The Cathedral Extended

In the early thirteen hundreds, Wells adopted the Sarum rite for use as the liturgy. It demanded extensive processions and perambulations, censing of altars throughout the building and generally using all spaces. To accommodate this ambitious new practice, a comprehensive building programme was set in motion.

From 1313, a much higher tower was constructed, topped by a wooden spire covered in lead. The piers on the western side of the crossing were not on stable foundations and large cracks appeared in the tower structure. In fear of a total collapse, several attempts at internal strengthening and buttressing were made, until the famous ‘scissor arches’ (1338- 48) were put in place by master mason William Joy as a final solution. At the same time an impressive Lady Chapel had been under construction, completed by 1326. This elongated octagonal design was revolutionary, with a spectacular star shaped vault, showing Christ in Majesty at its centre and the rays of the star stretching to all the corners. The delicate window mullions and traceries were filled with brightly coloured glass, broken during the civil war and possibly by the soldiers of Monmouth’s Rebellion(1685). Four of the windows are now filled with fragments of broken glass, not all originally from the Lady Chapel, and the east window was restored in the middle of the 19th century.

The retroquire with its chapels, built to join the extended quire (c.1330-1340) was essentially in place at the time of the demolition of the original quire’s east wall. This forest of slim pillars holding up the adjoining roof is beautifully viewed from the presbytery of the extended quire. New architectural features were used in the extension and a new liern vault built over the whole quire space to give continuity. Different pillar designs are easy to spot as are window levels. To celebrate the near completion of this ambitious second phase, new furniture, including a full set of misericords was ordered, the bishop’s seat (cathedra) was put in place and the magnificent east window was installed c.1340. This window, wonderful in its dominant colours of green and gold, depicts a Jesse tree and shows the family and ancestors of Christ, Jesse being the father of King David. It is among the finest examples of stained glass of its time in the whole of Europe. Standing in the quire, looking towards the east, through the retroquire to the Lady Chapel beyond, it is almost impossible to imagine all this work, together with the side aisles and chapels, being completed even while the central tower was threatening to collapse.