Minster Church of St Andrew

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.

A number of religious buildings were appearing in this part of Wessex in the Anglo-Saxon period, but the minster church of St Andrew would have been one of the most imposing. The first documented reference to it is in a charter of 766 which refers to it as ‘the minster near the Great Spring of Wells’. Archaeological excavation has revealed the deep foundations of a curved or apsidal sanctuary. This apse disappears under the present East Cloister with the result that most of the minster church has not been excavated. It would, however, have fronted directly on to the market place of Wells. The original Saxon chapel had been much enlarged but was still separate from the main church and was known as St Mary’s Chapel. Beyond it to the east lay St Andrew’s well. The line from the well, through the chapel and church to the market place follows the topography of the site and is not a true east-west alignment. It is 12 degrees off the line of the present cathedral.

Wells, with its rich hinterland and flourishing minster church prospered so much that in 909 when the diocese of Sherborne was split, it became the centre of the new diocese for Somerset, known now as the diocese of Bath and Wells. The church had become a cathedral or cathedra, the seat of a bishop. The first two bishops were both translated to Canterbury and almost all of the Anglo-Saxon bishops were monks, who somewhat surprisingly made no attempt to introduce a monastic rule in the cathedral. At the time of the Norman Conquest, Bishop Giso had the support of an archdeacon at Wells, several clergy called canons and a provost who was responsible for the estates which supported them.

While the earliest church on the site was probably wooden, the Anglo-Saxon cathedral was stone-built. There is one contemporary artist’s impression of it, with a tower and great doors, and in front, 2 large barrels symbolising the wells. Bishop Giso built dwellings for his resident priests to the south of the cathedral and a cloister to the north. Seven Saxon bishops were buried at Wells and their bones were moved into new tombs in the present cathedral. In 1088 King William Rufus granted Bath Abbey and its estates to Bishop John of Tours, who promptly moved his seat to Bath and Wells ceased to be a cathedral. In the mid 12th cent. Bishop Robert of Lewes did some major rebuilding work in the former cathedral, re-organised the canons into a properly constituted chapter and built up their number to about thirty, who each had their roles either in the church or the diocese.