An ancient cathedral city – the smallest in England – Wells is situated in the beautiful district of Mendip in the heart of rural Somerset.
It is names after the wells, once believed to have curative powers, which are to be found in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace and the cathedral, with a third now providing a prominent monument in the imposing market square.
It is known that the wells have been at the centre of spiritual interest for a very long time, excavations suggesting that ancient religious buildings existed there from early historic times. The Romans built a road through
Wells on the way to Bristol and the city therefore became a small Roman settlement.
Afterwards the early Christian church took an interest and, just like the Romans before them, they converted ancient shrines to fit in with their beliefs. The Saxon King Ine of Wessex chose Wells as the site of a minster church in the early 8th century.
In 766 King Cynewulf gave land to ‘the minster by the Great Spring which they call Wells’, an early reference to the city name that still stands today. The diocese of Wells was founded by King Edward the Elder in 909, and St Andrew’s Church was made the cathedral of the new diocese.
In 1066 – a date embedded in the minds of every history student – the cathedral fell into Norman hands after the defeat of King Harold in the battle of Hastings, and the first Norman bishop moved the seat of the diocese to Bath. Wells therefore lost its cathedral status and buildings were demolished.
However, extensive improvement work began on the old St Andrew’s church in 1180, which was also the year that Wells was granted its royal charter by King John, and the diocese seat returned from Bath in 1244.
Wells was the largest city in Somerset for several hundred years, flourishing not only because of the existence of the cathedral, but also because of a local trade in wool and cloth. As the church owned much of the land and business, great wealth was accumulated and this was used in the construction of one of the most outstanding examples of ecclesiastical architecture in Britain, the main part of the cathedral construction being carried out between the 12th and 13th centuries. The 160-feet high central tower was added during the reconstruction work which followed a fire in the 14th century.
There was another set-back when much of the 14th century work was destroyed when Edward VI blew up the grand chapel with gunpowder as part of the Reformation started by King Henry XIII, and the Civil War brought more damage when Parliamentary troops used the cathedral to stable their horses, while at the same time using the ornate medieval sculpture for target practice.
Wells was also the scene of an uprising during the Monmouth Rebellion, when rebel soldiers used lead from the roof and windows to make shot. Not a great deal; has changed since those dark days. The Cathedral has been repaired and now provides an imposing focal point for this picturesque West Country city nestling at the foot of the Mendip Hills.