trinovantum (London) whereupon either the magic or the wings failed and he met his doom on top of the Temple of Apollo on Ludgate Hill, from whence his mortal remains were retrieved by the bemused citizens.
Prior to the Romans, Bath was sacred to the Celtic goddess of the sun, Sul. In modern magical practice and, indeed, going back many centuries, the sun is identified with the masculine principle and embodied by male gods such as Apollo or Jupiter, while the feminine principle and goddesses such as Diana are associated with the moon. In the Celtic world this duality did not obtain and the sun was represented by a goddess. Sul’s association with Bath is considered to have come about because of the hot springs there, which ancient man believed were heated by an underground sun. After the Roman conquest of Bath Minerva became the presiding goddess but Sul was not forgotten completely; the two goddesses becoming conflated as Sulis Minerva.
From Geoffrey we also get the tale of how brave King Arthur defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Bath. Arthur took with him his sword called Caliburn, his shield called Pridwen and his spear called Ron. With the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary on his lips he rode into battle.
Both sides battled bravely and both suffered severe losses. Eventually darkness fell and the Saxons set up camp on a nearby hill, intending to rush down it at dawn and massacre the Britons below. Arthur understood their strategy and ordered his men to the top of the hill where they fought the Saxons for many hours. Calling upon God to bless his endeavours Arthur tore into the enemy with the mighty Caliburn, killing a man with every stroke. Four hundred and seventy men fell to Arthur alone that day. The Saxons scattered and fled. Some were pursued by the Duke of Cornwall’s men and cut to pieces. Very few were left when Arthur came to make the peace.
The reader may note that Arthur’s armoury equates to the symbols for three of the four elements of antiquity. Caliburn is the element of air, which corresponds to the suit of swords in the tarot. Pridwen is a round shield, so corresponds to the suit of pentacles and the element of earth. Ron corresponds to the suit of wands and the element of fire. The fourth element, that of water, corresponds to the suit of cups and is clearly represented in Arthurian legend by the Holy Grail.
Bath has more recently been the site of some odd phenomena. Charles Fort reports that “thousands of jellyfish, as big as a shilling”, pelted the population as would a rainstorm in the summer of 1884. Fort theorises that the creatures were in fact frog spawn. How this explains matters defeats me. Surely jellyfish are as likely to fall from the sky as frog spawn? And Bath is not so far away from the popular seaside resort of Weston-Super-Mare. Could not the jellyfish have been carried up into the sky by a freak wave or other singular weather condition; only to be carried twenty-four miles or so before being deposited on the good wives of Bath?
Some thirteen years before, reports Mr Fort, a similar incident occurred when a great shower of gelatinous material fell at Bath railway station. Despite enquiries with the relevant authorities I was not able to ascertain whether this caused significant disruption to the railway service. Their response in itself piqued my interest. I find the bureaucrats governing our railways most efficient, and officious, in their business. If such a peculiar incident did happen and has been erased from the official record, one is bound to enquire why that is the case.
Chilton Cantelo, Somerset
At the north end of the transept in the village church, I found a memorial with this inscription:
Here lyeth the body of Theophilus Broome…who deceased the 18th of August 1670, aged 69. A man just in the actions of his life; true to his friends; forgave those that wronged him; and dyed in peace.
There is, perhaps, nothing remarkable about this epitaph. Indeed, one might read similar in any church in the country. The clue to the strange story of Theophilus Broome lies in the former part of the inscription – “Here lyeth the body” – as the head of the erstwhile gentleman will not be united with the rest of the corpse until the awful Day of Judgement. Broome’s dying request was that his skull be dissociated from the rest of his mortal remains and located at Higher Farm, across the road from the church. Numerous attempts have been made to bury this somewhat gruesome relic in the churchyard, but all have been defeated by the skull’s emission of a loud screech or scream which so disturbed the slumbers of the household that they were forced to return the skull to the house in order to get some rest. Legend does not tell us why Broome made this strange request, nor why a man who “dyed in peace” should feel the need to so disturb the quietude of others.