Wells Cathedral (officially the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Wells) is the glory of the small town of Wells in Somerset. Dating primarily from the early 13th century, Wells Cathedral is spectacular in its uniqueness and richness of decoration.
The cathedral dboasts a magnificent west front covered in medieval sculptures of saints and kings. The pretty Early Gothic interior is dominated by the love-em-or-hate-em "scissor arches," seen nowhere else.
History of Wells Cathedral
Work on Wells Cathedral began in 1180 under Bishop Reginald, but most of the cathedral construction was overseen by Bishop Jocelyn, a local man with great ambitions for Wells.
Bishop Jocelyn oversaw construction of the nave and the monumental west front in the early 13th century. At the same time, the busy cleric was overseeing construction of the Bishop's Palace and a residence at nearby Wookey.
Wells Cathedral was the first English cathedral to be built in the Early English Gothic style, with pointed arches throughout. Lincoln would follow 10 years later and Salisbury 30 years after that. Meanwhile, at nearby Glastonbury Abbey, they were feeling less daring - reconstruction work was underway in the older Norman style.
Bishop Jocelyn lived to see the church dedicated in 1239, but he died before cathedral status was finally granted in 1245. The Chapter House was completed in 1306.
By the time the cathedral was completed, it already seemed too small for the increasing grandness of the liturgy that characterized the period. It was especially important to find more room for the increasingly large ritual processions.
So the early 14th century saw a new spate of construction. Bishop Drokensford started the proceedings by raising the central tower and beginning an eight-sided Lady Chapel at the far east end (finished in 1326). The master mason of this phase was Thomas of Whitney, a man of considerable repute.
The taller tower added considerable weight to the center of the cathedral, a problem which was solved with great ingenuity. Three "scissor arches" were added in 1338 to support the weight. Another famous interior feature, the astronomical clock, was added in 1390.
What to See at Wells Cathedral
The magnificent west front (1209-39), is 100 feet high and 150 feet wide and stretches twice the width of the nave. The facade is filled with niches containing more than 500 large sculptures, of which almost 300 still survive intact. The remainder have been replaced with modern replicas.
The lowest level depicts biblical scenes (Old Testament on the right; New Testament on the left). Above these are saints, bishops and kings, followed by Resurrection scenes, then angels. Apostles fill the top center of the facade, with St. Andrew (patron of the cathedral) given pride of place in the center. Christ sits in majesty at the top center of the facade, flanked by six-winged seraphim. The Virgin Mary can be seen over the central portal.
The facade sculptures were originally brightly colored with green and red paint and gilded with gold against a dark red background. Traces of the original paint were discovered during cleaning and conservation of the west front in 1974 to 1986. On festival days, especially Palm Sunday, the west front would come alive with choristers singing and trumpets sounding from holes carved between the figures.
The interior of Wells Cathedral is a beautiful example of Early English Gothic architecture. Its long nave terminates in one of the three scissor arches that were added to support the central tower in 1338.
Opinion is sharply divided on this unique feature: some applaud its ingenuity, while others decry it as a "grotesque intrusion" into the aesthetics of the splendid nave. In this author's opinion, they are marvelous.
There are fine capitals and corbels in the nave and transepts, many of them depicting charming medieval scenes: examples include men with a toothache and an old man caught raiding an orchard.
More notable medieval art can be seen in the Jesse Window (c.1340), which depicts the family tree of Christ in yellow, red and green glass with silver stain. The window is badly in need of conservation and efforts are currently underway to raise the necessary funds to protect against further deterioration (more details).
The north transept is home to an astronomical clock (1390), with jousting knights that charge each other every quarter-hour. The scene is announced by a figure called Jack Blandiver, who kicks a couple of bells from his seat high up on the right.
Across from the clock in the north transept, a doorway leads to a graceful, well-worn stairway. The double-branching flight of stairs seems to undulate like a wave, rising to the chapter house on the right and continuing ahead to a bridge leading to the Vicars' Close (c.1450).
Two of the vaulting shafts in the stairway have charming corbels - one (pictured at right) shows a priest holding onto the shaft with one hand while he thrusts a stick down a dragon's throat. Both priest and dragon appear mild and amiable, a characteristic of the Decorated period.
The octagonal chapter house (1306) features elaborate rib vaulting in the Decorated style and is considered among the most beautiful in England. It is a little smaller than its counterparts at Salisbury or Westminster but much better preserved. Its windows have Geometrical tracery decorated with ball-flowers, a popular early 14th-century motif.
The chapter house is lined with an arcade of 51 stalls, each with a canopy featuring head of smiling kings, churchmen and others. The beautiful ribbed ceiling is inspired by, but surpasses, that at Exeter. From the central shaft radiate 32 ribs, each meeting-point decorated with a carved foliage boss. The effect has frequently been compared to a great palm tree.
The choir aisles are home to numerous old tombs and some fine rib vaulting.
At the far east end is the Lady Chapel (1326), in the shape of an elongated octagon. It was originally planned to be a separate building, but this was soon changed and a retro-choir was added between the presbytery and Lady Chapel.
The chapel has five large windows, four of which are filled with fragments of early 14th-century glass in golden brown, olive-green, ruby red, blue and white. Above is an intricate star-vault, which is one of the earliest example of a lierne-vault in England (liernes are ribs that serve only a decorative purpose).
The retro-choir that joins the Lady Chapel with the presbytery may have been unplanned, but it turned out to be a very attractive aspect of the cathedral's architecture. The arrangement of the arches and the ribbed vaults is beautifully complex, and slender shafts of dark marble are used for almost the last time in a medieval building to add tonal accents.
The cathedral shop and cafe are atmospherically housed in the south wing of the medieval cloisters. Wells Cathedral also offers historic accommodations in the Holiday House on Vicars' Close, which sleeps seven to eight people in four bedrooms. More information here.
Quick Facts on Wells Cathedral
|Names:||Cathedral Church of St Andrew and Chapter House and Cloisters · Cathedral Church of St. Andrew in Wells · Wells Cathedral|
|Categories:||cathedrals; Grade I listed buildings|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.210217° N, 2.643585° W|
|Hours:||Apr-Sep: daily 7-7|
Oct-Mar: daily 7-6
|Lodging:||View hotels near Wells Cathedral|
- Personal visit (April 29, 2006).
- Wells Cathedral - official website
- Canon Melvyn Matthews, Wells Cathedral (Pitkin Guide, 2005).
- Alec Clifton-Taylor, The Cathedrals of England.
- Photos of Wells Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Wells Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Wells Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.