|Wells Cathedral viewed from east, in the gardens of the Bishop's Palace|
In the superstitious Middle Ages, approaching the West Front of Wells Cathedral must have been awesome, mysterious and, perhaps, a little terrifying. Even now, unpainted, it seems to radiate life; to say it’s impressive is an understatement. For one thing, it’s massive – 100 feet high by 150 wide. There are niches for about 500 figures, around 300 of which survive, presenting a panorama of holy hierarchy with Christ at the apex and the apostles, saints, bishops and kings beneath. Lower levels portray biblical scenes. It is an astonishing work of art and architecture, yet also a statement, and reminder, of the power of the Church in earlier times.
|Looking down the nave at the scissor arches|
The Cathedral Church of St Andrew in Wells is full of surprises and beauty. Take a look at the massive so-called ‘scissor arches’. If you think they appear fairly modern, you’re wrong; they were built between 1338-48 to better support the central tower, which had begun to crack. They were the brainchild of master mason William Joy. Keep a lookout for the carvings the medieval masons have left us - some of them quite mischievous - throughout. Then there's the octagonal Chapter House – the office and boardroom of the Cathedral – which was built in 1310 and appears to be held up by one central pillar. Around its walls are the seats for the prebendaries – ecclesiastical members of the Chapter – each one bearing the name of its owner, like the seats of the Round Table. Check out Wells Cathedral clock, which is claimed to be the second oldest clock mechanism in Britain (possibly the world) to be still in use. It dates from before 1392, when records show that the Keeper of the Clock was paid 10 shillings (50p). Until 2010 it was wound by hand each week. The outer ring tells the hour, the inner ring the minutes and the central dial shows the position of the moon. Jousting knights above the dial rotate as each quarter is struck and the clock is linked to an equally impressive timepiece on the outside, northern, wall. The Cathedral is also famous for its rare, and original, stained glass windows; the Jesse window above the alter at the eastern end dates from c1340.
|Chapter House ceiling|
There is evidence of prehistoric and Roman use of the springs which bubble through the limestone and give Wells its name. It was around the year 705 that Adhelm, Bishop of Sherborne, persuaded King Ina (or Ine) of Wessex (688-726) to found a church there. This was probably made of wood and no trace of it has been found, but it became the cathedral for the Diocese of Wells, covering the whole of Somerset, in 909. The bishops of Somerset have borne the title of Bath and Wells since 1244. The present building dates from around 1175. It lies just to the north of the original, was constructed from east to west and was substantially complete in 80 years. Apart from the bits that were added later.
The building emerged relatively unscathed from the Reformation, though many of its treasures were removed to London and the Cathedral was forced to sell others when an Act of Parliament reduced church incomes. 17th century puritans destroyed many statues and paintings. Along with other cathedrals, Wells was closed during the Commonwealth, when Oliver Cromwell ruled, but opened again when the monarchy was restored in 1660. During the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, rebel soldiers occupied the Cathedral and stabled their horses in the cloisters. In the Victorian period, a programme of restoration and cleaning was embarked upon, which I wouldn’t have bothered mentioning to you but for the fact that it was known as ‘the great scrape’.
The City of Wells, England’s smallest city, is in the county of Somerset at the crossroads of the A371 and the A39. The Cathedral is the big building in the middle. And whether you’re inclined to worship or simply admire, you shouldn’t miss it. Visit Wells Cathedral website.
|Eastern bays added 1325-40|