1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wells

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WELLS, a city, municipal borough and market town in the Wells parliamentary division of Somerset, England, 20 m. S. of Bristol, on the Great Western and Somerset & Dorset railways. Pop. (1901) 4849. It is a quiet, old-fashioned place, lying in a hollow under the Mendip Hills, whose spurs rise on all sides like islands. The city is said to have derived its name from some springs called St Andrew's Wells, which during the middle ages were thought to have valuable curative properties. During Saxon times Wells was one of the most Important towns of Wessex, and in 905 it was made the seat of a bishopric by King Edward the Elder. About the year 1091–1092 Bishop John de Villula removed the see to Bath; and for some years Wells ceased to be an episcopal city. After many struggles between the secular clergy of Wells and the regulars of Bath, it was finally arranged in 1139 that the bishop should take the title of "bishop of Bath and Wills," and should for the future be elected by delegates appointed partly by the monks of Bath and partly by the canons of Wells. The foundation attached to the cathedral church of Wells consisted of a college of secular canons of St Augustine, governed by a dean, sub-dean, chancellor and other officials. The diocese covers the greater part of Somerset. The importance of the city is almost wholly ecclesiastical; and the theological college is one of the most important in England. Wells is governed by a mayor, 4 aldermen and 12 councillors. Area 720 acres.

The cathedral, one of the most magnificent of all the secular churches of England, was executed principally by Bishops Reginald Fitz-Jocelyn (1171–1191), Savaricus (1192–1205) and Jocelyn (1206–1242). According to the usual medieval practice, the eastern part of the church was begun first, and the choir was consecrated for use long before the completion of the nave, the western part of which, with the magnificent series of statues on the façade, is commonly attributed to Bishop Jocelyn. With him was associated a famous architect in Elias de Derham, who was his steward in 1236, and died in 1245. The upper half of the two western towers has never been built. The noble central tower, 160 ft. high, was built early in the 14th century; the beautiful octagonal chapter-house on the north side, and the lady chapel at the extreme east, were the next important additions in the same century. The whole church is covered with stone groining of various dates, from the Early English of the choir to the fan vaulting of the central tower. Its plan consists of a nave (161 ft. in length and 82 in breadth) and aisles, with two short transepts, each with a western aisle and two eastern chapels. The choir and its aisles are of unusual length (103 ft.), and behind the high altar are two smaller transepts, beyond which is the very rich Decorated lady chapel, with an eastern semi-octagonal apse. On the north of the choir is the octagonal chapter-house, the vaulting of which springs from a slender central shaft; as the church belonged to secular clergy, it was not necessary to place it in its usual position by the cloister. The cloister, 160 by 150 ft., extends along the whole southern wall of the nave. The extreme length of the church from east to west is 383 ft. The oak stalls and bishop’s throne in the choir are magnificent examples of 15th century woodwork, still well preserved.

The glory of the church, and that which makes it unique among the many splendid buildings of medieval England, is the wonderful series of sculptured figures which decorate the exterior of the west front. The whole of the façade, 150 ft. wide, including the two western towers, is completely covered with this magnificent series; there are nine tiers of single figures under canopies, over 600 in number, mostly large life size, with some as much as 8 ft. in height, and other smaller statues; these represent angels, saints, prophets, kings and queens of the Saxon, Norman and Plantagenet dynasties, and bishops and others who had been benefactors to the see. There are also forty-eight reliefs with subjects from Bible history, and immense representations of the Last Judgment and the Resurrection, the latter alone containing about 150 figures. The whole composition is devised so as to present a comprehensive scheme of theology and history, evidently thought out with much care and ingenuity. As works of art, these statues and reliefs are of high merit; the faces are noble in type, the folds of the drapery very gracefully treated with true sculpturesque simplicity, and the pose of the figures remarkable for dignity. A great variety of hands and much diversity of workmanship can be traced in this mass of sculpture, but in very few cases does the work fall conspicuously below the general level of excellence.

The interior of the central tower presents an interesting example of the skilful way in which the medieval builders could turn an unexpected constructional necessity into a beautiful architectural feature. While it was being built the four piers of the great tower arches showed signs of failure, and, therefore, in order to strengthen them, a second lower arch was built below each main arch of the tower; and on this a third inverted arch was added. Thus the piers received a steady support along their whole height from top to bottom, and yet the opening of each archway was blocked up in the smallest possible degree. The contrasting lines of these three adjacent arches on each side of the tower have a very striking and graceful effect; nothing similar exists elsewhere. On the south side of the cathedral stands the bishop’s palace, a moated building, originally built in the form of a quadrangle by Bishop Jocelyn, and surrounded by a lofty circuit wall. The hall and chapel are beautiful structures, mostly of the 14th century.

The vicars’ college was a secular foundation for two principals and twelve vicars; fine remains of this, dating from the 15th century, and other residences of the clergy stand within and near the cathedral close; some of these are among the most beautiful examples of medieval domestic architecture in England.

The church of St Cuthbert is one of the finest of the many fine parochial churches in Somersetshire, with a noble tower and spire at the west end. It was originally an Early English cruciform building, but the central tower fell in during the 16th century, and the whole building was much altered during the Perpendicular period. Though much damaged, a very interesting reredos exists behind the high altar; it consists of a “Jesse tree” sculptured in retief, erected in 1470. Another beautiful reredos was discovered in 1848, hidden in the plaster on the east wall of the lady chapel, which is on the north side.

There was a Roman settlement at Wells (Theorodunum, Fonticuli, Tidington, Welliae, Welle), this site being chosen on account of the springs from which the town takes its name, and the Roman road to Cheddar passed through Wells. King Ine founded a religious house there in 704, and it became an episcopal see in 910. To this latter event the subsequent growth of Wells is due. There is evidence that Wells had become a borough owned by the bishops of Wells before 1160, and in that year Bishop Robert granted the first charter, which exempted his burgesses from certain tolls. Other charters granted by Bishop Reginald before 1180 and by Bishop Savaric about 1201 gave the burgesses of Wells the right to jurisdiction in their own disputes. These charters were confirmed by John in 1201, by Edward I. in 1290, by Edward III. with the grant of new privileges in 1334, 1341, 1343 and 1345, by Richard II. in 1377, by Henry IV. in 1399 and by Henry VI. in 1424. Wells obtained charters of incorporation in 1589, 1683, 1688 and 1835. It was represented in parliament from 1295 to 1868. Fairs on March 3, October 14 and November 30 were granted before 1160, and in 1201 fairs on May 9, November 25 and June 25 were added. They were important in the middle ages for the sale of cloth made in the town, but the fairs which are now held on the first Tuesdays in January, May, July, November and December are noted for the sale of cheese. The market days for the sale of cattle and provisions are Wednesdays and Saturdays. Silk-making, stocking-making and gloving replaced the cloth trade in Wells, but have now given place to brush-making, corn and paper milling, which began early in the 19th century.

See Victoria County History, Somerset; Thomas Serel, Lectures on Wells (1880).