The wells or springs, still seen today in the Bishop’s Palace garden, are the reason for the original settlement of this area. Stone Age flints and Roman pottery have been found near the springs and the earliest evidence of worship is a Romano-British burial chamber, which may have been Christian. Over this a Saxon mortuary chapel was built and in about 705, A.D. King Ine of Wessex gave permission for a minster church to be founded here.
The Saxon church lay to the south of the present cathedral, under the cloisters. The cathedral font and the cope chest once stood in the Saxon building. In 909 the large diocese of Sherborne was split and the minster church of St Andrew became the cathedral of the new diocese of Wells, which included all the county of Somerset.
The present cathedral was begun about 1175 on a new site to the north of the old minster church. Bishop Reginald de Bohun brought the idea of a revolutionary architectural style from France, and Wells was the first English cathedral to be built entirely in this new Gothic style. The first building phase took about eighty years, building from east to west, culminating in the magnificent West Front. About 300 of its original medieval statues remain: a glorious theatrical stone backdrop for feast day processions.
The view of the Chapter House steps is among the most photographed area of any cathedral and the building itself, octagonal in shape, is delicately decorated with sculpture. It is breathtakingly light, soaring to the sky. It was finished by 1306 and was the meeting place for cathedral affairs. The three cloisters, built in the 13th century and remodelled in the 15th are a peaceful haven in which to walk and reflect. They join the cathedral on the south side and surround a rectangular green. The east and west cloisters both had a storey added for a library and a school respectively.
Almost as soon as the Chapter House was finished, it was decided that the cathedral, for liturgical (services and processions) purposes, was too small. The central tower was considerably heightened, with nearly disastrous consequences, a new, magnificent Lady Chapel was placed at the far eastern end and the Quire pushed eastwards to meet the Lady Chapel by means of a spectacular retroquire. Altogether over a third was added to the building.
In 1348, Bishop Ralph of Shrewbury founded a college so that the Vicars Choral, the singing men of the choir, could live together communally. He provided a hall for meals and each of the 42 vicars with his own small house. These were built on two sides of a quadrangle, with the hall at one end and later, a chapel enclosing the other end. In the 15th century, the houses were given front gardens and the Chain Gate was built to provide a passage from the hall into the cathedral. Vicars’ Close, as the street came to be known, is the only completely medieval street in England.
The Protestant Reformation under the Tudors, which led to the destruction of monasteries like Glastonbury, did not have a major effect upon the Cathedral at Wells. It did mean that the internal walls, covered with biblical pictures and images of saints were whitewashed, a pulpit for the new custom of preaching was built and the chantry chapels, built for saying masses for the dead, became redundant.
The stability which Queen Elizabeth’s settlement brought to the church in England came to an abrupt end in the reign of Charles I. In 1645, Parliament abolished bishoprics and closed cathedrals. In 1660, after the Restoration of Charles II, the cathedral was re-opened. During the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, rebel soldiers occupied the cathedral and turned the cloisters into stables. Some were themselves kept as prisoners there after their defeat at Sedgemoor.
The history of the cathedral in the 18th century began dramatically with the death of Bishop Kidder in the Great Storm in 1703, which also blew out part of the West Window of the nave. It then settled into to a tranquil period. The fabric of the cathedral changed little until the 1740s when seats were built on the north side of the quire for the use of the mayor and aldermen of Wells and galleries erected over the stalls for the use of the wives and families of the canons. Thereafter nothing much altered for the next hundred years.
Following a century of gentle decline and neglect the time was ripe for a vigorous movement of restoration in many churches and cathedrals, including Wells. In the 1840s an ambitious cleaning programme, ‘the great scrape’, was set in motion and Anthony Salvin, an architect of repute, was appointed to oversee the extensive restoration of the Quire. Much work was done on the east end in general, including the Lady Chapel.