Wells Cathedral History & Architecture Part 2

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The History & Architecture of Wells Cathedral in Somerset, Part 2
Edited by David Nash Ford


Extension and Expansion

The important addition of a Chapter House was begun, at Wells, around 1250, but not completed till the time of Dean John Godeley (1305-33). It is reached by a won-derful staircase from the north Choir aisle and is unsur-passed in beauty. The windows, with their delicate tracery, contain fragments of the original glass. Like the Lady Chapel, it is incomparable for its vaulting. "It was," wrote Francis Bond, "in the west of England that the art of Gothic vaulting was first mastered, and it was in the west, first ap-parently at Wells, that every arch was pointed, and the semi-circular arch exterminated." Later, Godeley man made further enlargements as work began on extending the choir. It was considerably lengthened to join the previously free-standing Lady Chapel to the main church; and the retrochoir and two eastern transepts were erected.

The central cathedral tower, which rises to a height of 160 feet, was continued in 1318, having, in earlier years, only been carried up to the level of the roof. It is thought to have formed a dramatic lantern with triple lights to full height on each side. It was capped by a small spire. Some years afterwards, however, it was found that the four massive piers were sinking and were insufficient to carry the weight of the tower. A catastrophe was averted with remarkable skill by the medieval builders who placed inverted arches on three sides under the lantern. Thus supporting the piers from top to bottom. The whole work, which Glastonbury later copied, was accomplished with graceful effect. Externally, the central tower was rebuilt as we see it today after a serious fire in 1439. The south tower was not begun until after 1386. The north tower, begun in 1424, presents some slight differences of detail.

The Choir contains an elaborate figure of Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury, who came to Wells in 1329, when the Choir and Lady Chapel were approaching completion. Over the High Altar is the Golden Window, an excellent example of fourteenth-century work. The window, like the Jesse Window now in St. Mary's Church, Shrewsbury, shows the reclining figure of Jesse, from whom springs the Vine, with branches and tendrils enclosing representatives of the line of David. In the centre is the Blessed Virgin and, immediately above, Christ on the Cross. In niches below the window are figures of Our Saviour, St. Peter and St. Andrew, St. Dunstan and St. Patrick (the gifts of an anonymous benefactor) and St. David and St. George given by the Somerset Freemasons in memory of members of that fraternity who fell in the Great War. The three bays of the Choir, east of the magnificent fifteenth century Bishop's throne, form the Presbytery, built in the fourteenth century. While the three western bays belong to the original building and are the oldest part of the existing Cathedral. The Misericord seats, of which there are sixty in the Choir, are finely carved, combining, says Canon Church, " with the early semi-Norman sculpture and the grotesque capitals in the nave and transepts, and with the figures and imagery in stone on the western front, to complete a continuous series of medieval carving remarkable for the blending of grim humour and playfulness, loving study of homely and natural subjects, with grave dignity and mysterious meaning."

The Lady Chapel, a very rich piece of decorated work with a semi-octagonal appearance, forms, with the Transitional bays which connect it with the Choir, what is considered to be the finest eastern end of any Cathedral in this country. Professor EA Freeman wrote of the Chapel, "With the exquisite beauty of the Lady Chapel everyone is familiar; but everyone may not have remarked how distinct it is from the rest of the Church. It would stand perfectly well by itself as a detached building. As it is, it gives an apsidal form to the extreme end of the Church; but it is much more than an apse. It is, in fact, an octagon, no less than the Chapter House, and to its form it owes much of its beauty." To quote Hutton again (who describes the Chapel as " a thing beyond criticism or praise, an immortal and perfect loveliness"): " Here, at Wells, the usual English east end, square and blunt, lacking in fancy and imagination as many have thought, is magically avoided, and all that the subtle French builder achieved with his apsidal chapels is suddenly won by a stroke of genius for this English church, but in a simpler fashion." Francis Bond says the "putting up of an outer ring of four more piers round the western part of the octagon of the Lady Chapel was an intuition of Genius. It makes the vistas into the Retrochoir and Lady Chapel a veritable glimpse into fairy land and provides, here alone in England, a rival to the glorious eastern terminations of Amiens and Le Mans."

Of the excellently proportioned Nave it has been said "there is no nave in which the eye is so irresistibly carried eastward as in that of Wells." Superbly clustered pillars divide it into ten bays, the capitals of each pillar being dexterously and quaintly carved. One capital shows a shoemaker, another a fruit stealer, another, a fox with a goose and another, a man with the toothache. Between the second and third piers, on the north side of the Nave, is the Bubwith Chantry, noteworthy for its cornices and screen work: a beautiful Perpendicular chapel. Opposite is the chantry built for Hugh Sugar, Treasurer of Wells (1460-89). In the north transept, is the famous "Quarter Jack" clock in which the device of a tournament used for recording the hours is not the least of its many quaint features. At the striking of the hours, a company of four mounted men armed with lances conduct a mimic tourney upon a little platform over the dial and a seated figure in knee-breeches kicks a bell at each quarter of an hour. The quarters are sounded outside by two knights in fifteenth-century armour with battle-axes.

The Cloisters, which measure 160 by 150 feet, lie to the south of the Nave. The style of the cloisters, its outer walls and south-east door belongs to the thirteenth century. The present eastern arcade, above which is the Library, was built in Bishop Bubwith's time. The western arcade, with the Audit Room and the Song School over it, was built by Bishop Beckington (1443-65). In the cemetery, east of the Cloisters, stood another Lady Chapel which was rebuilt by Bishop Stillington in about 1490, but was destroyed in 1553. This was the only serious loss which the fabric of the church suffered in those perilous days of the Reformation.

Next in interest is the Bishop's Palace. Its crenellated walls, gateway, and moat were erected in 1343. Inside the grounds are the ruins of the Banqueting Hall, dismantled in 1555 - the largest in England, with the exception of Westminster Hall.

Vicars' Close, with its fifty small houses forming the most perfect Gothic thoroughfare in England, was originally built as the College of Singing Clerks of the Cathedral. Here, time seems to have stood still ever since Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury designed the Close in the middle of the fourteenth century. The visitor to Wells will also be attracted by the graceful and unique Chain Gate spanning the Bath Road and the ingeniously contrived Water Conduit. For both of these, Wells is indebted to Bishop Beckington. The glorious Parish Church of St. Cuthbert is one of those splendid Perpendicular buildings known in Somerset as "Quarter Cathedrals." It is only from Tor Hill, after having visited St. Andrew's Church itself, that the surpassing loveliness of the noble Cathedral, which has been aptly described as "a precious jewel set in an emerald landscape," can be realised. The rocky crests and tree-clad sides of the Mendips provide an ideal background for the peaceful scene; while, looking westwards, the far-reaching prospect, across moorlands, meadows, coppices and hedgerows, is bounded only by the waters of the Severn Sea.

Edited from "Cathedrals" (1924).

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