Last Photographed: Thursday 19th November 2020
Other Names: The Liberty, St Andrew Liberty
Surrounding Wells Cathedral is one of the world's largest collections of medieval clerical buildings. The church precinct undoubtedly represents the finest medieval complex to be found in Britain. Originally, all these buildings fell within an area known as The Liberty of St Andrew (or St Andrew Liberty, or The Liberty). This was a walled area within the city of Wells within which the normal monarchic rights to raise taxation had been devolved to the church. It's outer edge is still marked by three three remaining gatehouses and sections of the wall are still visible.
The most famous feature of the cathedral precinct is the spectacular Vicars' Close. Built from around 1363AD-1412AD to house the Vicars Choral (choristers who would deputise for the cathedral deans in the singing of daily worship), this is the oldest example of a complete, planned and inhabited medieval street in the world (although the ornate chimneys are a later Tudor addition, other modifications are visible, and a gap exists filled by a later dwelling built to replace houses destroyed by fire). Today, it's still owned by the cathedral, and twelve of the Vicars Choral remain in residence.
The Lady Chapel and Library
At the far end, Vicars' Close is adjoined by The Lady Chapel, built around 1424AD. The second floor accommodated a library. The chapel and library are out of alignment with Vicars' Close as they were built adjoining the boundary wall of The Liberty. A small gate leads out through the wall to the road beyond.
The Chain Gate
At its near end, the close is joined to the cathedral building by a medieval chain gate that climbs over the street towards the chapter house. The chain gate also contains Vicars' Hall which was built to provide a communal eating area for the Vicars Choral. Inside the cathedral, stairs climb past the entrance to the chapter house, the route continues through Vicars' Hall and across the chain bridge, and then another set of stairs descend opening out directly onto Vicars' Close. This ensured that the Vicars Choral could move freely between Vicars' Close and the cathedral without exposure to worldly temptations.
Opposite the entrance to Vicars' Close can be seen The Rib. Dating from the mid 15th Century, it was originally built to house cathedral dignitaries. It was once part of a row of three houses that fell within the bishop's gift, known collectively as The Bishop's Ribs. The other two houses no longer survive, and The Rib is now a private residence.
The Old Deanery
Heading west from Vicars' Close along the edge of the cathedral green, the street features a number of period buildings, including the Old Deanery and its gatehouse. Originally built in the 14th Century, the façade fronting onto the cathedral green is of a later period. At the time of writing, the Church of England Diocese of Bath and Wells is in the process of selling it to a private bidder.
Wells Cathedral Music School
Wells Cathedral Music School was formerly the home of the Archdeacon of Wells. Originally dating back to the 13th Century, it was largely rebuilt around 1450AD.
At the end of the street, access to Sadler Street is via the original medieval western gatehouse (Brown's Gatehouse - named after Richard Brown, the 1553AD tenant of the adjoining house. Brown's Gatehouse was known as The Dean's Eye during the 19th Century). This survives complete, and is now incorporated into The Ancient Gatehouse hotel.
Penniless Porch and The Bishop's Eye
Heading back towards the cathedral across the green, access to the corner of the market place is via Penniless Porch - a gatehouse built in 1450AD, named for the freedom given to beggars to ply their trade there (a tradition kept alive by modern day buskers and beggars). This forms a pair with the contemporaneous Bishop's Eye - a second gatehouse situated slightly further along the market place giving access to the Bishop's Palace.