Cathedral City, Somerset



Wells stands on the Somerset Levels below the Mendip Hills, from which underground streams flow to emerge as the three springs, which give the city its name. Often considered the smallest city in England, Wells is actually second to that of the City of London. Its name is derived from the three water sources which are to be found at its centre, around which a small Roman settlement known as Fontanetum (fountain) was founded.


The village grew during Anglo Saxon times and an abbey church dedicated to St Andrew was founded there in 704 by King Ine of Wessex, and was granted to his abbey at Glastonbury. In 909 the diocese was moved from Sherborne to Wells and Athelm was made the first bishop. Both he and his nephew Dunstan were to become Archbishops of Canterbury.


Before the Somerset Levels were drained, during the Saxon times, Wells traded through the inland port of Bleadney on the River Axe only three miles to the west. In the 8th century the town was recorded as Welle, it was granted the bishopric, but after the Norman Conquest it came into conflict with the monks at Bath who vied for the wealth available. The bishopric moved between Bath, Glastonbury, and Wells, but the large cathedral and bishop’s palace started in 1175 swayed the matter which was resolved later, in 1245, when the dioceses were united, and Wells was made the principal seat of the diocese.


Wells Cathedral is unusual in that it is completely built in Gothic style due to it being started after the 11th century Romanesque style had gone out of fashion. Wells, had become a trading centre for cloth manufacture, and was given a charter to hold markets during the 12th century, and declared a free borough by King John in 1201, but the town was not released from control of the church until the reign of Elizabeth I. Jocelin of Wells, an advisor of King John, moved the bishopric back to Bath Abbey but continued building at Wells. He was responsible for starting the west front and the Bishop’s Palace, along with a school and hospital, and also built himself a house at nearby Wookey. Despite all his work he died before Wells was granted cathedral status in 1245, or its completion.


The cathedral church and chapter house were finished in 1306, Bishop Droxford commenced building the octagonal Lady Chapel, and heightening the central tower. This was followed by an extension to the nave, the building of crenulated walls and drawbridge surrounding the Bishop’s Palace, and housing for choir members in Vicars’ Close, adjacent to the cathedral. The distinctive west front with its mass of medieval statutory and the first, western, tower, was financed with money raised by Bishop Harewell.


The lawn in the front of the west door is known as Cathedral Green, which has three gates accessing onto it. These are the Chain Gate, Brown's Gatehouse, and Penniless Porch which stands in the corner of the Market Square alongside the Bishop's Eye. The Bishop's Palace stands to the south, surrounded by a wall and moat.


Until the 16th century, Wells had a thriving cloth making industry and during the Middle Ages its exports of cloth and corn were traded through the port of Rackley further downstream. The cathedral buildings were not finished until the reign of Henry VII, so fortunately it was not destroyed during the Dissolution, because it was not a monastic foundation. In 1591 Elizabeth I gave a new charter to Wells separating the secular governance away from the church.


Wells was a Royalist stronghold during the Civil War, but they had to evacuate the town when it came under siege from the Parliamentarians. Severe damage was caused to the cathedral whilst the Roundheads held the town. The cathedral came under attack again in 1685 during the Monmouth Rebellion, when along with much damage, the lead was stripped from the roof to make bullets. As fate would have it, the last trials of the Bloody Assizes presided over by Judge Jefferies, where many of the rebels were sentenced to death, was held at Wells.


Almost immediately Bishop Ken was appointed, charged with restoration of the cathedral. He did however get himself into hot water, first by not backing King James II who wanted to give equality to catholics, and secondly when he did back King James by not taking an oath to William and Mary. For his pains he lost his job.




Britain Tour


The Cathedral West Front


Statues of Kings, Bishops, and Saints


Gateway to Bishop's Palace


Bishop Jocelin's Palace


Ruins of the Great Hall


"The Bishop's Eye"


Penniless Porch


Walled Ramparts


The Market Place


The City Arms

The Olde City Jail


Carlton Mews