Wells Cathedral History & Architecture Part 1

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The History & Architecture of Wells Cathedral in Somerset, Part 1
Edited by David Nash Ford


The Wells and the West Front

There are few places in the whole of the British Isles more fascinating, both to the antiquary and to the ecclesiologist, than Wells - the City of Many Streams; the Wellys or Ad Fontes of our forefathers. The English Bruges, where a moat still encircles the Bishop's Palace and, nearly, everything which meets the eye savours of an order of things which vanished at the Reformation. The tone of Wells is, and always has been, essentially theological. Peace prevailed within its precincts almost without a break, until a summer day in 1685, when the Duke of Monmouth's soldiers stabled their horses in the Cathedral Nave and would have proceeded to further enormities, but for the timely intervention of Lord Grey.

Though a Roman settlement existed at Wells, It was in AD 705 that the first church was founded there, with its subordinate college of secular priests. Wells, therefore, might have celebrated its millenary in Queen Anne's Reign, but apparently missed the opportunity.

"There are places in the World so beautiful, so happy or so sacred, that to speak of them now without a certain reverent hesitation might seem impossible; of these, Wells is one." Thus Edward Hutton heads his delightful chapter on Wells in the Highways and Byways in Somerset. "In Wells, we not only believe, we know and we feel, that men have been happy . . . though men have forgotten and been silent so long. Those towers still sing Te Deum and cry aloud in antiphon with the hills out of which they were hewn:
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth;
Pleni sunt Coeli et Terra Majestatis Gloriae Tuae."

As its name shows, the "quiet Cathedral city of poetic imagination," so charmingly situated in a hollow under the Mendip Hills, is a place of springs, wells and fountains. Tradition gives it that "it was precisely because of those waters" that King Ine, at the suggestion of St. Aldhelm in AD 705, built, to the honour of St. Andrew, a small church of which only excavated fragments now remain.

A stone near the pulpit in the nave now holds the place of an earlier one which commemorated King Ine of Wessex, though he actually died and was buried in Rome. In his day, if not before, a church rose by the wells of St. Andrew, which still spring abundantly in the Bishop's garden and fill his moat. The place was then under the rule of the famous Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne. Two centuries later, Somerset became a separate diocese. The first Bishop of Wells was Athelm (circa 909), the uncle of St. Dunstan. Both became Archbishops of Canterbury. The uncle crowned King Athelstan, the nephew crowned King Edgar. A notable figure in the cathedral's history is Giso of Lorraine, one of those able foreigners whom Edward the Confessor brought over to England and who helped to prepare the way, though unconsciously, for the Norman settlement. Sent on a mission from the King to the Pope, he was consecrated at Rome in 1061. The cathedral authorities still possess the Bull which he brought home confirming him in his see. Giso erected a cloister for the canons of Wells and made them live together after the foreign manner. He retained his see through the reign of the Conqueror and died in 1088.

Then John de Villula (alias of Tours), Giso's successor, broke up this establishment at Wells and, making himself Abbot of Bath, changed his title from Bishop of Wells to Bishop of Bath. Half a century later, Bishop Robert, in King Stephen's time, reorganised the canons of Wells and repaired or rebuilt their church. He instituted a dean, precentor, chancellor and treasurer, after the manner of Bishop Osmund of Salisbury, and endowed some twenty prebends. Of his church, hardly anything remains. The present church is largely of late 12th and early 13th century date, the initial work being assigned to Bishop Reginald de Bohun, who died in 1191.

The western bays of the choir, the two transepts and the nave that we see today were completed under successive Bishops and a vast new church in the latest Gothic style - quite an innovation in those days - was largely complete by the time of its dedication in 1239. Bishop Jocelin of Wells had his masons continue with detailed work, however, particularly the decoration of the glorious West front, which continued until about 1260. Bishop Jocelin, a brother of Bishop Hugh II of Lincoln, was one of the bishops who were at the side of Stephen Langton at the signing of Magna Carta. He was exceptionally active in other ways too. His building work, not only included the West front of the Cathedral, but also the bishop's palace, a choristers' school, grammar school, hospital for travellers and a chapel and manor house at Wookey, two miles from Wells. This work stands as that of one of the three "master builders of our holy and beautiful house of St. Andrew in Wells." Associated with Jocelin was Elias of Dereham, a famous designer who died in 1246.

JoceIin's West front, Flaxman styled "a masterpiece of Art indeed . . . England affordeth not the like ". It is flanked on either side by two towers, the upper parts of which are in Perpendicular style, and contains no less than nine tiers of undamaged sculpture. There are about 300 figures, nearly all of heroic proportions, some as much as eight feet in height. In addition, there are smaller statues of angels, saints and prophets, kings and queens of England, bishops and benefactors to the Cathedral, and forty-eight reliefs of Biblical subjects. Notable are the large representations of the Resurrection (containing about 150 figures) and the Last Judgement. "What the ancient glory of that mighty frontal must have been," says Edward Hutton, " when it was covered with silver and gold, with scarlet and purple and blue, and the beauty of all colours, we cannot perhaps realise. It must have been like a page from some glorious Book of Hours. Yet when, on a fortunate evening the sun falls upon it until sunset, it shines, even now, with so great and dazzling a splendour that I have thought to see there that work of praise and worship as it was when new from Bishop Jocelin's hands. There can have been nothing like it in England, nor perhaps in the World. Though it was done with a knowledge of the still earlier work at Amiens and Chartres, in size and in splendour and unity it surpassed them both, and, it is perhaps needless to say, that there is nothing comparable to it left upon earth." Hutton thought the idea of the whole might be more fully understood by turning to the account of the Death, Assumption and Coronation of the Blessed Virgin as given in "The Golden Legend" of Jacobus de Voragine. Here it is told how, at her death, all the Apostles were gathered about her and "at the third hour of the night, came Christ with sweet melody, with the Orders of Angels, the Company of Patriarchs, the Assemblies of Martyrs, the Covenants of Confessors, the Carols of Virgins, in order and with sweet song and melody."

Canon Church gives a different rendering of the great frontal. "Here," he writes, "as men laid their dead to rest, they might look up and see and read this sermon in stones, telling, in one tier of sculptures, the story of man's creation and his fall, his redemption and his resurrection to life. In another tier, they might see the commemoration of the faithful departed, kings and bishops, mailed warriors and ministers of the sanctuary; queens and holy women, types of the honourable of the Earth who had served God standing in their places in life. And then, higher up, these are seen, rising from their graves on the Resurrection morning to stand before the company of Heaven, angels and archangels and the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb and, before the Son of Man seated on his throne, high and lifted up above all, for judgement. Faintly now can we imagine the impressive dignity and glory of this sculptured front as the western sun glowed upon these stately figures, some of matchless grace, as they stood out from under the canopies of their niches, the shadows in the background darkened by artistic colouring. . . . We are here in the presence of one of the monumental records of man's genius and art, mysterious in its origin, telling a story in stone of the Unseen World, such as Dante sang in undying verse later in that century which produced this creation in our midst.''

Edited from "Cathedrals" (1924).

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