Last Photographed: Wednesday 14th November 2012
The site of the cathedral at Wells has a significance that dates back at least as far as the Romans. A mausoleum unearthed near the springs is believed to date back to that time, and the location suggests a history of holiness that may date back even further.
The Cathedral reputedly dates back to around 704AD, when it began life as a minster church, founded by Saint Aldhelma thanks to a royal charter granted by King Ine. The first historical reference however dates back to a charter of 766AD, when the church is referred to as "the minster near the Great Spring at Wells." In 909AD, the unwieldy diocese of Sherbourne was divided into two, and the minster church of St Andrew became the seat of the first bishop of Wells.
The last Saxon primate of Wells was Bishop Giso. His tenure survived the Norman conquest, and he remained in his post until his death in 1088AD. He was succeeded by John de Tours, who removed the bishopric to Bath.
Bishop Robert de Lewes governed the cathedral between 1136-1166AD. Finding the church in a state of neglect and decay, he undertook renovation and rebuilding work. However, in 1191AD, his successor - Bishop Reginald de Bohun - began work on an entirely new cathedral. This new church was dedicated in 1239AD, but work continued until 1260AD. The Saxon church was demolished as the Norman church became fit for use, and its stone recycled and incorporated into the later building.
During this period, Wells successfully campaigned to regain its status as a cathedral. It was united with Bath as the 'Diocese of Bath & Wells', with the bishop being jointly elected by both religious houses.
1250AD saw work begin on the famous octagonal chapter house at Wells, widely regarded as one of the finest examples of its kind. It was completed in 1306AD, and became the seat from which the deans and canons conducted daily meetings to decide the business of the cathedral.
By the time the new building was complete, it was already considered too small for the growing needs of the clergy at Wells. Bishop John Drokensford began a program of expansion, heightening the central tower and beginning construction on the Lady Chapel at the eastern end of the cathedral. This work was completed around 1326AD.
In 1338AD, it became apparent that the increased mass of the central tower was causing the supporting piers to sink. Cracks were already visible, and this necessitated the construction of the famous "scissor arch" to support the bulk of the tower. Although this has survived to the present day, when the tower's spire was lost to fire in the 1439AD, it was considered prudent not to replace it.
1365AD saw another flurry of activity, when William Wynford was appointed as master mason. He was responsible for expanding the west front of the cathedral, flanking the original façade with towered extensions to the north and south. When the work on the southern tower finished in 1435AD, the cathedral as we see it today was largely complete.
Wells Cathedral has survived into the modern age as one of the finest medieval churches in Britain. Its magnificent west front is displayed in its full splendour across the dramatic breadth of the cathedral green. Of its 500 niches, 300 are still populated with statues - the largest collection of medieval sculpture in the world. In earlier times, these statues would have been painted in bright colours, set against a dark red background - but such a marvellous sight can now only be glimpsed in the imagination.
Other highlights include the magnificent cloister, the famous steps that sweep up to the elegantly vaulted chapter house, the beautiful light-filled Lady Chapel and the graceful scissor-arch.
Also worth a mention is the cathedral's medieval clock. Dating back to 1390, the internal face is the oldest surviving clock face in the world. As well as showing the time on a 24 hour dial, it also reflects the motion of the sun and the moon, the phases of the moon, and the time since the last new moon. On the hour, miniature knights emerge from the clock and perform a mock joust, knocking each other from their horses.
Wells Cathedral is also complemented by its surrounding precinct and the adjacent palace - but these are detailed elsewhere on this site. The town of Wells is also a wonderfully pleasant place to visit - a small town (although technically a city), nestling in the foothills of the Mendips, still quiet enough to provide an appropriate setting for its medieval treasures.
Visible from miles around, Wells cathedral is a reminder of the prestige and power of the mediaeval church. When considered in conjunction with the buildings that surround it, it probably represents the most complete mediaeval complex surviving in Britain today.
An early morning or a late summer's evening provide a quiet atmosphere that promotes a powerful sense of history, transporting the visitor back in time hundreds of years. Conversely, market days (held on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the original market place in front of the cathedral complex) have a similar effect: the hustle and bustle providing a sense of continuing tradition that helps connect the visitor with the city's medieval heritage. This is a unique experience, and I highly recommend Wells as a place to visit.