Click the images on the timeline below to discover more.
Click the images on the timeline below to discover more.
The wells – in Anglo-Saxon, wella – to which Wells owes both its name and its origins, still bubble up in the garden of the Bishop’s Palace. From them, four million gallons of water flow every day and the water makes its way from the Bishop’s Eye down the High Street. The most northerly spring and the largest of the four, now found in the Bishop’s Palace, was held to be a holy well and dedicated to St Andrew.
It is likely that Native British tribes worshipped at the wells, as they often dedicated shrines near rivers, streams and springs to nature spirits. Whether they worshipped here, we do not know, though it seems highly likely and evidence of Stone Age flints shows that they visited the area.
The earliest archaeological evidence for worship on the site is a Romano-British mausoleum, with the stone-lined burial chamber still intact, which was discovered during archaeological excavations in the 1970s and 80s. Although the vault had been robbed of its original contents, postholes and slots in the walls indicate that it had been contained within a larger building. The evidence also suggests that it was Christian. In due course the mausoleum was replaced by a mortuary chapel and there were Christian burials around it.
In about 705 A.D. the Saxon king of Wessex, Ine, founded a church on the site, which lay within a royal estate. Situated on the fringes of the new diocese of Sherborne, it was a minster church – a church that looked beyond the diocese to an area that was not yet served by a network of parishes. A little town grew up around the church, providing services for the craftsmen who built it and the priests who staffed it.
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’. It lay to the south of the present Cathedral, under the Cloisters. As the majority of it lies under the East Cloister, much of the Minster Church has not been excavated. The Cathedral font and the cope chest once stood in the Saxon building.
Wells, with its rich hinterland and flourishing minster church, prospered so much that it became the centre of the new diocese for Somerset in 909, when the diocese of Sherbourne was split.
The church became 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. 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 twelfth century, Bishop Robert of Lewes did some major rebuilding work in the former Cathedral. He also 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.
Construction on the present Cathedral began around 1175, on a new site to the north of the old Minster Church. Unlike the other English Cathedrals of the period, Wells Cathedral was the first to be built in the Gothic style. Bishop Reginald de Bohun had brought the revolutionary architectural style back from a visit to France.
The Early English Gothic style is now only evident in the proportions of the building, its breadth compared to its height, the interior of the Nave, almost unaltered, and the design and execution of the West Front.
The idea of the West Front is attributed to the master mason Adam Lock and his bishop Jocelin. As Lock died in 1229, when only the plinth was in place, his deputy and successor Thomas Norreys created the West Front’s design in all its glory.
In the Middle Ages the stone was painted inside and out, so the West Front would have looked like a gigantic picture book. There are very few traces of paint left, but enough has remained in small crevices to determine the extent of the polychrome.
The sculpted work, which would have been emphasised in bright colours, is still one of the cathedral’s glories. On the West Front, almost three hundred of the original four hundred medieval statues remain today. As well as the individual statues, the central section under the great gable is one of the most celebrate parts of the West Front. It depicts the day of judgement, faithfully drawn from the book of Revelation: Christ on high, flanked by two six-winged seraphim, is supported by apostles, angels and saints, to welcome the seeker, particularly on Palm Sunday, into the New Jerusalem (heaven). See the West Front at sunset and you are indeed transported to the heavenly city.
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 was certainly constructed by 1266, just after the completion of the West Front, but work on the staircase (1265-1280) and then on the Chapter House itself (1286-1306) proceeded slowly.
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. The Chapter House is also home to the earliest stained glass in the Cathedral: the glass in the traceries of the windows above the steps dates from around 1290.
The Chapter House was built as a place for the prebendaries or canons to meet and discuss Cathedral affairs, or to conduct legal proceedings. There are over forty seats around the outer walls which are marked with head stops under the canopies, and humorous and mischievous faces have been carved in all the corners. The vestibule originally had wooden doors to separate the Chapter House from the steps, where, close to the wall, there were seats for witnesses waiting to give testimony.
The early Cloisters were in place before the Chapter House was complete. 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 fifteenth 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 fifteenth century Lady Chapel, built by Bishop Stillington (1466-91) partly to house his own tomb. It was removed during the Reformation using gunpowder.
In the early 1300s, Wells adopted the Sarum rite which required the use of all Cathedral spaces for liturgy. To accommodate this ambitious new practice, a comprehensive building programme was set in motion. The Lady Chapel was completed in 1326. Its elongated octagonal design was revolutionary, with a spectacular star shaped vault that portrayed Christ in Majesty in the centre, with the rays of the star stretching to all the corners. The delicate window mullions and traceries were filled with brightly coloured glass that was unfortunately broken during the English Civil War – possibly by the soldiers of Monmouth’s Rebellion. Four of the windows are now filled with fragments of broken glass and the east window was restored in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The Retroquire was built to join the extended Quire (c.1330-1340) and was essentially in place at the time of the demolition of the original Quire’s east wall. This forest of slim pillars holding up the adjoining roof is beautifully viewed from the presbytery of the extended Quire. New architectural features were used in the extension and a new liern vault was built over the whole Quire space.
To celebrate the near completion of this ambitious second phase, new furniture, including a full set of misericords, was ordered; the bishop’s seat (cathedra) was put in place; and around 1340 the Jesse Window was installed.
Standing in the Quire, looking towards the east, through the Retroquire to the Lady Chapel beyond, it is almost impossible to imagine all this work, together with the side aisles and chapels, being completed even while the central tower was threatening to collapse.
The oldest continuously occupied medieval street in Europe, Vicars’ close is physically connected to Wells Cathedral and is the most complete example of a medieval close in the United Kingdom. It was built over 650 years ago to house the Vicars Choral and is still inhabited by their successors today.
The first building of the new College was the Hall, with its kitchen and bakehouse, where the vicars met and ate their meals. Bishop Ralph decreed that forty-two houses should be built – one for each member of the Vicars Choral. 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. 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 visited 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 that connects Wells Cathedral with the Hall so the vicars could enter without getting their feet wet. Down in the Close itself, the towering chimney shafts were built to extend the original chimneys. Each carry two heraldic shields, one adorned with the arms of Bishop Bekynton, who died in 1465 or the bishopric; the other with the arms of his executors, Hugh Sugar, a vicar, and John Pope and Richard Swann who were canons in turn. In the mid-fifteenth century the vicars were given gardens in front of each house. Their walls and arched gateways changed the appearance of the Close from that of a college quadrangle to the street as it appears today.
In 2013, conservation work was desperately needed.
Wells Cathedral, which was not monastic, was spared the worst results of the Protestant Reformation under the Tudors, although it led to the destruction of monasteries like Glastonbury. The King’s chief minister and lay Dean of Wells, Thomas Cromwell, moved most of the Wells Cathedral’s treasures and the contents of its library to London for safekeeping.
However, it did not escape the Reformation entirely. The internal walls, covered with biblical pictures and images of saints, were whitewashed; a pulpit for the new custom of preaching was built and the chantry chapels, built for saying masses for the dead, became redundant.
In 1547 an act of Parliament abolished chantries, and this severely reduced the Cathedral’s income. Pious people had left money at chantry altars and chapels to pay for the saying of masses for the souls of the dead, to speed their journey through Purgatory to Heaven. 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 became redundant, although the structures remained, but the mortuary chapel of Bishop Stillington was demolished stone by stone.
All the paintings of biblical scenes and saints which covered the internal walls were whitewashed, and a pulpit was constructed in the Nave. Nothing symbolises the Reformation changes more eloquently in Wells than Bishop Knight’s pulpit. It was built out from the redundant Sugar chantry, as preaching sermons was a Protestant custom.
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 finally came under Queen Elizabeth, who granted both the Dean and Chapter and the College of Vicars Choral new charters for their government in 1591.
The stability which Queen Elizabeth’s settlement brought to the church in England came to an abrupt end in the reign of King Charles I. He and his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, formerly Bishop of Bath and Wells, wanted to beautify churches and introduce more elaborate rituals. The Puritan wing of the church saw this as dangerously Romish.
The increasing dominance of Parliament and the Puritans led to damage in Wells Cathedral in 1643, when iconoclasts smashed pictures and crucifixes. A little later, Parliamentary soldiers caused more destruction. They smashed 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 was imprisoned in his own deanery. The following year he was stabbed in a scuffle by his gaoler and died. His body was secretly buried in an unmarked grave in front of his stall in the Quire. It was a dire time for Wells Cathedral. The Bishop was in retirement, many of the clergy reduced to performing menial tasks to support themselves and Wells Cathedral itself was ransacked for anything saleable.
After the Restoration of Charles II, Robert Chreyghton, who had been his Chaplain in exile, was made Dean of Wells and in 1670 he was elevated to the Bishopric. His magnificent brass lectern, given in thanksgiving for the re-opening of Wells Cathedral, is today displayed in the Retroquire. He also donated the great west window of the Nave. After the long closure, both the fabric and the spirit of Wells 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.
1685 was also 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 Wells Cathedral, inevitably causing damage and havoc. After their defeat at the battle of Sedgemoor, many of them were brought back to Wells Cathedral 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.
The eighteenth century began dramatically, with the death of Bishop Kidder in the Great Storm in 1703. A chimney stack crashed through the roof of the palace, crushing the Bishop and his lady in their bed, and the storm also blew out part of the West Window of the Nave.
It then settled into to a tranquil period. The fabric of Wells Cathedral changed little until the 1740s, when Dean Crewicke commissioned seats to be built on the north side of the Quire for the use of the mayor and aldermen of Wells. Galleries were also to be erected over the stalls for the wives and families of the canons. Harewell, the fifth heaviest ringing bell in the world, was re-cast and a small cupola built on top of the central tower to house a new hour-bell.
Thereafter, nothing much altered for the next hundred years.
Following a century of gentle decline and neglect, the time was ripe for restoration in many churches and Cathedrals, including Wells. When Edmund Goodenough became Dean in 1831, he was horrified by the uniform drabness of the Cathedral building. Part whitewashed, part covered with yellow ochre both inside and outside, the details of the carving were difficult to see.
A two-year programme of intensive cleaning was instituted between 1842 and 1844, known as ‘the great scrape’. The cleaning was so vigorous that any surviving medieval polychrome disappeared apart from a few small traces.
From the Quire eastwards, the building was in a sorry state and Anthony Salvin, a well known architect, was engaged to oversee the work of repair and restoration.
The Lady Chapel, which had suffered much damage in the seventeenth century, was tackled with great attention to detail. The east window was restored by Thomas Willement, using as much of the remaining medieval glass as possible. On completion, he offered a medieval style design for the painting of the star vault in 1845. He also laid a new tiled pavement, fabricated by the Minton factory, with some more elaborate blue tiles designed by Pugin, to cover the crumbling floor.
In the Quire, Salvin worked with great delicacy. He inserted white Bath stone into the Bishop’s Seat and added extra stone panels into the medieval pulpitum (stone screen) so the Willis organ would fit on it. Salvin also pulled down the unstable wooden seating galleries and built the present canon’s stalls to fit between the pillars, creating a much-needed extra row of seating. Up above, the complicated lierne vault was cleaned, the plaster fields lime-washed and the bosses painted to reveal the design more fully. To celebrate the conclusion of the work, he painted his initials – A.S. – onto the stone of a link rib above the Bishop’s Seat.