Explore Wells Cathedral
The first Gothic Cathedral to be built in England, Wells Cathedral is famed for its unique architecture. From its iconic West Front, featuring 300 medieval carvings, to the ingenious fourteenth century Scissor Arches, the Cathedral never fails to inspire. Explore Wells Cathedral using the interactive map below.
Explore Wells Cathedral
Completed in the mid-thirteenth century, the West Front has one of the most impressive collections of medieval sculpture in the western world. Hewn from local limestone from the Doulting quarry, around 300 of the original 400 medieval statues remain.
They appear quite differently today to how they looked in the Middle Ages, when much of the Cathedral was painted inside and out in bright colours. See if you can spot the two six-winged Seraphim who flank Jesus in the Judgement Day centrepiece at the top of the West Front. Sculpted by master mason Thomas Norreys, the scene is drawn from the Book of Revelation: Christ and the seraphim are on high, supported by apostles, angels and saints who are ready to welcome the seeker into heaven, or the New Jerusalem.
Stand under the Scissor Arches, the ingenious engineering solution architected by master mason William Joy in the fourteenth century.
Joy came up with the Scissor Arches to prevent a tower collapse. In 1313, a high tower topped with a lead-covered wooden spire was added to the Cathedral – but the foundations were not stable and large cracks appeared in the tower’s structure.
After several attempts to strengthen the tower internally by building buttresses, Joy proposed the Scissor Arches. Put in place between 1338 and 1348, they still stand today and are one of the most magnificent architectural features of Wells Cathedral.
The Wells Cathedral Clock is one of Europe’s most impressive medieval astronomical clocks and the clock face is the oldest surviving original of its kind. The clock mechanism, currently housed in London’s Science Museum, is the second oldest in the world.
With its intricately painted interior dial depicting the Earth surrounded by the sun, moon and stars, it’s unique in showing a geocentric worldview – when the clock was created in 1390, most people still believed that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe.
The clock predicts the movement of the planets. You can watch the sun’s progress and see which phase the moon is in by looking at the central dial.
The exterior clock is driven by the same mechanism. When the clock strikes every quarter, jousting knights rush around above the clock and the Quarter Jack bangs the quarter hours with his heels.
Famed for its octagonal construction and vaulted ceiling, the Chapter House is the only one of its kind built as the first storey on top of an undercroft.
Built from 1286 to 1306, the Chapter House is a triumph of the decorated style. Delicate ball-flower surrounds each window arch and the vault bosses have intricate leaf designs.
The Chapter House was built as a place for the prebendaries or canons to meet and discuss the affairs of the Cathedral or conduct legal proceedings. More than forty seats line the outer walls and there are seats for witnesses waiting to give testimony by the steps.
If you look at the windows above the steps, you’ll see the earliest stained glass in Wells Cathedral, dating from around 1290.
The undercroft is the ‘strong room’ of Wells Cathedral. Built at the start of the thirteenth century and completed in 1266, it served both as a crypt and a treasury. With rugged supporting pillars, the octagonal Chapter House was built on top of the undercroft – the only one in the world to be built in this way.
The construction of the undercroft itself was divided into two phases. The first, starting in the early 1200s, saw the layout of the building defined, while the walls and vault were completed later in the century. This construction halt is thought to be due to a need to finalise the West Front and a shortage of manpower.
The Quire is the heart of Wells Cathedral. Used in Medieval times for regular offices, when the Vicars Choral and ‘quirister’ choir boys would sing and pray for all of the people of the diocese, Evensong still takes place here today.
Built in the late twelfth century and extended two centuries later in the 1300s, the Quire is famous for its Jesse Window – the finest example of fourteenth century stained glass. Its embroideries, created between 1937 and 1952 were first suggested as stall coverings by Sir Charles Nicholson. The intricate stall banners are now famous and the cushions cover themes from myths and legends, to royalty from a by-gone age and illuminated manuscripts.
The Jesse Window at Wells Cathedral is one of the most splendid examples of fourteenth-century stained glass in Europe. Wonderful in its dominant colours of green and gold, it depicts a Jesse tree and shows the family and ancestors of Christ, Jesse being the father of King David.
Dating from about 1340, it is still remarkably intact – it narrowly escaped destruction during the English Civil War and was protected during the Blitz of World War Two – so what we see today is much as the medieval glaziers designed it and as our ancestors viewed it before us.
Wells Cathedral embarked on a major project to conserve the Jesse Window in 2011. Go to our conservation stories to discover more.
Thomas Bekynton was the Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1443 to 1465. A local Somerset man, he was born in Beckington, a village close to Frome, in 1407. As well as tutoring the boy-king Henry VI, Bekynton was a well-established builder. He worked on the building of Eton College, King’s College in Cambridge and Lincoln College in Oxford. In Wells, he constructed the four gateways to the Cathedral, including the Bishop’s Eye, as well as other buildings.
His tomb can be found within the Chantry Chapel and is surrounding by iron railings, supposedly to warn off the Devil. The tomb is a ‘Transi’ or a ‘Memento Mori’ tomb. On the top level, the alabaster carving shows Bekynton lying down and dressed in robes, while underneath is a representation of his cadaver in the throes of death.
Stillington’s Chapel, otherwise known as the Lady Chapel, was completed in 15th century at the behest of Bishop Robert Stillington. Of the 25 years of his episcopate, he was absent for all but three and a half weeks. When he did visit, he ordered that a new Lady Chapel should be built as his memorial, replacing the old Lady-Chapel-by-the-Cloister.
In 1552, Sir John Gate was granted the right to remove the timber and lead from the roof to sell as the Cathedral was a dire financial situation following the abolishment of Chantries. Over the course of the century, the building was removed almost to the last stone.
Dedicated to Justice and Peace, St Katherine’s Chapel was built by Thomas of Whitney in the fourteenth century. On the tomb of Dean John Gunthorpe, who built a wing of the Deanery, is the 2011 sculpture ‘A Second Home’, an agonised face sculpted in Sicilian marble sits behind metal bars and was created by Simon Burns-Cox. Looking at the west window, you will see a variety of birds and flowers including a spoonbill bending over a chest of coins, a peacock and a bird with a covered cup. At the chapel, a prisoner of conscience is named each month to represent all victims of injustice in prayer and an Amnesty candle burns by the south wall.
The largest of the four springs in the city, St Andrew’s Well can still be found today in the Bishop’s Palace garden.
People have been fascinated with the springs for centuries. Historians have found Stone Age flints and Roman pottery near the wells and believe that they were what originally drew settlers to the area thousands of years ago. Archaeologists have also found evidence that they have been used as sites of worship throughout history.
The remains of a Romano-British burial chamber were found near the wells and a minster church was founded here in 705 AD. Around this time, the most northerly spring was held to be a holy well and was dedicated to St Andrew.
Visit the Bishop’s Palace, neighbouring Wells Cathedral, and see these natural springs and St Andrew’s Well for yourself.
We house our extensive collection of early modern printed books and medieval manuscripts in the Chained Library and the Reading Room. One of only four of its kind in the United Kingdom, the Chained Library was built in the mid-fifteenth century over the East Cloister and currently holds over 4,000 volumes. All printed before 1800, they cover theology, to history, to languages and exploration. As well as our printed collection, we also house medieval manuscripts that were saved during the Reformation in the Chained Library.
We keep our post-1800 books and journals in the Reading Room which we opened in 2002. You are welcome to look through our modern translations or commentaries on theology, history, biography and archaeology.
Much work has been done in recent years to restore the Cloisters to their original tranquillity. The early Cloisters were in place before the Chapter House was complete in the thirteenth century, but very little beyond the lowest section of the outer walls remains.
All three Cloisters were remodelled in the fifteenth century, when the Chained Library was built above the East Cloister and Bishop Bekynton wanted to build a grammar school above the West Cloister.
The Cloisters have only recently been restored and the monuments that were hidden are now displayed on the outer walls. Peak through the opening in the East Cloister Wall to the Camery garden and glimpse the foundations of the Lady Chapel, destroyed during the Reformation by gunpowder.
Everyone is welcome at Wells Cathedral and making the Cathedral accessible for all is one of our top priorities. Our new entrance cloister, opened in 2009 and built from oak and glass, is wheelchair accessible.
From the entrance cloister, you can see the new Mary Mitchell garden. The water garden, a tranquil space of slate and water, is dedicated as a memorial to the wife of former Dean, Patrick Mitchell.
The entry point for pilgrims in the Medieval times is still accessible today. The porch to the old cloister was unblocked during our recent development of the area so visitors can again use it as the access point to the Cathedral.
Try some of our freshly prepared produce in our Wells Cathedral cafe, or pop into our Wells Cathedral shop and peruse our selection of gifts.
The café and shop entrance is next to Penniless Porch, a historic square between Wells Cathedral and the market square where people traditionally begged for alms. The porch was built by Dean Thomas Bekynton in the mid 15th century and is one of four gateways to the Cathedral. Musicians can normally be found playing flutes or strings in the porch today.
Vicars’ Close, adjoining Wells Cathedral, is believed to be the most complete example of a medieval Close in the UK. It was built to provide communal accommodation for the Vicars Choral, who sang daily worship within the Cathedral. This centuries-old tradition continues today and is a unique and much valued part of life at Wells Cathedral.
Originally 42 houses were built (one per vicar) in the fourteenth century, but some were combined following the Reformation and today there are 27 residences on the Close.
The current occupants still include all twelve men of the Vicars Choral, plus the organists and virgers. Vicars Choral have remained at the heart of life at Wells Cathedral since the 1100s and are now recognised as a world-class choir.