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South West Wells and its Cathedral, Somerset

Wells is the smallest Cathedral city in England and is very much a regional centre with its twice weekly market and good range of small specialist shops.


It is a delightful small town to wander round with cathedral, ruined bishop’s palace, old gateways, cobbled streets and medieval architecture. It has managed to avoid the tourist crowds of places like nearby Cheddar or Bath.




Its name comes from the wells that can be found around the Bishop’s Palace. The area has been inhabited since Roman times and was an important Anglo-Saxon settlement with a minster, and became a bishopric in the C10th. King Æthelstan was crowned here. A choir of boys was formed to sing the liturgy and the Wells Cathedral Choir School dates from then. The original school was housed above the cathedral cloisters before moving into the Chancellor’s House on the Cathedral Green, adjacent to the museum.


The present building is on The Liberty and is a thriving school, educating both boys and girls up to the age of 18.

The bishopric moved to Bath after the Norman Conquest, and the Saxon building became a college of secular clergy. The present cathedral building dates from the end of the C12th when the seat of the bishop moved between Wells and the abbeys of Glastonbury and Bath, before settling at Wells.


The Bishop’s Palace was built next to the Cathedral in the C14th.It is reached through The Bishop’s Eye gatehouse off the market place, still with its heavy wood doors that could be shut at night.



As well as the residence of church officials, it also doubled as the town’s citadel in case of attack, being built with defensive towers, crenelated walls and a water-filled moat. The swans have been trained to ring the gatehouse bell for food.



There is free access into the grounds, cafe and shop, but a charge to enter the palace with its ruined great hall and private chapel.


To the south west of the Bishop’s Palace is the Bishop’s Barn, a C15th tithe barn which is n ow used for community events.

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The Palace Green and the Cathedral are entered through Penniless Porch from the Market Place. This complements the Bishop’s Eye and was also built by Bishop Thomas Beckyngton, and has his badge above the gateway. Beggars used to ask for alms here, hence the name.



Palace Green is the large open area in front of the cathedral.


Vicar’s Close is believed to be the only complete medieval street left in England and a rare example of a planned Medieval street. It was built by Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury, who founded a college for the Vicars Choral in 1348.


They deputised for the Canons of the Cathedral in singing daily worship. Bishop Ralph wanted to house the vicars to protect the young clerks, keep them away from women and provide them with communal facilities including a dining hall. Forty two houses were built in two rows running from a communal dining hall with hall with kitchen and bakehouse.


A chapel, dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Katherine, was added at the far end of the close in the C15th.


Each house was designed to accommodate one vicar. There was a ground floor room with large windows where the vicar could read and study. An arch led to stairs to the upper room where he slept. Washing facilities and a latrine were provided outside back door into the yard.

Bishop Beckyngton responsible for the high level covered passageway, the Chain Gate Bridge, that connects Hall and Cathedral so vicars could enter without getting their feet wet.



Some houses were combined following the Reformation when vicars were allowed to marry. Today, the Close comprises 27 residences, a chapel, library, treasury and muniment room. The occupants still include the twelve members of the Vicars Choral (now 12 members), plus the organists and vergers.

St Cuthbert’s Church dates from the C13th and is the fifth building on the site. The tower was rebuilt in the C15th after the clerestory was added With its tall square tower, it is the largest parish church in Somerset.


The inside of the church is fairly plain apart from its brightly painted roof, complete with angels. The wooden pulpit is C17th and the stone reredos behind the altar is mid C19th. The font is probably C19th too.



The main reason to visit are for the two medieval reredoses in the transepts. These were discovered in 1848 when crumbling plaster was removed from walls. Around 450 pieces of broken sculpture were found, which had been dismantled and hidden in the walls of the church during the reformation. Some still had the remains of paint on them.

The remains of a C13th reredos has been reassembled in St Catherine’s Chapel in the north transept .


The reredos in the Lady Chapel in the south Transept is late C15th and based on the Tree of Jesse.



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Wells Cathedral


The three towers of Wells Cathedral dominate the town. Dating from the late C12th it is a wonderful example of Gothic architecture at its best.

In about 705AD, Ine, the Saxon King of Wessex founded a church in Wells, which he dedicated to St Andrew. The first church was wood, but was later replaced by a stone building. The font in the south transept is all that remains of the Saxon Church, and possibly the cope chest.



The Saxon minster was elevated to the status of a cathedral in 909AD and King Æthelstan was crowned here. A choir of boys was established to sing the liturgy and the Wells Cathedral Choir School dates from then.

After the Norman Conquest, the bishopric was moved from Wells to Bath in 1090 and Wells became a college of secular clergy.

In 1175, Bishop Reginald de Bohan began building a new and larger church in Wells, just north of the Saxon one. Work began with the quire and and progressed west wards. The building was consecrated in 1239, when the nave, north porch, quire, transepts and west front completed. It is the first church in England to be built entirely in the Gothic Style of Architecture and is little changed in appearance since it was built.

The building was so splendid, Bishop Jocelin petitioned the Pope to make Wells once again the seat of the Bishop. By 1245, Wells again became the Cathedral with the Bishop having the title of Bishop of Bath and Wells.

The cloisters and octagonal chapter House were added by the end of the C14th after Wells regained Cathedral status.


Some of the earliest stained glass in the cathedral dates from about 1290.

Building continued during the early C14th when the central tower was heightened. A retroquire and Lady Chapel were added at the east end, giving more space for the increasingly grand processions of clergy. (The nave was just used for processions and not used for services until the C19th.) Misericords were added to the quire stalls, along with a new bishops’ chair and the Jesse window at the east end.


The central tower with its lead covered wooden spire, soon began to cause problems when it became apparent the weight was too great for crossing arches and the tower had begun to crack and lean. The solution was the three Scissor arches with their large circular holes, on either side of crossing. They are a very effective and remarkably modern looking solution to the problem, and unique to Wells Cathedral.

scissor arch.jpg

Scissor arch 2.jpg

The cloisters were extensively remodelled in the C15th when Bishop Bubwith left money in his will to build an impressive library above the east cloister, which had to be widened and strengthened to take the weight.

Bishop Bekynton built a grammar school above the west cloister. He was also responsible for the Bishop’s Eye, Penniless Porch and the Chain Gate, covered walkway between Vicar’s Close and the Cathedral.


Wells Cathedral was spared the worst damage of the Reformation as wasn’t a monastic settlement. Many of its contents and the library were moved to London for safekeeping. Internal walls and saints were covered with whitewash. The chantry chapels became redundant. The Cathedral’s income was severely reduced and the chapter was forced to sell off furnishings, memorial brasses and lead from the roof to try and recoup money.

During the English Civil War, Parliament abolished bishoprics, closed cathedrals and dissolved chapters. The Dean was imprisoned in his deanery and was later stabbed in a scuffle and died. The cathedral was ransacked for anything that could be sold. Iconoclasts destroyed stained windows, the organ, quire stalls, statues and crucifixes. The Jesse window only survived as it was too high for the stone-throwing mob to reach.

After the Restoration of the Monarchy, Robert Chreyghton who had been Charles II’s chaplain in exile was made Dean of Wells and elevated to the Bishopric. His magnificent brass lectern in the retroquire was given in thanksgiving for reopening the cathedral. He also donated the great west window

During the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, a squadron of rebel cavalry used the cathedral as a stable causing damage and havoc. After their defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor, many were imprisoned in the cloisters before being tried

In 1703 a gale blew out the west windows as well as killing the Bishop and his wife when a chimney stack crashed through the roof of the Bishop’s Palace.

In 1740s galleries were built for the wives and families of the canons and seats on the north side of the quire for the major and aldermen of Wells.

In the 1840’s, much of the cathedral was cleaned, removing all traces of wall paintings. Anthony Salvin was engaged to oversee repair and restoration. The east window in the Lady Chapel was restored using as much of the medieval glass as possible. The vault was repainted and new Minton tiles laid on the floor. In the quire, extra panels were built into the stone pulpitum to take the weight of the organ.




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Wells Cathedral cont...

The west front is breathtaking with over 400 carvings, many of them the originals. Above the main door is the Virgin Mary. Above are scenes from the Old and New Testaments.with statues of bishops, saints, kings and queens. Along the top are the twelve apostles with Christ in Majesty flanked by two six winged seraphim, above them all.



Entry is into the Cloisters, with their lovely vaulted ceilings and walls lined with monuments moved from the cathedral. The cathedral is remarkable for the number of Bishops that have been buried in it and their tombs.


In the south west corner is the Bishop’s door, which was traditionally used by the Bishop coming from the Bishop’s palace.


A door leads into the Cathedral.

Plan .jpg

Even on a dull day, the interior is stunning with the tall arcades of Gothic arches, vaulted and painted ceiling and the scissor arches, with the rood above them. Sunlight floods in through the clear glass clerestory windows.




On the walls of the side aisles are lovely icons with the stations of the cross. These were made by a Bulgarian icon painter as part of a Millennium project.



In the north side of the nave is the chantry chapel of Bishop Bekynton, surrounded by iron railings that were supposed to warn off the devil. His double decker tomb is what is described as a ‘Memento Mori ‘tomb with carved alabaster image of Bekynton in his Bishop’s robes on top with his cadaver below.



Opposite is the Chapel of St Edmund Rich and the Chantry Chapel of Hugh Sugar. Hugh was Treasurer of wells Cathedral as well as Vicar General for several bishops.


Beyond the stone pulpit is the chantry chapel of Bishop Nicholas Bubwith



The south transept again has a painted vaulted ceiling.


The cope chest and Saxon font with its C17th carved wood cover, are here.



In the right corner is the small door that led up to the library. In the other corner is the remains of a C15th tomb.





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Wells Cathedral cont...

On the east wall of the south transept are two chapels. The Chapel of St Calixtus is reserved for private prayer.


Next to it is the Chapel of St Martin which is the memorial chapel to to those who fell in 14-18 war.



On the wall is the tomb of another bishop.


The north transept also has two splendid tombs of C17th bishops on the north east corner.


On the west wall is the C14th astronomical clock. Beneath it is a wooden carving of Christ Crucified. The outer circle is a twenty four hour clock with 12 noon at the top and a large sun pointer marks the hour. The second circle marks the minutes for each hour. The inner circle marks the number of days since the new moon. Each quarter hour, pair of jousting knights emerge above the clock face.



The same mechanism that drives the astronomical clock in the north transept, also drives a clock on the exterior wall north wall which was built 70 years later. Armoured knights strike the quarters.


The nave is separated from the quire by a massive stone pulpitum with the organ above. The choir stalls with their stone canopies and Bishop’s Throne are C19th. The brightly coloured embroideries are mid C20th and cover themes from myths and legends to royalty and illustrated manuscripts.



There is a wonderful vaulted ceiling.


Beyond is the small presbytery with the high alter set beneath a carved screen with statues, and the Jesse window above. This still contains it’s medieval stained glass as it was too high to be destroyed by the iconoclasts.



On either side of the quire are the quire aisles, which were used as processional aisles.



Along the walls are the tombs and effigies of C13th and C14th Bishops who were reinterred here from the old cathedral.





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