John Wood – Architect of Georgian Bath

I John Wood of Queen Square in the parish of Walcot in the county of Somerset esquire do hereby make and ordain this my last will and testament in manner following (that is to say) first my will is that my body after my decease be wrapt up in cloaths then about me and that my Body without any Shroud or Winding sheet be put into a plain coffin and buried in Swainswick Church in the same grave with my deceased children and I desire that the sum of twenty pounds and no more be expended on my funeral”

So wrote John Wood the Elder who, with his son, John Wood the Younger designed and built many of the iconic buildings of Georgian Bath, including the Royal Crescent, the Circus and Queen’s Square. He was laid to rest here on 26th May 1754.

It is likely that the stone marks a family grave. The stone next to his is inscribed to his granddaughter Anna (daughter of John Wood the Younger), and his daughter Elizabeth Street (nee Wood) has a stone near by in the north aisle. Other members of the family are known from the records to be buried in the church, including six of Elizabeth’s children, John Wood the Younger and Anna’s sisters, Dorothy, Sarah, Jenny and Catherine.

It is not known for certain why John Wood chose to be buried in Swainswick. However, what is known is that, as well as a passion for classical architecture, he was also obsessed by the ancient, pre-Roman history of Briton – a mythology recorded in the 12th century writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Wood was convinced that the legendary King Bladud was not legendary at all, but the true founder of Bath, a city the size of Babylon and the centre of an ancient Druidic kingdom. Incorporated into this kingdom were other ancient buildings, whose ruins could be seen in the stone circles at Stanton Drew (which Wood believed to have been established by Bladud as a university for Druids) and Stonehenge. Stone circles and sacred geometry fascinated him and he meticulously surveyed both of them, using the dimensions of the inner circle of Stonehenge in his design of the Circus.

So where does Swainswick come in? Well, the most famous story about King Bladud is that of his pigs. Banished from Athens when he contracted leprosy, Bladud became a swineherd in the hills around Bath. He noticed that his pigs enjoyed rolling in the mud warmed by the hot springs – and that they didn’t seem to suffer from skin conditions as other pigs did. So, as an experiment, he bathed in the mud himself and his leprosy was cured. His royal position was restored and, in thanksgiving, he founded the city of Bath. Wood believed that it was at Swainswick (Swyne’s-wick) that Bladud’s healing took place.

Not content with a miraculous healing, King Bladud is also said to have made himself a pair of wings and attempted to fly. His maiden (and final) flight was from the Temple of Apollo, which some versions of the story say was in London and others in New Troy. But Wood seems to have believed that the temple was built on the top of Solsbury Hill, the site of an iron-age settlement. So, King Bladud’s ill-fated flight ended with him being dashed to pieces more or less where Swainswick Church now stands.

If King Bladud was the original founder of ancient Bath, it was as if Wood cast himself as his successor – the restorer of Bladud’s lost Druid civilisation. So how appropriate that Wood should choose to be buried with his family on the spot where, in his own mythology, King Bladud had met his end.

Walking trail

We’ve devised a beautiful 3 1/2 mile walk around the valley exploring John Wood’s links with Swainswick. There is a dowload here.