"Four miles from Glastonbury lies the little city of Wells, where is one of the neatest, and, in some respects, the most beautiful, cathedrals in England, particularly the west front of it, is one complete draught of imagery, very fine, and yet very ancient. This is a neat, clean city, and the clergy, in particular, live very handsomely. Here are no less than seven-and-twenty prebends, and nineteen canons, belonging to this church, beside a dean, a chancellor, a precentor, and three arch deacons; a number which very few cathedrals in England have, beside this. The city lies just at the foot of the mountains called Mendip Hills, and is itself built on a stony foundation. Its manufacture is chiefly of stockings, as is mentioned already; 'tis well built, and populous, and has several good families in it; so that there is no want of good company there." Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-6).
Around 700 AD, the West Somerset Saxon King, Ine, on the advice of Bishop Sherborne, built the first church at Wells in honour of St. Andrew. The Wells area was rich in resources and so would certainly have been inhabited for some time. Wells and Somerset got their first bishop, Athelm two centuries later and Wells was raised to the status of cathedral church.
It was on the arrival of the Norman Bishop, John De Vilula, that the seat was moved to Bath. He assumed the title of Bishop of Bath and Wells fell into decay. Robert of Lewes, his successor, repaired damaged buildings in Wells, gave the clergy an efficient administration and granted a charter which marked the start of the city's independence. Wells was later granted three further charters. It now had the right to hold weekly markets and four fairs a year.
Bishop Reginald de Bolun pulled down the old cathedral and began building the current one around 1180. He was only responsible for the transepts, parts of the choir and nave and the north porch. His successors completed the project, which took 250 years.
The stone used to build the cathedral was brought from Doulting, a village east of Wells. Doulting regularly provides any stone needed for repairs as the limestone is quite soft. The magnificent West Front contains about 400 carved figures, some larger than life size, some smaller. The Virgin and Child sit over the central door.
Higher up, Old and New Testament scenes are depicted such as the Creation, Adam and Eve and the Last Supper. Further up come two rows of "The Elect", life size statues of saints, bishops, kings, ladies and hermits. Higher still, scenes from the Resurrection are depicted. At the summit is a new statue of the Risen Christ.
This was unveiled in 1986 during a service on the green in the presence of the Prince of Wales. Originally the Cathedral statues were painted beautiful, vivid colours and gold. It must have been sight to see. It was certainly intended that Wells was the finest cathedral for miles around.
The north transept contains a most unusual clock. Hourly, a figure of a bearded man in red (Jack Blandiver) sitting above and to the right of the clock, rings the clock's bells with hands hammering and feet kicking. A mini castle is immediately over the dial. Four mounted knights come out. Two move to the left, the other two to the right. They revolve and at each revolution one knight is knocked backwards on his horse. This happens several times before the tournament is over for another quarter of an hour.
The Bishop's Palace has an unusual attraction too; the swans of its moat. They were and still are trained to ring a bell hanging from the gatehouse at feeding time. Food would be and still is, thrown to them. Once the home of the Vicars Choral, the Vicars' Close is said to be the oldest planned street in Europe. The behavior of the said vicars was often scandalous with womanising, fighting and stealing. Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury formed the vicars into a college and built the Vicars' Close to house them, keeping temptation well away. At the bottom of the close is a stairway which took the vicars directly to their hall giving them further protection. It is linked to the cathedral by a covered bridge.
Across St. Andrew's Street from the cathedral is the Wells Museum. It began in a small room above the cathedral's west cloister before moving to its present home in 1932. It displays the past and present life of the City of Wells and the Mendip area.
Nearby, the Liberty, once named the Liberty of Saint Andrew as it and its surroundings once formed a separate jurisdiction. The area eventually became the exclusive property of the dean and chapter. It is now part of the Cathedral school.
Wells holds twice weekly markets in the market place (Saturday's and Wednesdays). You can buy a wide range of goods from clothes and jewellery to organic vegetables, plants and olives. In the market place in 1695, the quaker, William Penn the founder of Pennsylvania, preached to a huge crowd. He was arrested for unlawful assembly, only to return some weeks later to continue his crusade.
The cathedral covers the whole diocese whereas the parish church for the city is St Cuthbert's, named after an Anglo-Saxon saint. The church is the place of worship for the mayor and corporation and has been so since the middle ages. During Monmouth's Rebellion Wells was the headquarters for the Somerset militia, with St Cuthberts being used to house them as well as their gunpowder barrels. St Cuthbert's is the largest parish church in Somerset and the site has been used since Saxon times when the first church was built. The church was rebuilt by the Normans with the present building, the third to stand on the site, dating from the fifteenth century.
Pictures by Will Glenn
For some more photos: www.tonyhowell.co.uk/new/wells.htm
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