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August 20 , 2007

Bell's Cathedrals: The Cathedral Church of Wells. A Description of Its Fabric and a Brief History of the Episcopal See


The Gothic Cathedral, wrote Froude, an author who held no brief for the Gothic period, "is perhaps, on the whole, the most magnificent creation which the mind of man has as yet thrown out." The Cathedral Church of Wells, wrote Froude's predecessor in the same historical chair, is "the best example to be found in the whole world of a secular church, with its subordinate buildings." "There is no other place," Professor Freeman went on to say, "where you can see so many of the ancient buildings still standing, and still put to their own use." And surely there is no place better fitted to be their home than this beautiful old city of Wells, set in the midst of the fair western country, the land of Avalon and Camelot, of Athelney and Wedmore. This unique group of buildings does not, however, take us back earlier than the close of the Norman period. Of what existed before, we have but scant evidence. Tradition says that King Ina had, about the year 705, founded at Wells a college of secular priests, and therefore a church of some sort. And when King Eadward the Elder, taking advantage of the peace which his father Alfred had secured, fixed, in 909, the new Somersetshire see by the fountain of St. Andrew at Wells, he seems to have chosen that little city because there already existed therein a church, large enough to serve as a cathedral in those times, and tended already by a body of secular canons. Now that the ancient church of St. Andrew was raised to this new dignity, it was probably in the tenth century rebuilt in stone, with plain round-headed windows, and perhaps a small unbuttressed tower to hold the bells; for, when Giso became bishop in the next century (1061-1088), he erected a whole cluster of quasi-conventual buildings, but we are not told that he found it necessary to rebuild the church, although he complained that he found it mean and its revenues small. Indeed, the fact that Giso was buried under an arch in the wall on the north side of the high altar, as his predecessor Duduc had been buried on the south side, shows that he had not rebuilt the church. On Giso's death, John de Villula at once swept away his buildings, and set up a bishop's house on their site. John, however, made Bath his cathedral church, and suffered the church of Wells to fall into the decay from which it was rescued by the first "Maker of Wells," Bishop Robert of Lewes. The active episcopate of Robert of Lewes (1136-66) was as important an era in the history of the church as in that of the chapter. In spite of the anarchy of Stephen's reign, Robert set steadily to work; and, while the neighbouring barons were battering each other's castles, the bishop reared the first great cathedral church of Wells. How much of the old Saxon building he left we cannot tell; but it was in a ruinous condition, and he may have pulled it completely down, or he may have left one part for later builders to deal with. In 1148 his new Norman church was consecrated, a massive round-arched building, its nave perhaps as large as the present one, and its choir under the tower with a small presbytery beyond. This date may be taken as the beginning of the present cathedral; for all the succeeding reconstructions followed the lines of Bishop Robert's church. Yet the Norman work has disappeared almost as completely as the Saxon, and the font is the only object which can be claimed as undoubtedly Romanesque. Of distinctly Norman mouldings there are none in the church, and only a few fragments in other places. Seldom has one of those strong Norman buildings so utterly vanished from sight. But many stones dressed in the Norman fashion can still be traced by the expert in the eastern part of the church (p. 74), having been no doubt used up again by the later workmen; and there may be masses of undisturbed masonry hidden in the walls
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