Wells Cathedral

Listing Info

Wells Cathedral is a Church of England cathedral in Wells, Somerset, England. It is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who lives at the adjacent Bishop’s Palace.

Built between 1175 and 1490, Wells Cathedral has been described as “the most poetic of the English Cathedrals”. Much of the structure is in the Early English style and is greatly enriched by the deeply sculptural nature of the mouldings and the vitality of the carved capitals in a foliate style known as “stiff leaf”. The eastern end has retained much original glass, which is rare in England. The exterior has a splendid Early English façade and a large central tower.

The first church was established on the site in 705. Construction of the present building began in the 10th century and was largely complete at the time of its dedication in 1239. It has undergone several expansions and renovations since then and has been designated by English Heritage as a grade I listed building, and Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Peter Price is the current Bishop of Bath and Wells having been appointed in 2001; and John Clarke took over as Dean in September 2004 after previously being principal of Ripon Theological College at Cuddesdon, Oxford.

There is archaeological evidence of a late Roman mausoleum on the site, which was identified during excavations in 1980.

The first church was established in Wells in 705 by King Ine of Wessex, at the urging of Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne, in whose diocese it lay.[7] It was dedicated to Saint Andrew. The only remains of this first church are some excavated foundations which can be seen in the cloisters. In 766 Cynewulf, King of Wessex, signed a charter granting endowed eleven hides of land. The baptismal font in the south transept is the oldest surviving part of the cathedral which is dated to c.700 AD.

Two centuries later, the seat of the diocese was shifted to Wells from Sherborne. The first Bishop of Wells was Athelm (circa 909), who crowned King Athelstan. Athelm and his nephew Saint Dunstan both became Archbishops of Canterbury. It was also around this time that Wells Cathedral School was founded.

The present structure was begun under the direction of Bishop Reginald de Bohun, who died in 1184. Wells Cathedral dates primarily from the late 12th century and early 13th century; the nave and transept are examples of the Early English style of architecture. It was largely complete at the time of its dedication in 1239.

The bishop responsible for the construction was Jocelyn of Wells, a brother of Bishop Hugh II of Lincoln, and one of the bishops at the signing of Magna Carta. Jocelyn’s building campaigns also included the Bishop’s Palace, a choristers’ school, a grammar school, hospital for travellers and a chapel. He also built a manor at Wookey, near Wells. The master mason designer associated with Jocelyn was Elias of Dereham. Jocelyn lived to see the church dedicated, but despite much lobbying of Rome, died before cathedral status was granted in 1245. He died on 19 November 1242, at Wells and was buried in the choir of Wells Cathedral. He may have been the father of Nicholas of Wells. The memorial brass on his tomb is supposedly one of the earliest brasses in England. Masons continued with the enrichment of the West Front until about 1260.

King John was excommunicated between 1209 and 1213. During this time, work on the cathedral was suspended. In this period, building technology advanced so that bigger blocks of masonry could be moved and incorporated into the walls. The effect of this technological advance can be seen on the walls of the cathedral; at a particular point in the building’s walls, the blocks of stone can be seen to increase in size.

By the time the building was finished, including the Chapter House (1306), it already seemed too small for the developing liturgy, in particular the increasingly grand processions. A new spate of expansive building was therefore initiated with Bishop John Drokensford starting the proceedings by heightening of the central tower and beginning an eight-sided Lady chapel at the far east end, finished by 1326. Thomas of Whitney was the master mason.

Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury followed, continuing the eastward extension of the quire, and the Retroquire beyond with its forest of pillars. He also built Vicars’ Close and the Vicars’ Hall, to give the men of the choir a secure place to live and dine, away from the town with all its temptations. He enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the citizens of Wells, partly because of his imposition of taxes, and felt the need to surround his palace with crenellated walls and a moat and drawbridge.

The appointment of William Wynford as master mason in 1365 marked another period of activity. He was one of the foremost architects of his time and, apart from Wells, was engaged in work for the king at Windsor and at New College, Oxford and Winchester Cathedral. Under Bishop John Harewell, who raised money for the project, he built the south-west tower of the West Front and designed the north west, which was completed later. Inside the building he filled in the early English lancet windows with delicate tracery.

In the 14th century, the central piers of the crossing were found to be sinking under the weight of the crossing tower, which had been damaged by an earthquake the previous century. “Scissor arches” (inverted strainer arches that are such a striking feature) were inserted to brace and stabilize the piers as a unit, by William Joy the master mason of the time.

By the reign of Henry VII the cathedral building was complete, with an appearance much as today. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1541 the income of the cathedral was reduced; as a result medieval brasses were sold off, and a pulpit was placed in the nave for the first time. Between 1551 and 1568, in two periods as Dean, William Turner established a Herbal garden, which has been recreated between 2003 and 2010.

Elizabeth I gave both the Chapter and the Vicars Choral a new charter in 1591 which created a new governing body, consisting of the dean and eight residentiary canons. This body had control over the estates of the church as well as complete authority over its affairs, but removed its right to elect its own dean.

The stability which the new charter brought came to an end with the onset of the civil war and the execution of Charles I. Local fighting led to damage to the fabric of the cathedral including stonework, furniture and windows. The dean at this time was Dr. Walter Raleigh, a nephew of the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh. He was imprisoned after the fall of Bridgwater to the Parliamentarians in 1645, brought back to Wells and confined in the deanery. His jailer was the local shoe maker and city constable, David Barrett, who caught him writing a letter to his wife. When he refused to surrender it, Mr Barrett ran him through with a sword, from which he died six weeks later, on 10 October 1646 and he was buried in the choir before the dean’s stall. No inscription marks his grave.

During the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell no dean was appointed and the building fell into disrepair. The bishop was in retirement and some clergy were reduced to performing menial tasks.

In 1661 when Charles II was restored to the throne, Robert Creyghtone, who had served as the king’s chaplain in exile, was appointed as the dean and later served as the bishop for two years before his death in 1672. His magnificent brass lectern, given in thanksgiving, can still be seen in the cathedral. He donated the great west window of the nave at a cost of £140.

Following Creyghtone’s appointment as Bishop Ralph Bathurst, who had been president of Trinity College, Oxford,chaplain to the king, fellow of the Royal Society, took over as the dean. During his long tenure restoration of the fabric of the cathedral took place. During the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, puritan soldiers damaged the West front, tore lead from the roof to make bullets, broke the windows, smashed the organ and the furnishings, and for a time stabled their horses in the nave. The work of restoration had to start all over again under Bishop Thomas Ken who was appointed in that year and served until 1691. He was one of seven bishops imprisoned for refusing to sign King James II’s “Declaration of Indulgence”, which would have enabled Catholics to resume positions of political power, but popular support led to his acquittal. He later refused to take the oath of allegiance to William and Mary because James II had not formally abdicated. Thomas Ken and others (known as the Non-Jurors; the older meaning of “juror” is “one who takes an oath”, hence “perjurer” as “one who swears falsely”) refused and were put out of office. He was forced to retire to Frome.

Bishop Kidder who succeeded him was killed during the Great Storm of 1703, when two chimney stacks in the palace fell on the bishop and his wife, asleep in bed. This same storm wrecked the Eddystone lighthouse and blew in part of the great west window in Wells.

In the middle of the 19th century, a major restoration programme was needed. Under Dean Goodenough the monuments were removed to the cloisters and remaining medieval paint and whitewash was removed in an operation known as ‘the great scrape’. Anthony Salvin, took charge of the extensive restoration of the quire. The wooden galleries were removed and new stalls with stone canopies were placed further back within the line of the arches. The stone screen was pushed outwards in the centre to support a new organ. Since then a rolling programme of improvement to the fabric has been continued.

The cathedral is used as a venue for a variety of musical events including an annual concert by the Somerset chamber choir.

The cathedral hosted the funeral of Harry Patch, the last British Army veteran of the First World War, who died in July 2009 at the age of 111.

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