May 21 – A tour around the Wells Cathedral

An Italian tour group visits

Hello from 1066 – A Medieval Mosaic

Today we had a little bit of anxiety on the way to work. We have been parking in Ash Lane where it is free parking all day. It is at the top of the hill and then a short walk down through Vicar’s Court to the cathedral. However, after parking, we could not get the car to lock with the electronic key. Mike ended up getting back in to firmly shut each door again. Finally after several minutes of mucking about but we still have no idea why it wouldn’t lock or why it eventually did. Early in the day, we had a bus tour of Italian people to see the mosaic. The lady guide translated for us and the group were very interested which was very nice as Italy is renowned for its mosaics.

After lunch in the gardens in the sun I decided to join the 1 pm hour-long tour. We have done the tour before on our last visit but I always learn something new as each tour guide has their own slant.

Wells has also been a special place because of the wells which are in the Bishops Palace grounds and even in Roman days this was a place of pilgrimage. In the 700’s, King Ina, King of Wessex gave land here for the building of a minster probably in wood and later in stone alongside the present cathedral. King Ina is depicted in the main west window. The centre panel of the window is the”Transfiguration of Christ” by Powell in but the side windows are must older. King Ina is the middle character on the left-hand side under King David.

Reginald Fitz Jocelin, Bishop of Bath and later Bishop of Bath and Wells had travelled extensively in Europe and saw the Early Gothic style with its more pointed arches than the rounded Norman arches. When he arrived in Wells in 1175 he decided to build an impressive cathedral in Early English Gothic style. Wells Cathedral was the first of its style built in the United Kingdom. The West front was finished in 1239. Even now there are only 11,000 inhabitants in Wells and then even less. Adam Lock was the master mason and he is depicted on one of the corbels in the nave. He did not live to see his cathedral finished but the next master mason finished the cathedral to his plans keeping the continuity of the building. The building is made mostly from limestone with some Somerset blue lias and Purbeck marble. The stone masons were given quite a free rein with the carvings and many have non-religious themes. The building could only take place for certain months of the year as they worried about the mortar being affected by the cold weather and the frosts. So during the winter the stone masons prepared and cut the stone needed for the next season and also carved corbels and columns. There are many stories told like the martyrdom of St Edmund on the outside north door. Also, columns depicting a story of two men stealing grapes, green men, men with a toothache and removing a prickle from the foot. There were also lots of animals and plants depicted like a lovely carving of a salamander.

In the early days, the entire cathedral would have been painted both inside and outside in many different colours and gold. During the Reformation, this was all whitewashed and later when they removed the whitewash the colour was removed with it. There are some flecks of paint remaining especially on the West front and one of the chantry chapels is also still painted.

In the early days, the cathedral was not for the common person and the nave had no seating but was an open space. The clergy would process through the West door down through the nave into the chancel for their services. Because the procession was so long they ended up singing hymns at different times so an organ was mounted on a platform which sat on top of two corbels, one of a King and one of a Bishop. Ths allowed everyone in the nave to keep everyone singing at the same time as those already in the quire. The first organ was installed in 1310.

The two chantry chapels in the nave were built for two Bishops. On the left was for Bishop Nicholas Bubwith, 1402 – 1425, who built almshouses around Wells and also left money for the chained library, the only one of its kind in the UK. The chantry chapel on the right was built for Bishop Sugar, treasurer of the UK who gave money for the scissor arches. After the reformation and the conversion of the Bible to English, the cathedral became more open to the public and the pulpit was built by Bishop Knight. He was buried under the pulpit and apparently if the sermon goes on too long he moans from beneath the pulpit.

The scissor arches are unique in the world. In 1311 the tower was heightened, a spire was added and 10 heavy bells were placed in the tower. As a result, cracks appeared and the tower subsided by 10cm as the columns were not strong enough to hold the extra weight. Master mason William Joy designed the scissor arches to hold the additional weight and the work was carried out between 1338 and 1348. Since then it has never moved again.

The font in the south transept is over 1000 years old and was moved from the previous Minster which stood next door. It is a plain round font with rounded Norman arches around the bowl which someone tried to make unsuccessfully into points like the gothic arches. This font has an oak canopy which has been gilded many times but the font is still used for christenings today.

The tomb of John Harewell is in the south aisle and is made of alabaster. He was Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1360 – 1380. His tomb was damaged in the Reformation and he has no nose or hands and the stone has been extensively covered in graffiti though hundreds of years ago rather than recently perhaps by choir boys waiting to enter the quire. At his feet are two hares drinking water from the well, which is a way of depicting his name, Harewell.

In the quire is the amazing Jesse window showing all the ancestors of Christ going back to Jesse, father of King David. It is a medieval stained glass window with over 90% original glass and placed in 1340. During WW2 they were so worried about the possibility of the city being bombed and losing such a treasure that it was completely removed and stored in the walls of the cathedral. A couple of years ago it was carefully removed, cleaned and replaced and looks absolutely fabulous now with wonderful colours especially greens and yellows.

In the quire, there are 40 tapestry wall hangings depicting the most of the Bishops of Wells from 1323 to 1937. There are also two rows of 14th-century misericords which were so called as an “act of mercy” for the clergy to rest against during long services.

The third chantry chapel in the cathedral is in the quire and is a double tomb with the effigy of  Thomas Bekynton on the top and his skeletal body underneath. The tomb and the chantry are still coloured and have remained intact and coloured despite the Reformation when so many other statues and effigies suffered. Thomas was a well-loved Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1443 – 1464 as he was responsible for building waterways which took the water from the wells in the Bishops palace to the fountain in the market square.

The astronomical clock at Wells is fabulous and is the second oldest in the country as Salisbury’s clock is the oldest. However, it is possible that both were made by the same clockmakers. It is a 24-hour clock with the outside circle being the hours and a star represents the hour of the day. The next layer represents the minutes again depicted by a star. The next part depicts the phases of the moon and beside it is a representation of Phoebe, the moon goddess. The quarters are chimed by a quarter jack in the form of a small automaton known as Jack Blandifers, who hits two bells with hammers and two with his heels. At the striking of the clock, jousting knights appear above the clock face. The date of the clock is unknown but in the chained library there is a note listing the payment of 10 shillings a year to the clock winder in the year 1392 so it is at least that old. It is possible that it dates from about 1325 and believed to be the work of Peter Lightfoot, a monk of Glastonbury. On the outer wall of the transept, opposite Vicars’ Hall, is a second clock face of the same clock, placed there just over seventy years after the interior clock and driven by the same mechanism. The second clock face has two quarter jacks (which strike on the quarter-hour) in the form of knights in armour.

Below the clock is a statue of Christus carved out of a single piece of wood by William Clack.

The guide also showed us several other special stone carvings around the Cathedral including a salamander, a man removing a thorn from his foot and several of the 12 carving depicting toothache.

The final place we visited was the Chapterhouse which is up a well-worn series of stone steps and is unusual in that it is not on the ground floor as in most other Cathedrals. It was built in 1306 and was where the running of the day to day management of the Cathedral took place. There are alcoves all around listing all the villages in the area who had to pay for the upkeep and so each village had to send a representative to each meeting to join in the decision making process. An ecclesiastical court was also held here. The central column is surrounded by twelve black Purbeck marble pillars which then branch into 36 fan vaults reminiscent of a fountain. The chapter house is in the geometric style of Decorated Gothic architecture. The windows are mostly plain glass with medieval glass in the tracery at the tops of the windows only. In the stairway leading up to the chapter house are the oldest pieces of stained glass.

It was such an interesting tour and we had people from Australia, New Zealand and the USA in our group of tourists. The Willis organ which was installed in the mid-1800’s was being tuned today which is a long, noisy monotonous process. The organ has to be tuned often as it is used so much. There are at least two services each day, one in the morning and another at about 5 pm when the various choirs perform to the accompaniment of the organ. On Sundays and other special days there are even more services and then there are concerts too.