As you stand on the green gazing at the west front, having entered via one of the 3 ancient gateways (Brown's Gatehouse, Penniless Porch or Chain Gate) recall that your feet are planted on a graveyard. Your eyes are fixed on a facade of unusually consistent architecture, being almost wholly Early English in style and not a medley as in many Medieval Cathedrals. The stone is Inferior Oolite from the Middle Jurassic period - I love that as I am not even sure if there is a Superior version!
There are 3 horizontal layers, the bottom one being quite plain. The others showcase 300 sculpted figures - there were 400 originally - which would have been brightly painted in reds, blues and greens as has been deduced from some remaining flakes of colour adhering to them. This is one of the largest collection of Medieval statues in Europe and the finest display of such carving in England. There are seated and standing people, half-length angels and narratives. The personalities include monarchs, Old Testament prophets and patriarchs, apostles, bishops and other holy individuals, many identifiable by their attributes. There are also the dead, joyful or despairing, emerging from their tombs on the Day of Judgement, some recognisable as royal by their crowns or episcopal by their mitres - although otherwise naked! The sizes reflect importance but the large statue at the very top of Christ in Majesty is a modern replacement of one badly damaged.
It is impossible in a blog post to describe all the attributes worth noting on the inside but these are the most striking in my opinion.
The scissor (strainer) arches: these are structural in an interesting way since they were inserted to sustain the weight of an extra storey added to the top of the central tower which caused it to crack and lean. Between 1338 and 48 the master mason William Joy conceived this solution which proved stunning to look at and yet practical. The appearance is of an extra inverted arch on top of the more usual one.
The 'Golden Window' is so called because of the glowing yellow stain given to the 14th century glasswork depicting the Tree of Jesse which shows the lineage of Christ rising from Jesse, symbolising Israel, who lies on his side at the bottom with a tree or vine growing from his side. Wells has one of the most substantial collections of Medieval stained glass in England, despite damage by Parliamemtary troops in the Civil War.
Carvings: in particular, look out for the man with toothache as a capital in the South Transept. He is pointing to the place of pain with his index finger as if showing it to the dentist and is one of 11 such.
The misericords: these are little seats often with carvings underneath, so called because they gave the worshippers a merciful chance to semi-sit during a long service without appearing to do so. In Wells they are particularly fine and date from 1330-1340: 27 depict animals including rabbits, dogs, a puppy biting a cat, a ewe feeding a lamb, monkeys, lions and bats; 18 show mythological subjects such as mermaids, dragons, wyverns and the narrative of the Fox and the Geese. Such unchristian icons may have crept in unobserved, perhaps being the foible of the individual carver.
The Astronomical Clock: in the North Transept is a 24 hour, geocentric clock dating from around 1325, probably the work of a Glastonbury monk, Peter Lightfoot. The original mechanism is now in the Science Museum in London, still working. The Medieval face remains and shows the hours, the motions of sun and moon around a fixed Earth and the phases of the moon. The quarter hours are marked by Jack Blandifers (look upwards to the right) who hits 2 bells with hammers and 2 with his heels as jousting knights appear above the clock face. A second clock, working from the same mechanism, has 2 knights in armour as quarter jacks. In 2010 the official winder retired to be replaced by an electric motor - a pity say I.
Violence and peace:
Dean Walter Raleigh (nephew of the more famous chap of the same name) was placed under house arrest here. His jailer was a shoe maker and city constable called David Barrett, who caught him writing a forbidden letter to his wife. When Raleigh refused to hand it over, Barrett ran him through with his sword and he died 6 weeks later on 10th October 1646.
During the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, Puritan soldiers damaged the West front, tore lead from the roof for bullets, broke windows, smashed the organ and furnishings and stabled their horses in the nave.
|Look for this in the town|
In July 2009 the Cathedral held the funeral of Harry Patch, plumber and firefighter, British Army veteran of World War I, "the Last Fighting Tommy", who died aged 111 years, 1 month, 1 week and 1 day - at peace after great violence.
A Very Very Brief History of the name
Fans of Blackadder with be asking about the Bishop of Bath and Wells: after many disputes, Pope Innocent IV established this title in 1245 after the seat had moved between Wells and the Abbeys of Bath and Glastonbury but - it is a bit like saying there is no Father Christmas - none of them ate babies!
There has been a church here since 705 and a shrine in Roman times or even earlier.
The town of Wells is very appealing with the Vicars' Close, (probably the oldest purely residential street in Europe), some interesting shops as well as the usual suspects and a thriving Wednesday market - but even more enthralling is the Bishop's Palace and gardens which utterly entranced me and which I will write about after a second visit.
I went by public transport from Monmouthshire via Bath and, on the way back, Bristol Temple Meads, and it necessitated an overnight stay but I intend to go again on an organised day coach trip. I have also written about Hereford Cathedral and Gloucester Cathedral and many castles and Roman remains - perhaps you could start with Raglan Castle and nearby Caerleon amphitheatre.
I am grateful to the Pitkin Guide and Wikipedia for information.
For opening times etc click here for the Cathedral website.