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Wells Cathedral

Wells , Somerset

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Many cathedrals and historic buildings are interesting, but I would say that this is the most interesting of Britain's cathedrals, as just abut everything is here, while at other sites you are looking at one aspect or another. For  those interested in photography or in discovering more about our historic cathedrals, this one should be at the top of the list to visit.

The stunning Wells Cathedral is a photographers delight, with over 300 statues on its west front, interesting inside including old future looking straining arches added to support the central tower and spire, octagonal chapter house, double height cloisters and markings in the garden beyond of the foundations of some earlier versions. At one time this cathedral had a high central spire like Salisbury cathedral, but this was destroyed in a fire and not rebuilt.

Next door is the moated and fortified Bishops Palace, the other opposite side is a row of houses up a cobbled road accessible through an arch that was built for members of the quire.

The cathedral welcomes photography, and only asks that flash is not used within the quire, (the part that is enclosed between the central cross of the transepts and main alter. On my visit I did not use flash at all, but used available light throughout.

The west front, with most of the statues, is double the width of the naive, and originally the statues would have been both painted and covered in gold leaf. Some of the parts they are housed in would have likewise been colours. Today you see it as clean stone. More statures can be found along the north side, and the south side there are spaces for statues, but none were produced for these. The statues represent saints and benefactors and are larger than life size.

  Click on the images to see larger versions

All the internal photographs were taken with high ISO and available light, no flash was used.

Wells Cathedral has been described as “the most poetic of the English Cathedrals" by other authors looking at the cathedrals of England. Another says " Much of the structure is in the Early English style and is greatly enriched by the deeply sculptural nature of the mouldings and the vitality of the carved capitals in a foliate style known as “stiff leaf”. The eastern end has retained much of the original glass, which is rare in England. The exterior has a splendid Early English façade and a large central tower."


We don't know what was here in the very distant past, but there is archaeological evidence of a late Ancient Rome mausoleum on the site. The first church we know of was built at this site in 705, the current building however was built between 1175 and 1490.

The first church was established here in 705 by King Ine of Wessex, at the urging of Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne, in whose diocese it lay. It was dedicated to Saint Andrew. The only remains of this first church are some excavated foundations which can be seen in the cloisters area. The baptismal font in the south transept is the oldest surviving part of the cathedral which is dated to around 700 AD.

Two centuries later, the seat of the diocese was shifted to Wells from Sherborne. The first Bishop of Wells was Athelm (circa 909), who crowned King Athelstan. Athelm and his nephew Saint Dunstan both became Archbishops of Canterbury.

The current building was put up between 1175 and 1239 when it was dedicated.  Some expansion occurred but by 1306 the building, including the chapter house was finished. Following this some parts were hightened, and the eight sided lady chapel built.

The appointment of William Wynford as master mason in 1365 marked another period of activity. He was one of the foremost architects of his time and apart from Wells was engaged in work for the King at Windsor and at New College Oxford and Winchester Cathedral . Under Bishop John Harewell, who raised money for the project, he built the south-west tower of the West Front and designed the north west, which was built to match in the early 1400s. Inside the building he filled in the early English lancet windows with delicate tracery.

In the fourteenth century the central piers of the crossing were found to be sinking under the weight of the crossing tower, so the "scissor arches" (inverted strainer arches that are such a striking feature) were inserted to brace and stabilize the piers as a unit. By the reign of Henry VII the cathedral building was complete, with in appearance much as it is seen today.

For all the images in this rotator

Dissolution of the monasteries, reduced the cathedrals income and some of their assets were sold off but had little affect on the main cathedral building.

At the time of the civil War, local fighting led to damage to the fabric of the cathedral including stonework, furniture and windows. The Dean at this time was Dr. Walter Ralegh, a nephew of the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh. He was imprisoned after the fall of Bridgwater to the Parliamentarians in 1645, brought back to Wells and confined in the deanery. His jailer was the local shoemaker and city constable, David Barrett, who caught him writing a letter to his wife. When he refused to surrender it, Mr Barrett ran him through with a sword, from which he died six weeks later, on 10 October 1646 and he was buried in the quire before the deans stall.  During the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell, no dean was appointed and the building fell into disrepair. The bishop was in retirement and some clergy were reduced to performing menial tasks or begging on the streets. During the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, puritan soldiers damaged the West front, tore lead from the roof to make bullets, broke the windows, smashed the organ and the furnishings, and for a time stabled their horses in the nave.

Over the next period the cathedral was restored, but political turmoil saw many problems. In the middle of the 1800s a major restoration programme was needed. The monuments were removed to the cloisters and remaining medieval paint and whitewash was removed in an operation known as the 'the great scrape'. There was extensive restoration of the Quire, the wooden galleries were removed and new stalls with stone canopies were placed further back within the line of the arches. The stone screen was pushed outwards in the centre to support a new organ. Since then a rolling programme of improvement to the fabric has been continued.

Wells Cathedral contains one of the most substantial collections of medieval stained glass in England.


This is the image by which the present cathedral is best known and is one of its great glories. The magnificent west façade, built between 1209 and 1250, is 100 feet high and 150 feet wide - exactly twice the width of the Nave which it terminates. There are niches for more than 500 figure sculptures, most of them larger than lifesize. Wells’ west front is unique in retaining almost 300 of its original medieval statues. During cleaning and conservation in 1974 - 1986 traces were found of the original colour with which the sculptures and their architectural backgrounds were painted. In addition to the contrast between the dark blue-grey lias shafts and the pale stonework, the statues were decorated using rich colours including gold leaf, within the background of their dark red niches.

Click on image to see larger version

Foundations of  earlier churches

Going through the cloisters, into a garden, you have the foundations of earlier churches on this site. From this you can see the change in direction or alignment at each stage, as the saints, or calendar changes occurred, so that the cathedral pointed to the sunrise at specific dates.

Click on image to see larger version


The Wells clock, an astronomical clock in the north transept, is the second-oldest surviving clock in England.  The dial represents the geocentric view of the universe, with sun and moon revolving round a central fixed earth. It still has its original medieval face, and may be unique in showing a philosophical model of the pre-Copernican universe with the earth at its centre. As well as showing the time on a 24 hour dial, it also reflects the motion of the sun and the moon, the phases of the moon, and the time since the last new moon. When the clock strikes every quarter, jousting knights move around above the clock and the Quarter Jack bangs the quarter hours with his heels. An outside clock opposite Vicars' Hall, placed there just over seventy years after the interior clock, is connected with the inside mechanism. The surviving mechanism, dated to between 1386 and 1392, was replaced in the 19th century, and was eventually moved to the Science Museum in London, where it continues to operate.


Besides the main cathedral, other features are the chapter house, cloisters, early foundations of the older church and the monastery drainage  system. The moated and defended Bishops Palace next door, a separate attraction to visit, presents other possibilities for the photographer, as does the close and other buildings in the area. The vicars close just north of the cathedral, is the oldest continually inhabited medieval street in Europe, its photogenic with no traffic or yellow lines.  Externally its the west door with all its statues that is the most striking feature. Wells is England's smallest city, and has that friendly feel about it lost in many of our larger cites.

Further information Grid



Wells Cathedral, Wells, Somerset

Ceremonial County: Somerset

Grid Reference:


Map Link:


Aerial photo: Multimap



Best Times to Visit:





Own   History

Other useful websites:


Nearby Locations: Wells Bishops Palace
Other Relevant pages:

Abbey section, including all major Christian buildings, regions orders, normal layouts and history.

List of all Anglican cathedrals and other major Anglican churches in the UK



Date Updated: 09/2008


Planning Grid


Wells Cathedral, Wells, Somerset

Grid Reference:


Getting there:

Located in the centre of Wells, and well sign posted.




Parking in Wells can be a problem with all car parks full on a normal weekend, on our visit we were limited in the time we had in wells, so were not able to also go inside the Bishops Palace.


Shop, restaurant, WC, free guided tours

Things To Do, See and Photograph:

Buildings, architecture, views. Reflections in the moat around the Bishops Palace.

What to take:

Tripod, level, wide angle lens.

Nature highlights:

Swans that ring the door bell in the moat of the Bishops Palace.


Cathedral Offices
Chain Gate
Cathedral Green




01749 674483

Opening times:

APRIL -  SEPTEMBER  7.00am - 7.00pm

OCTOBER - MARCH 7.00am - 6.00pm

But check website for special events,  weddings etc


No entry fees, donations welcome, they suggest £2.50-£5.50 but there is pay desk on entry.

Photo permits £3 for a day, from table at rear of cathedral

Photo Restrictions:

No flash photography in the quire.

Their website says that photography is encouraged.

Other Restrictions:  
Special Needs Access: Should not be a problem for anyone
Special Needs Facilities:  
Children Facilities:  
Dogs Allowed:  

Page Ref:


Date Updated: 09/2008

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