And where did Catherine Morland go to Chapel in Bath?
A Series of Maps
I love to see places where Jane Austen lived, or went, or worshiped. So I wondered, where did she worship in Bath? And where did she envision the characters in Northanger Abbey worshiping?
Let’s start with Jane herself. On May 12, 1801, she was staying with her aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Leigh-Perrot, at No. 1, The Paragon. She wrote to Cassandra:
“On Sunday we went to Church twice, & after evening service walked a little in the Crescent fields, but found it too cold to stay long.”
The Royal Crescent was a popular and lovely place to walk after church on Sundays. Characters in Northanger Abbey walk there several times. Visitors to Bath still enjoy the Crescent.
Churches in Bath
But where was Jane Austen at Church? Bath had five churches at this time. Normally, each parish in England had just one parish church. However, in Bath at the time of Queen Elizabeth I, three parishes had been combined into one, so that the main parish of Bath had three churches: Bath Abbey, St. Michael’s, and St. James’. The City of Bath Corporation chose the clergymen for those churches. (In Austen’s novels we find individual patrons, such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Colonel Brandon, choosing clergymen, but organizations and corporations could also be patrons.) Another parish, Walcot, in the northern part of Bath, had St. Swithin’s Church. Bath also had the first “free church” in England, Christ Church, which opened in 1798 to provide free seating for the poor in the main section (the nave) of the church. All these churches still remain in Bath, except for St. James’, which was destroyed when Bath was bombed in World War II. St. Michael’s was originally called “St. Michael’s Without,” as it was outside the walls of the old city of Bath, though it is now in the main part of Bath. Its current building dates from 1835.
Which of these churches would Austen have attended with her relatives during her visit? (Note: All map locations are approximate!)
St. Swithin’s Walcot
It could have been St. Michael’s (M on the map), but my guess is that she most likely attended the Walcot Church (W), also called St. Swithin’s, at that time. Why?
- St. Swithin’s is a straight walk up the hill from the Paragon.
- Jane Austen’s family was associated with St. Swithin’s. Her parents were married there in 1764. A few years later, when her father died, he was buried there in 1805.
- The “Walcot Church” is the only contemporary church mentioned by name in Austen’s novels. In Northanger Abbey, when John Thorpe comes sweeping into Bath, he boasts that his horse “had not turned a hair till we came to Walcot Church.” Since Austen mentioned this church, it seems likely to me that it was one she had attended, at least at some point in her life.
Elsewhere in her letters, Jane Austen mentions going to chapel in Bath. As a clergyman’s daughter, she certainly knew that “church” and “chapel” were two different things, and used the words correctly. Bath had grown rapidly and the parish churches were not sufficient for everyone. However, it took an Act of Parliament to establish new churches. Instead of new churches, a number of chapels were started. Most were proprietary chapels, built to make a profit, catering to the wealthy residents and visitors of Bath. Those who attended paid a monthly fee. Fees paid the clergyman’s salary and church expenses.
Church of England Chapels in Bath
”on leaving Chapel, we walked to Lansdown. . . .” Later in the week: “Mrs. Buller goes with us to our Chapel tomorrow . . .”—Letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra, April 8, 1805, from 25 Gay Street.
When Jane Austen lived in Bath, It seems unlikely that she and her family would have walked all the way up to the Walcot church twice every Sunday from the places they lived. In a letter she mentions going to chapel, and “our chapel” which would mean they had a subscription there. Where would she have gone to chapel?
On a visit in 1799, the Austens had stayed in Queen Square for more than a month. They probably attended the Queen Square Chapel (labeled in green above) at that time. Austen specifically mentioned the Queen Square Chapel, as a location Cassandra was familiar with, in a letter from Steventon on Jan. 3, 1801.
However, when they first moved to Bath in 1801, they lived at Sydney Place. It seems likely they might have gone to the Laura Chapel then, as it was the closest chapel to them, though they may have gone to the Octagon Chapel. The Laura Chapel was still very new then. It opened in 1796. It was a very large chapel, expensive and profitable, seating 1000 people, and had fireplaces to keep it warm. The building was demolished in 1900; two entryways still remain.
However, after Jane’s father died, they lived in cheaper lodgings in Green Park Buildings, Gay Street, and Trim Street. From those houses they may have returned to the Queen Square Chapel, which was nearby and probably cheaper. So this might be the chapel she’s referring to in her letter. However it no longer exists; It was demolished around 1870 to convert Chapel Row into a better approach to a railway station.
In Northanger Abbey, Austen wrote that Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe, as new friends who have to separate at the Allens’ door, are relieved to learn that they will “say their prayers in the same chapel the next morning” (chapter 4).
So we know they are going to a chapel, like most of the wealthy visitors to Bath. “Saying their prayers” meant that they would worship there, in a worship service. The Church of England followed The Book of Common Prayer for worship, which includes a number of prayers read by the clergyman and others read by the congregation, as well as Bible readings and other responses.
Which chapel was Austen imagining, when she wrote Northanger Abbey in 1798-1799? Catherine and the Allens were living in Great Pulteney Street. The nearest chapel to them would have been the Laura Chapel, but it was very new at that time and might not have been familiar to Austen. The Thorpes were staying in Edgar’s Buildings. The nearest chapel to them, which would also have been a reasonable distance from the Allens, was the Octagon Chapel in Milsom Street, where Catherine and Isabella went shopping. So perhaps the Octagon was the chapel Austen had in mind.
For more about the Octagon, see “Churches, Chapels, Abbeys, and Cathedrals in Northanger Abbey.” Unlike most of the Bath chapels, the Octagon’s hall still remains; it has been an antique shop, a World War II food office, a photographic exhibition hall, and a restaurant.
Chapels for Other Denominations
Jane Austen, as well as her characters who visited Bath, would have also seen a variety of other chapels in Bath. Denominations outside of the national Church of England were called Dissenters or Nonconformists. Their places of worship were called chapels or meeting houses.
A visitors’ guide to Bath in 1801, the year Jane Austen moved to Bath, advertised “places of Divine Worship for all the denominations of England that are popular and prevalent” (51), including Lady Huntingdon’s Chapel, Independents (Congregationalists), Wesleyan Methodists, Unitarians (formerly Presbyterians), Quakers, Baptists, Moravians, and Catholics. It is not likely that Austen attended any of these. However, the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel was near her aunt and uncle’s house, on the way to St. Swithin’s, so she would have at least seen it in passing. It normally was served by clergymen ordained in the Church of England, and was known for its choir and hymn-singing. See “Churches, Chapels” for more on this topic.
These churches and chapels give us a little more understanding of Austen’s life, and the lives of her characters. I hope someday you will get to visit some of these lovely places!
While Bath had a wide variety of places of worship, many went to church or chapel in order to see and be seen, because it was fashionable rather than because they were seeking God. They often went straight from church to the gambling tables and other places of entertainment. Do we still see such attitudes today?
For more on places of worship in Austen’s Bath, click here.
For more posts on the church and clergy in Austen’s England, click here.
For a series on the church and clergy in Sense and Sensibility, click here.
To test and expand your knowledge with quizzes, see Churches and Chapels Quiz
The Historic and Local New Bath Guide (Bath: J. Browne, 1801), and other Bath Guides.
Jane Austen: A Family Record, by Deirdre Le Faye, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). (Referenced for Austen’s addresses in Bath)