Vicars’ Close – A Medieval Street Singing Through the Centuries
For over 800 years people have come together daily in the timeless and magnificent Wells Cathedral to worship God. Daily services continue to be enriched by singing and at the heart of music-making is the choir of Wells Cathedral. The choir includes men (the Vicars Choral) and both boy and girl choristers.
Vicars’ Close was built over 650 years ago to house the Vicars Choral and it has since been continuously inhabited by their successors. Vicars’ Close is unique; physically connected to Wells Cathedral and the most complete example of a medieval Close in the UK. It embodies an internationally renowned musical heritage.
A survey in 2013 showed the pressing need for conservation to every building in the Close and that the current condition of the buildings is not appropriate for heritage of its significance.
Wells Cathedral has a strategic plan which focusses on conserving heritage, opening up spaces to all and connecting with the communities it serves. It is now imperative to conserve Vicars’ Close.
In tackling the conservation challenge, the Vicars’ Close Heritage Programme will embrace exciting opportunities to further the Cathedral’s mission by:
– using innovative ways of engaging audiences
– intelligently opening up the Close, providing access and insights to previously hidden spaces
– offering heritage apprenticeships and volunteering opportunities
– celebrating and interpreting musical heritage
– creating local partnerships with the Bishop’s Palace and other key organisations to offer visitors to Wells an inspiring, coherent, informative and enjoyable visit to the medieval quarter of the city
About Vicars’ Close
Over the centuries, Vicars’ Close has played a vibrant part in the architectural, historical and musical landscapes of the UK. The history of Vicars’ Close can be described through three fascinating and interconnected themes:
Vicars’ Close was built by Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury, who founded a college for the Vicars Choral in1348. They deputised for the Canons of the Cathedral in singing daily worship. Bishop Ralph wanted to house the vicars to protect the young clerks, keep them away from women and provide them with communal facilities including a dining hall (Vicars’ Hall). Today, the Close remains a living community and occupants still include all men of the Vicars Choral (now 12 members), plus the Organists and Virgers who are part of the lifeblood of the Cathedral.
Vicars’ Close comprises two rows of lodgings, punctuated at the north end by the Close Chapel and at the south by Vicars’ Hall (which is joined to the main Cathedral by the Chain Gate Bridge). The houses are an early example of collegiate architecture, albeit for singers rather than scholars and originally looked similar to a quadrangle more commonly seen today in places such as Oxford.
Reflecting the Close’s significance, all buildings are Grade I listed. Each house originally had a ground floor hall with a staircase at the rear leading to an upper room. All of the properties have been subject to alteration from the mid-15th Century, including the addition of the iconic chimneys and extensions to the rear of the properties. Originally 42 houses were built (one per vicar), but some were combined following the Reformation when vicars were allowed to marry to accommodate growing families. Front gardens were later added giving it the appearance of a street. The Close now comprises 27 residences and the Chapel and Vicars’ Hall remain at either end of the Close.
The English choral tradition is renowned throughout the world and the importance of Cathedral choirs in the religious and cultural life of the UK is well acknowledged. Music has the ability to transcend words and can inspire and unite people of different backgrounds, faiths and nationalities. Singing at daily services is the primary duty of Vicars Choral. The choir enriches services and worship, attracting visitors from near and far. They participate in a number of events throughout the year including live radio broadcasts, major festivals, concerts and tours.
Wells Cathedral Choir has been hailed by Gramophone Magazine as the best choir with children in the world. Children play a significant part in the musical heritage of Wells Cathedral with 18 boy and 18 girl choristers regularly singing alongside the Vicars’ Choral.
The Vicars’ Close Heritage Programme is needed to conserve the medieval fabric of the buildings in Vicars’ Close and to enable the Cathedral to protect its musical heritage for future generations. It will also deliver outcomes which will ensure that more people and a wider range of people will have engaged with the heritage, that the local area will be a better place to visit and that the local economy will be boosted. The programme will benefit a wide range of new and existing audiences as will be a catalyst for a step change in the way Chapter and staff deliver outreach activities, learning opportunities and volunteer roles. The focus will be to remedy defects that pose risk to the historic fabric of the buildings and in turn this will help manage the drain that Vicars’ Close has on the Cathedral’s finances and human resources.
This programme is still in the planning phase but this page will be updated as the details develop. If you would like to know more about the programme or are interested in discussing how you might be able to support it please contact Kelly Hall on 01749 674483 or email at [email protected]