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Reconstruction of the Saxon Cathedral at Wells, partly based on the Lanalet Pontifical of about 1040  Nash Ford Publishing 2003Wells Cathedral
The Wells & West Saxons

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, probably a villa, existed at Wells, it was in AD 705 that the first church was apparently 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 tells that "it was precisely because of those waters" that, in AD 705, King Ine, at the suggestion of St. Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne, built a minster church to the honour of St. Andrew. The famous springs, after which the town is named, had probably been venerated from at least the Iron Age. The dedication suggests they were  a sacred site associated with Anu, the Celtic Mother-Goddess later adopted by the Romans.

Excavations have shown that a stone mausoleum was erected near to St. Andrew's Well in the late Roman period. It was probably, though not certainly, a Christian monument. The area had certainly become christianised by the post-Roman 'Dark Ages,' when simple unlined Christian graves began to be dug around the prestigious tomb to form a cemetery. Its use continued into the 8th century, when the central burial in the mausoleum was removed (for veneration perhaps) and the building demolished. It was replaced by a similar structure on an almost identical site, which was used for a number of high-status burials: three adults and two children. This was presumably associated with King Ine's church of AD 705. Ine took a special interest in Somerset and his family may have originated in this area. Perhaps this was his family vault.

Of King Ine's Church, only the very edge of the eastern apse has so far been discovered. It is deeply set and probably had a crypt below ground. The rest lies hidden beneath the present cloister. It stands in line with both the mausoleum and St. Andrew's Well in an arrangement common amongst Saxon monasteries. A stone near the pulpit in the present cathedral nave now holds the place of an earlier one which commemorated King Ine of Wessex, though he actually died and was buried in Rome.

Two centuries later, in AD 909, Somerset became a separate diocese from Dorset-based Bishopric of Sherborne. The Bishops of Somerset were based at Wells, presumably because of the substantial minster church already standing there. However, an extension programme befitting a cathedral church soon appears to have been put in place. The minster's eastern mausoleum was certainly rebuilt as a doubled celled chapel dedicated to St. Mary. A lay cemetery stood just to the north, so it is possible that it served as a local parish church. We know something of the appearance of the main church from a number of historical references. Episcopal burials are recorded in apsidal side chapels or 'portici' and a stylised drawing in a Lanalet Pontifical of about 1040 almost certainly shows an impression of the Saxon Cathedral. There were also a number of buildings demolished in Victorian times which appear to have stood in line with the Saxon Cathedral, its mausoleum and the ancient well. They were probably built on old Saxon foundations and represent some of the many outbuildings which would have been associated with a large ecclesiastical complex.

The first Bishop of Wells was Athelm, 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 found the canons living at Wells to be somewhat lax in their devotions and thus instituted a semi-monastic way of life for them. He erected a cloister (perhaps to the north of the Cathedral) and made them live together  after the European manner, in dormitories and refectories (perhaps to the south). By this time, a corridor had been constructed to connect the chapel of St. Mary with the Cathedral, making the building a massive 300 feet in length. Giso retained his see through the reign of the Conqueror and died in 1088.

Partly Edited from "Cathedrals" (1924).

Click for Post-Conquest Wells Cathedral


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