King Bladud, the 9th King of the Britons, is known for two very different things: First, he (and his pigs) discovered the healing powers of the warm mineral spring in Bath, England, and second, he made himself a pair of wings and took flight.
Before the Romans
The city of Bath, England is named after the Roman Baths which were built there around 60 AD. But the Romans weren’t the first ones to bathe in that warm mineral spring water. According to legend, Prince Bladud had discovered that bubbling spring 900 years earlier – around 863 BC. (That’s 110 years before the city of Rome was even founded.)
The first mention of King Bladud’s remarkable story comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain written in the 12th century. But there’s a pretty good chance Geoffrey made up at least some of it – he was known for embellishing his stories.
Over the years, the tale of Bladud, the King who founded Bath, was expanded upon and added to, and there have been many versions. Here is mine…
The Tale of Bladud
King Ludhurdibras and his queen had a son, Prince Bladud, who was an intelligent and curious child. When he grew into a young man, his father sent him to Athens to study with the great teachers and philosophers.
Prince Bladud was enjoying his studies in Athens when he received a message that his father had died suddenly. He immediately set out for home to take up his duties as the new King of the Britons.
Catches a Skin Disease
Unfortunately, on the ship home, he came into contact with a passenger who had an infectious skin disease. By the time Bladud reached Britain’s shore, he was covered with scabs and his skin was peeling. He went to the palace walls, but dared not go inside for fear of infecting his mother. He sent a messenger with a letter for her.
His mother wept as the messenger read the note from her son. She sent a message back to him along with a gold ring and some money. “My dear son, wear this ring and I will always be able to recognize you, even if your face is disfigured.”
Becomes a Swineherd
Prince Bladud kissed the ring and put it on his finger. Then he went off and bought a herd of swine. He roamed around the Avon Valley with only his pigs for company. He spent his time observing nature, contemplating the mysteries of the universe, and experimenting with plants in hope of finding a cure for his disease. But nothing worked.
One day as Bladud passed through the area now known as Bath, his pigs found some warm mud to wallow in. The curious prince investigated and found a spring bubbling up from the earth which was creating the mud. The pigs enjoyed their mud bath and came out caked in it. Overnight the mud dried, and the next morning, Bladud began to clean his pigs.
Discovers Magical Mud
He was amazed to see that their skin was smooth. His pigs were a rowdy bunch (as most pigs are) and they were always fighting over food. All this fighting left their skin covered in cuts and scratches. But, strangely, his pigs now had smooth, healthy skin. Was he in a magical place? Could it be the mud?
If the mud had healed the pigs’ skin, maybe it would heal his too. He stripped off his clothes and waded into the black goo. It was warm and squishy and made his legs tingle. So he sat down – then he lay down and rolled around making sure he was covered head to toe in the warm mud. It was so relaxing that he fell asleep and slept there all night.
When he awoke the next morning, he wiped the mud from one arm. He couldn’t see any scabs. He stuck out a leg and skimmed off the muck – no scabs – no peeling skin!
He is Healed
He climbed out of the mire and ran to the Avon River to wash himself. As the mud slipped away, fresh, soft skin revealed itself. He laughed. He cried. He made quite a ruckus. “This is, indeed, a holy place,” he shouted to his pigs. They just ignored him and continued to fight over their acorn breakfast.
Next he gave his pigs a good bath in the river, then took them to the nearest town and sold them. He got a high price because they were the finest-looking pigs anyone had ever seen. Then Prince Bladud bought the best suit of clothes in town, put them on, and headed home.
As he entered the castle and saw his mother, he held up his hand with the ring. But she didn’t need the ring to recognize her son. She commanded that preparations be made to crown the new king, King Bladud – 9th King of the Britons.
Builds a Temple at the Spring
The first thing King Bladud did was to go back to the warm mud and build a temple over the hot spring. He dedicated it to the goddess Sulis – goddess of healing and sacred waters. (And there was still a temple on that spot when the Romans arrived about 900 years later.)
King Bladud reigned for 20 years and never lost his love of learning. He summoned some of the philosophers he had studied with in Athens and they established a university north of London. He also studied magic and encouraged it throughout his kingdom.
Believes He Can Fly
He regularly consulted with spirits, and one day they whispered to him that he could fly if he wanted to. Of course, he wanted to. So they told him how to make wings out of feathers and he followed their instructions. Then he went up to the top of the temple of Apollo and jumped off flapping his wings. And the spirits were right. He did fly… at least for a short while until he hit the ground with a splat.
And that was the end of King Bladud. His son Leir (Lear) was crowned the 10th King of the Britons and this is the King Lear that Shakespeare immortalized in his play.
The story of Prince Bladud is part of Bath’s folklore and you can see several references to him around the city. What to see:
- Roman Bath Statue – A statue of King Bladud sits in an alcove in just above the King’s Bath in the Roman Baths.
- Gorgon – In the Roman Baths museum you can see a round sculpture with a man’s face in the middle surrounded by his flowing hair and beard. It’s called a gorgon, but he’s not your typical gorgon. This one is male and has wings coming out of his head. Could this be a reference to flying King Bladud?
- Prince Bladud and his Pig Statue – in Parade Gardens – This is a private garden, so there’s an entrance fee. The Bladud statue here is from 1859 and the pig is from 2009.
- The Circus – is a historic group of Georgian townhouses designed by John Wood, the Elder between 1754 and 1768. The acorn finials on top allude to the favorite food of Bladud’s pigs.
You might also like: - To read more about Bath:Bathing and Cursing Like a Roman in Bath, England - To read about another British king: King Arthur was Buried in Glastonbury - To read about a French king and his fountain: Good King René and His Fountain
Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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