The Wells

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 springs – in Anglo-Saxon, wella -, to which Wells owes both its name and its origins, bubble up continuously at a point which is now in the garden of the Bishop’s Palace. The most northerly spring was held to be a holy well and was dedicated to St Andrew. The springs are a result of the geology of the surrounding area. When it rains, water runs off the Mendip Hills and disappears into a system of underground channels and rivers. When it reaches Wells the water hits a layer of mudstone and is forced up through clefts in the rock to form what are known as the springs. On average 4 million gallons of water flow from the springs every day.

Native British tribes worshipped nature spirits, dedicating shrines near rivers, streams and springs. Whether they worshipped here, we do not know, though it seems highly likely and evidence of Stone Age flints shows that they visited the area. The sheltered location of the springs, with easy access to the summer grazing grounds of the Somerset Levels, meant that the area was very favourable for agriculture. In addition, the Mendips provided minerals, particularly lead, which were exploited by the Romans, and settlement, perhaps a villa, was established close to the springs.

The earliest archaeological evidence for worship on the site is a Romano-British mausoleum, with the stone-lined burial chamber still intact, discovered during archaeological excavations in the 1970s and 80s. Although the vault had been robbed of its original contents, postholes and slots in the walls indicate that it had been contained within a larger building. The evidence also suggests that it was Christian. In due course the mausoleum was replaced by a mortuary chapel and there were Christian burials around it.

In about 705 A.D. the Saxon king of Wessex, Ine, founded a church on the site, which lay within a royal estate. Situated on the fringes of the new diocese of Sherborne, it was a minster church, that is, it looked beyond the diocese to an area that was not yet served by a network of parishes. A little town grew up around the church, providing services for the craftsmen who built it and the priests who staffed it.