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The History of Wells

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The cathedral city of Wells gets its name from three wells, once believed to have curative powers, later dedicated to Saint Andrew. Two are within the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace and the cathedral, with a third now a prominent monument in the magnificent market square. With a population of around 10,000 it is the smallest city in England, with the exception of the square mile that is the City of London .

While the oldest building yet to be found in Wells a Roman mausoleum, it is known that the wells have been at the centre of spiritual interest for a very long time. Excavations have suggested that ancient religious buildings have existed there since very early history. The Romans constructed a road that passed through Wells on its way to Bristol . Wells was a small Roman settlement, possibly with temples dedicated to deities the springs. The early Christian church took a keen interest in Wells. Just like the Romans before them, the Christians were adept at converting ancient shrines into ones that suited their ‘new’ beliefs. It was the Saxon King Ine of Wessex in the early 8th century who chose Wells as the site of a minster church.
Future kings expanded the church’s possessions at Wells. In 766 King Cynewulf gave land to “the minster by the Great Spring which they call Wells”, an early reference to the city name that is still unchanged over 1,000 years later. The diocese of Wells was founded by King Edward the Elder in 909, further establishing the church’s already formidable status in Somerset. It made St Andrew’s church the cathedral of the new diocese and additions were made to the building over the ensuing 150 years.

The cathedral fell into Norman hands after the defeat of King Harold at Hastings in 1066. John de Villula, the first Norman bishop moved the seat of the diocese to Bath. Wells lost cathedral status and the bishop demolished buildings previously constructed at Wells for the seat. Despite this setback, extensive work began on the old St Andrew’s church in 1180. The diocese seat returned from Bath in 1244, quite probably as a result of the grand remodelling of St Andrew’s church. 1180 was also the year Wells was granted its royal charter, King John awarded Wells free borough status. Wells was later granted the right to hold five fairs by various medieval charters.

Although small by current standards, Wells was the largest city in Somerset during several hundred years of its existence. The city flourished partly because of the mere existence of a busy ecclesiastical community, but mainly because of the local trade in wool and cloth. The wealth powered the growth of the church who owned much of the land and business in the region. Bishop’s Reginald FitzJocelin, Savaric FitzGoldwin and Jocelin of Wells poured money into constructing one of the most outstanding examples of ecclesiastical architecture in Great Britain. The main part of the cathedral construction was carried out between the 12th and early 13th century. The central tower, 160 feet tall, was added during reconstruction work after a fire in the 14th century. Much of the 14th century work was later destroyed when Edward VI blew up the grand chapel with gunpowder as part of the continuing Reformation, started by King Henry VIII .

The Civil War brought more damage to the cathedral when Parliamentary troops used it to stable their horses. They also delighted in using the ornate medieval sculpture for firing practice. William Penn , later the founder of Pennsylvania in North America, stayed in Wells but was arrested for preaching religious freedom in the market square. Penn was released on the request of the Bishop and the large hill behind Wells is now known as Penn Hill.

Wells was the scene of uprising during the Monmouth Rebellion. Rebel soldiers used lead from the roof and windows to make shot and the cathedral again had to suffer being used to stable horses. The rebellion was quashed and the Bloody Assizes swept through the land bringing punishment on thousands deemed associated with the movement that tried to fight the power of the church and crown. The hearings
ended in Wells on 23 September 1685 with 500 men being found guilty. Most were then sentenced to a grizzly death or transportation.

Not much has changed in Wells for the hundreds of years since those bloody days. The Cathedral itself has been repaired and restored and sits proudly at the centre of this small West Country city. Apart from a little light industry, much of it related to agriculture or agricultural produce, the city continued to rely on the existence of the church community, the thriving market and the surrounding farms for its wealth. During the Second World War a POW camp was established at Stoberry Park. It housed Italians captured in the Western Desert Campaigns. A few of the soldiers stayed in the area after the war to open businesses like ice cream sales or restaurants. In recent years Wells has become a major tourist attraction, with people flocking to see the wonderful sights in the historic city that is considered the jewel of Somerset.

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