The Reformation

By the time Henry VIII came to the throne, the cathedral and all its surrounding buildings were complete and substantially as they are today. As the Reformation got under way, Wells was less affected than those cathedrals which were monastic foundations, but the king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who was lay dean of Wells, ensured that most of the cathedral treasures and the contents of its library were removed to London. It was during the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, that the greatest change took place.

In 1547 an act of parliament abolished chantries, and this severely reduced the cathedral’s income. Chantry altars and chapels were designed for the saying of masses for the souls of the dead, to speed their journey through Purgatory to Heaven. Pious people left money to pay for the masses. When chantries were abolished, all such income was confiscated by the crown. The consequent drop in income forced the Chapter to sell off the furnishings of the chapels, medieval memorial brasses and lead from the roof to make up the loss. Three chantry chapels, those of Bubwith and Sugar in the nave, and Bekyngton’s in the south quire aisle became redundant, though the structures remained, but the mortuary chapel of Bishop Stillington off the East Cloister was demolished stone by stone.

Other changes in the outward appearance of the Cathedral included the whitewashing over of all the paintings of biblical scenes and saints which covered the internal walls, and the erection of a pulpit in the nave. The preaching of sermons was a Protestant custom and nothing symbolises the Reformation changes more in Wells than Bishop Knight’s pulpit, built out from the redundant Sugar chantry. The reversion to Catholic rites during the reign of Queen Mary involved the Chapter in more expense for the purchase of new vestments and psalters. Restoration of religious harmony in the country came under Queen Elizabeth, who granted both the Dean and Chapter and the College of Vicars Choral new charters for their government in 1591 and a period of relative stability followed.