The first building of the new College was the Hall, with its kitchen and bakehouse, where the vicars met and ate their meals. This was in use before the end of 1348, because, in her will dated 7 November 1348, Alice Swansee bequeathed a large brass pot for the use of the Vicars, together with a basin with hanging ewer and a table for the Hall, in memory of her son, Philip, a Vicar who had just died, probably of plague; the Black Death was raging in 1348. The east window, the fireplace and the lectern were added about a hundred years later.
On 30 December 1348, Bishop Ralph made over to the vicars ‘the dwellings newly built and to be erected by us for the use of the vicars, and ‘quarters with appurtenances built and to be built’. The houses were built in two rows running north from the Hall, and were completed by the time of Bishop Ralph’s death in 1363. The quadrangle was finally completed with the building of the Chapel at the north end in the early fifteenth century. The Chapel was dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Katherine, and it is first mentioned in a charter of 1479, but shields on the Chapel door carry the arms of Bishops Bubwith and Stafford, suggesting that the chapel was begun in the episcopate of the former and finished under the latter, giving it a date of c.1424-30. A room over the Chapel served as the Vicars’ Library.
Bishop Ralph made it quite clear in his original deed that each house in the quadrangle was designed to accommodate one vicar. The original houses numbered forty-two (22 on the east side and 20 on the west) and were more or less identical. Each had a ground floor room, measuring 20 feet by13 feet (6 x 4 metres) with large windows, one facing east and the other west, so that shutters could be closed on the windward side in the days before windows were glazed. Here the vicar read and studied. A wide, low arch led to the newel staircase, which opened into the upper room where he slept, and outside the back door into the yard there were washing facilities and a latrine, possibly under the projecting stair wing. There were wells at the top and bottom of the Close.
Despite the fine new buildings, about a century later when Bishop Bekynton held a visitation of the Close in 1459, he found much amiss. The hall and houses were dilapidated and he insisted that the Vicars must keep their houses in good repair.
Bishop Bekynton was also responsible for building the high level passage connecting the cathedral at the top of the Chapter House steps with the hall, which is carried over St Andrew’s Street on the Chain Gate Bridge. This enabled the Vicars to enter the Cathedral from the Hall without getting their feet wet. It would seem that about a decade before, major work had been done on the Hall, when the tower and external steps to the Close were rebuilt with a covered passage and the chambers above (Chequer, muniment room and treasury) took on their present aspect. Down in the Close itself, the towering chimney shafts, which are such a delightful feature of the Close, were built to extend the original chimneys (possibly because the Vicars were beginning to burn coal instead of wood and taller chimneys were needed to carry away the more pungent smoke) and each carry two heraldic shields, one adorned with the arms of Bishop Bekynton, who died in 1465, or that of the bishopric alternately, the other with the arms of his executors, Hugh Sugar, a vicar, and John Pope and Richard Swann who were canons in turn. In about the mid-fifteenth century the Vicars also asked for, and were given, gardens nineteen or so feet long at the front of each house; each was walled, with an arched gateway, and it was this that changed the appearance of the Close from that of a college quadrangle to the street as it appears today.
The medieval windows of the houses and the garden archways seem to have survived more or less intact until the early nineteenth century, and even now a few still exist, but for the most part, sash windows then replaced the old ones and the archways went at the same period. No. 22 is the house which remains closest to the original medieval appearance of them all, having been restored to its original proportions in 1863.
As well as the Chain Gate, Bishop Bekyngton was also responsible for the three other medieval gateways in Wells: that from the market place into the Bishop’s Palace, known as the Bishop’s Eye, that from Sadler Street on to Cathedral Green, known as the Dean’s Eye, and that from the market place on to Cathedral Green, known as Penniless Porch. He also provided a water supply for the town pumped underground from the springs in his palace garden to a conduit in the market place.
Vicars’ Close Heritage Programme
A recent inspection revealed the pressing need for an extensive programme of conservation works involving every single property in Vicars’ Close. As a result, the Chapter of Wells Cathedral have agreed to embark upon a major programme which presents an unprecedented opportunity to secure the integrity of and access to a unique heritage asset for future generations.
It is anticipated that this programme may take up to a decade to complete and cost in the region of £9million. As well as the extensive conservation works to the fabric of the buildings the programme will also involve a wide range of activities that will focus on three main themes. More details about this ambitious programme can be found here.