Destruction and Disaster

The Elizabethan settlement of the Church of England was designed to accommodate a wide variety of views, and was largely successful in doing so. This stability was threatened by the desire of Charles I and his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, formally Bishop of Bath and Wells, to beautify churches and introduce more elaborate rituals, which the Puritan wing of the church regarded as dangerously Romish. The increasing dominance of Parliament and the Puritans led to damage in the cathedral in 1643, when iconoclasts smashed pictures and crucifixes.

A little later, parliamentary soldiers caused more destruction, smashing stained glass, the organ and seats in the quire (all recorded by a witness on the title page of a book in the library). In 1645 the Commonwealth Parliament abolished bishoprics, closed cathedrals and dissolved chapters. At Wells, Dean Walter Raleigh, a nephew of Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, Sir Walter, was imprisoned in his own deanery. The following year he was stabbed in a scuffle over a letter to his wife by his gaoler and died a lingering death. His body was secretly buried in an unmarked grave in front of his stall in the quire. The bishop was in retirement, many of the clergy reduced to performing menial tasks to support themselves and the cathedral was ransacked for anything saleable.

On the Restoration of Charles II, Robert Chreyghton, who had been his chaplain in exile, was made Dean of Wells and in 1670 elevated to the bishopric. His magnificent brass lectern, given in thanksgiving for the re-opening of the cathedral, can be seen in the Retroquire. He also donated the great west window of the nave. After the long closure both the fabric and the spirit of the cathedral were in urgent need of repair. Dean Ralph Bathurst succeeded Chreyghton as Dean. He was President of Trinity College, Oxford, a chaplain to the king, a Fellow of the Royal Society and one of the foremost scientists of his day. He served four bishops during his tenure as dean, the most important being the saintly Thomas Ken, appointed in 1685.

This was the year of a rebellion in support of the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s illegitimate son, against the Roman Catholic James II. A large group of the rebel army quartered itself in the cathedral, inevitably causing damage and havoc. After their defeat at the battle of Sedgemoor, many of them were brought back here and imprisoned in the cloisters before their trials led to execution or transportation. Bishop Ken did his best for them and accompanied Monmouth to the scaffold. He was himself imprisoned for a time in the Tower of London for refusing, with six others, to accept the repeal of the Act of Uniformity. He was later deprived of his bishopric for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to King William and Queen Mary because he had sworn the same oath to James II, who, though in exile, had not formally abdicated.