Chapter House and Cloisters

The Wells Chapter House is the only octagonal chapter house to be built as a first storey on top of an undercroft, which was the ‘strong room’ of the cathedral. A crypt would not have been practical because of underground water. The undercroft itself, with its rugged supporting pillars, was certainly constructed by 1266, just after the completion of the West Front but work, first on the staircase (1265-1280) and then on the Chapter House itself(1286-1306), proceeded slowly.

The famous Chapter House steps

Intricate sculpture had developed considerably since the early Gothic period and the Chapter House is a triumph of the decorated style. Delicate ball-flower surrounds each window arch and the vault bosses have beautiful leaf designs. Seats round the outer walls give places to more than forty prebendaries or canons, to meet together and discuss the affairs of the cathedral. Legal proceedings were also carried out from time to time. Each seat is marked with headstops under the canopies and in all the corners there are humorous and mischievous faces. The vestibule originally had wooden doors to separate the Chapter House from the steps, where, close to the wall, were seats for witnesses waiting to give testimony. The earliest stained glass in the cathedral can be found in the traceries of the windows above the steps, dating from around 1290.

The early cloisters were in place before the Chapter House was complete but very little, apart from the lowest section of the outer walls remains, particularly in the east and west cloisters. All three were substantially remodelled in the 15th century. Bishop Bubwith (1407-24) left money in his will to build an impressive library above the east cloister, which was widened and strengthened to take the extra storey. This medieval library is thought to be the longest in England. Bishop Bekynton (1443-65) began the alterations in the west cloister with the intention of building a grammar school above it. Although it was not completed until c1480, the fine vaulting contains both Bekynton’s initials and coat of arms. The cloisters have only recently been cleared and restored to their original tranquillity. On the outer walls are many monuments of previous centuries, mainly moved out of the cathedral at the time of Dean Goodenough (1831-45). A glimpse through the opening in the east cloister wall to the Camery garden shows the foundations of a large, late 15th century Lady Chapel, built by Bishop Stillington(1466-91) partly to house his own tomb. It was removed during the Reformation using gunpowder.