1902 Encyclopedia > Wells, Somerset, England

Wells, Somerset, England

WELLS, a municipal borough in the county of Somerset, England, at the foot of the Mer.dip Hills, 135 miles west of London. At present it is a place of little importance, except for its cathedral, markets, and assizes. The popu-lation of the city (726 acres) in 1881 was 4634.
The city of Wells 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. The munici-pality, consisting of a mayor, seven aldermen, and sixteen chief burgesses, was incorporated by a charter granted by King John in 1202. 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 1091-92 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 Wells," 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 existing cathedral, one of the most magnificent of all the secular churches of England, was begun by Bishop Joceline soon after his election to the episcopate in 1220; and the greater part of the building was completed before his death in 1244. According to the usual mediaeval 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 mag-nificent series of statues on the facade, was carried out during the second half of the 13th century, and probably finished about the year 1300. The upper half of the two western towers has never been built. The very noble and well-designed central tower, 160 feet 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 a building of very exceptional splendour and beauty; it is covered throughout 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 and aisles, with two short transepts, each with a western aisle and two eastern chapels. The choir and its aisles are of unusual length, and behind the high altar are two smaller transepts, beyond which is the very rich Decorated lady chapel, with an eastern semi-octagonal apse. The main tower is at the crossing. 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 feet, extends along the whole southern wall of the nave. The extreme length of the church from east to west is 371 feet. The oak stalls and bishop's throne in the choir are magnificent examples of 15th-century woodwork, still well preserved.
The great glory of the church, and that which makes it unique among the many splendid buildings of mediaeval England, is the wonderful series of sculptured figures which decorate the exterior of the west front,—the work of English sculptors of the latter part of the 13th century,—a series which shows that at that time Eng-land was, as far as the plastic art is concerned, in no degree inferior to Germany and France, or even Italy, if we except the work done

by Niccola, the sculptor of the wonderful baptistery pulpit at Pisa. The whole of the facade, 147 feet 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 feet 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 Resurrec-tion, 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 very 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. The main lines of the sculpture throughout are carefully arranged in a severely architec-tonic manner, so as to emphasize and harmonize with the chief features of the structure. Complete self-restraint is shown in the subordination of each part to the general effect of the whole—one of the great merits of English sculpture down to the 16th century. Of course a great variety of hands and much diversity of workman-ship can be traced in this mass of sculpture, but in very few cases does the work fall conspicuously below" the general level of excel-lence, and some of the best figures show the very flower and crown of English plastic art, which was reaching its highest point about the time that the west front of Wells was completed.
The interior of the central tower presents an interesting example of the very skilful way in which the mediaeval builders could turn an unexpected constructional necessity into a novel and 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 stately moated building, originally built in the form of a quad-rangle by Bishop Joceline (1205-1244), and surrounded by a lofty circuit wall. The hall and chapel are very beautiful structures, of rather later date, 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 cen-tury, and other residences of the clergy stand within and near the cathedral close; some of these are among the most beautiful examples of mediaeval domestic architecture which exist anywhere in England.
The church of St Cuthbert in Wells is one of the finest of the
many fine parochial churches in Somersetshire, with a very noble
tower and spire at the west end. It was originally an Early Eng-
lish 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; erected in 1470, it consists of
a '' Jesse tree " sculptured in relief. Another very beautiful reredos
was discovered in 1848, hidden in the plaster on the east wall of
the lady chapel, which is on the north side. (J. H. M.)

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