Historical Property

The Wells Cathedral, Somerset, Architecture and History

A Review by Kevin Murphy




Having been described as ‘the most poetic of the English Cathedrals’ the Wells Cathedral is one of the earliest in the English Gothic style in one of Englands smallest cities.


What makes the Wells Cathedral, named after the many springs nearby, a more interesting building is its design differences from other English medieval built cathedrals.


The story or tradition of the church is that King Ina around the year of 705 founded at Wells a college for secular priests and as a result a church was present at the site. Later King Edward the Elder chose around 909 would choose the new Somersetshire by the fountain of St. Andrew at Wells because of the presence of the existing church large enough to be used as a cathedral.


The use of Gothic architecture or described as Early English or Geometrical style became customary not only for building Wells but for other cathedrals across Britain. A smaller church had been present at the site and the rebuilding of Wells began in 1180 by Bishop Reginald, who had been previously at Bath, would be built in phases over a period of 300 years. Much of the construction would be at the direction of the local Bishop Jocelyn. The use of buttresses, the pointed arches, ornate facades, intersecting vaults and its large amount of medieval stained windows that have survived over the centuries.  Some of the original earlier features that can be found are the font in the cathedrals south transept and wall foundations in the graveyard.


The West Front


The Wells Cathedral is known for its great west front that features two towers that on either side of the nave with six buttresses, geometrical gables and niches that featured statues of the saints. 














Each of the towers is 100 feet high and 150 feet wide making it twice the width of the nave. The niches in the facade contain more than 500 large statues with 300 to date still intact with those lost replaced by modern replicas. The original colors of the  sculptures were painted in with green and red paint and gilded in gold with a dark red background. The lower level of the of the niches depict Biblical scenes from the Old Testament on the right and New Testament on the left. On the next above level the niches feature the saints, bishops and kings with the next level featuring scenes from the Resurrection with angels. This is followed by the Apostles at the top centre of the facade with the patron of the cathedral St. Andrew . The Virgin Mary can be seen over the central portal with at the very top centre of the west front facade is Christ with a six-winged seraphim.

The Interior


The building is in the rectangular shape and its interior is known for its Early Gothic architecture and its medieval statuary, use of limestone, four tiers of niches with four hundred medieval statues with the each conveying a theme from the Bible or the history of the Church. The long nave and transepts display many fine capitals and corbels with some having depictions of daily medieval scenes.



The Nave 


The nave at Wells Cathedral is known for its length rather than its height along with its continuous arcade and triforium, the space in the middle storey, with no breaks from east to west. This creates a more horizontal than vertical effect in its design as the height of the church was small. The clerestory, the windows above the arcade, and the lowness of the triforium brings a ‘soaring effect’ with the vaulting of the ceilings.



















One of the most unique and with its divided opinions on its use are the scissor arches  or sometimes called strainer arches, that were added in 1338-40 to help support the tower that was beginning to show cracks in its central tower crossing. These arches were designed 100 years after the nave was completed by William Joy with the arches round circles with no bases or capitals in two ‘criss-crossing’ ogees. The design was not to be solid in its form but rather open so as to allow the flow of light in the nave. 


The Chapter House 


One building that became common in the later Middle Ages was the the chapter house that was used for having meetings. This particular building was found in the 12th century monastic cathedrals and monasteries and secular cathedrals by the 13th century. 

They were usually placed by the side of the cathedral and joined by a passageway from a transept, the north-south arm of a church, or from a cloister and most were rectangular in shape. 


At the Wells Cathedral the the chapter house built in 1306 is octangular in shape and features the Decorated style of ribbed vaults, geometric windows with tracery and the ball flower motif that became popular in the 14th century. Starting with the central shaft there are 32 ribs  that join a carved foliage boss. 


Lady Chapel 


The largest chapels in the late medieval cathedral was the Lady Chapel to show devotion to the Virgin Mary. Various locations for the statues of the Virgin Mary were at the south end of of the high altar in the 13th century and also at other altars in the church. Eventually there was a desire to have a special place of devotion and all churches provided a chapel to her but this would end during the Reformation.









Located on the Wells Cathedrals  far east end is the Lady Chapel built in 1326. Its elongated octagon shape and originally designed to be separate building. But this idea changed leading to a retro-choir being added between the presbytery and the chapel. The chapel has five large windows with four having fragments and pieces of brown, olive green, ruby, red, blue and white from the 14th century. The chapel is an early example of the lierne-vault or decorative ribs found in  Decorated and Perpendicular gothic designs. 


The Cloister


One of the most common features from the late-medieval cathedrals is the building  of the cloister or covered walkways beside the church usually in the shape of a quadrangle. The Wells cathedral cloister was rebuilt in the 15th century featuring the aspects of the Perpendicular with complex vaults and large windows . Each cloister alley has thirteen bays with buttresses to help support the above rooms.



















The overall shape of the cloister is not square as expected in other cathedrals but more of a parallelogram.  Over the east walk of the cloister is the library contains over three thousand volumes of books and a collection of old charters. 

Vicars Close


Built in the mid 13th century by Bishop Ralph Shrewsbury the Vicars’ Close had two rows of housing that was to have Vicars in communal living with the north end for the Close Chapel and the Vicars’ Hall in the south end joint by the the Chain Gate Bridge. The 42 original houses, one for each vicar,  had a ground floor hall with stairs leading to an upper room and by the 15th century had the additions of chimneys, gardens and the rear part of the buildings be extended as Vicars had been allowed to marry and have families after the Reformation. The buildings are described  as an early example of ‘collegiate architecture’ with the houses now Grade I Listed. 

One of the more different parts of the cathedral is the Chain Gate built by Bishop Beckington which connected the chapter house staircase with with Vicars’ Close. The bishop decided that a new road was needed as well as a bridge that would rest on three arches with one assigned to be used by large carts and two other for pedestrian or foot traffic to the Vicars Close.  [15]


The Jesse Window


The Jesse Window is considered to be one of the best examples of 14th century stained glass. With its green and gold colors the depiction is the Jesse tree with the ancestors and family of Christ, with Jesse as the father of King David. Repairs over the years have been made and the window was nearly lost during the English Civil War. 



















The Astronomical Clock


The second oldest clock in England after the clock at Salisbury the Astronomical clock at Wells cathedral was made by a monk, Peter Lightfoot, from Glastonbury in the 14th century. Originally the clock had one face in the church but by 1400 the second face was installed outside the church. The clock shows the phases of the sun, moon and the time of the last new moon based on the Copernican model of the universe with earth as the center of the solar system. Every quarter-hour an automaton named Jack Blandifers strikes two bells with hammers and two more with its heels. The strike results with jousting knights above the face of the clock. The clocks outer face two striking jacks of knights in armor.