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The Scissor Arches, Wells Cathedral

The Scissor Arches, Wells Cathedral

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Wells Cathedral

In the Middle Ages, when the Roman Catholic Church was the most powerful (and richest) institution in Europe and held secular as well as religious influence over everyone’s life, the largest building in any town was likely to be the church. The pinnacle of church-building were the grand cathedrals that dotted Europe as each city sought to build the biggest and most richly ornamented cathedral. Medieval cathedrals were the Middle Ages equivalent of the Apollo moon program–they stretched contemporary technology to its limits, and required enormous investments of manpower and resources. And one of the grandest of England’s churches was Wells Cathedral, near Glastonbury.

It is not known precisely when Christianity entered the Roman province of Britannia. We do know that St Alban was executed by the Romans near Londinium in the year 304, just a few years before Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians and declared Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire.

By the 7th century, most of the island was Christian, and the town of Glastonbury had established itself as a religious center, with a number of monasteries and churches. In the 12th century, there was a religious revival throughout Europe, sparked perhaps by the Crusades. While men who were capable of bearing arms were expected to travel to the Holy Land on Crusade, the Pope sought a way to involve those who stayed behind, and issued a proclamation granting “indulgences”, or forgiveness of sins, to anyone who participated in the building of a church. This sparked a wave of church construction that lasted for hundreds of years, with each town successively trying to build a cathedral that was grander and more impressive than its neighbor’s. The earliest Gothic cathedrals were built in France, and soon spread to Germany and Britain.

The British town of Wells had been founded by the Romans, taking its name from the freshwater springs found there. In 1180, construction was begun on a cathedral, to be built in the Gothic style on the site of an old Saxon church. The project was overseen by Bishop Reginald Fitz Jocelin. By 1196, enough of the interior portion had been finished to allow it to be used for services, but construction on the ornamented facades, towers, and buttresses continued. In 1215 the West Front facade was begun: it featured a large number of carved statues that depicted the Biblical history of the world, and was the most heavily-decorated cathedral wall in the world at the time. The cathedral was finished a few years later, and was dedicated in 1239. It soared to 160 feet tall.

Then, in the middle of the 13th century, an earthquake damaged the central tower of the cathedral. After a 60-year repair and expansion project, cracks began to appear in some of the other towers, and in 1338 large scissor-arch braces were added to reinforce them. At around this time many of the stained-glass windows were also re-done. The most famous of these is the Golden Window, which depicts the ancestry of Jesus through Mary all the way back to Jesse, the father of King David. Then in 1386 and 1424, two more towers were added to the cathedral.

Wells Cathedral is built to the standard cross-shaped floor plan that typified all medieval churches. The long central aisle is oriented east-west, with the entrance at the east. At the west end is the nave with the altar and prayer benches. At the east end is the choir. Two transepts near the nave have secondary altars, and also serve as areas where prominent local people and church officials can be buried.

In 1343, the Bishop’s Palace was built next to the cathedral. It served as the residence for church officials, but also doubled as the town’s citadel in case of attack, and was built with defensive towers, crenelated walls with arrow slits, and a water-filled moat.

Over the centuries, the cathedral survived many potential disasters. During the Protestant Reformation and then the Civil War, Cromwell closed all the Catholic cathedrals in England, the statues of saints were torn down, and the painted walls depicting popes and saints were painted over. Most of the stained glass windows were broken–the Golden Window survived only because it was too high for the stone-throwing mob to reach. During the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, a squadron of rebel cavalry used the cathedral as a stable, and it was later used as a temporary prison. In 1703 a gale blew out some of the windows. In the 1840’s, much of the cathedral was cleaned and some restoration work done.

Today, in addition to the 150,000 local residents who worship there, Wells Cathedral is visited by about 300,000 tourists each year.

Wells Cathedral

The wells which can be seen to this day in the Bishop’s Garden are the reason there is a settlement in the area of Wells, Somerset, England. The earliest evidence of worship is a late Roman mausoleum on the site. Over this is a Saxon mortuary chapel dated to about 705 A.D. which lay to the south of the current site. The oldest surviving part of the cathedral is a baptismal font in the south transept and is dated c. 700 A.D. Two centuries later, the Wells Cathedral school was founded.

Medieval font in Wells Cathedral

The present structure was started c. 1175 and was built in the Early English architectural style. The bishop responsible for the building was Jocelyn of Wells, a brother of Bishop Hugh of Lincoln and one of the bishops who witnessed the Magna Carta in 1215. It was largely complete by the time of its consecration in 1239 and was given cathedral status in 1245. About 300 of the original medieval statues remain on the west front. Many of the figures and their niches were originally painted and gilded. The eastern end retains much of its original medieval glass which is highly unusual. Jocelyn also started building the Bishop’s Palace adjacent to the Cathedral.

Bishops Palace at Wells Cathedral

The beautiful octagonal chapter house was completed in 1306 and served as a meeting house for cathedral affairs. Due to the enhancement of the liturgy with grand processions, the cathedral was deemed too small and extensive enlargement began. The central tower was heightened, the quire was extended and an eight-sided Lady Chapel was added at the east end. Later in the 14th C. the central piers of the crossing were sinking due to damage from an earthquake that occurred in the 13th C. Scissor arches were inserted to stabilize the piers and create a striking image in the interior.

Scissors arches in Wells Cathedral

During the Civil War and the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, the building suffered damage and neglect, falling into disrepair. Renovations were off and on during the Restoration of the monarchy. During the Great Storm of 1703, some of the glass was damaged. In the 19th C. the cathedral was in need of major restoration. Repairs began and have been ongoing ever since. The Cathedral is famous for its library. The core of the collection is theology books but it also has books on the topics of science, medicine, history, exploration and languages.

Wells Cathedral from the east side

How old is Wells Cathedral Clock?

There are no exact records of when this clock was made however it is assumed that it was constructed in Wells cathedral in the late 14th century.

The earliest mention of the cathedral clock was in 1392 when payments were made to the Keeper of the Great Clock.

There are theories that Bishop Ralph Erghum was the one who thought of installing a clock here when he moved from Salisbury to Wells in 1388.

He had installed a clock in Salisbury Cathedral in 1386 and so he could have brought the clock makers with him to install one in Wells Cathedral too.

This makes the clock well over 600 years old!

Although it has had a few renovations made to it over time, this clock is currently the second oldest clock in England. It also has a claim to be the world’s oldest working clock with a dial.


Early years

The first church was established here in 705 AD. Γ] It was dedicated to Saint Andrew. The only remains of this first church are some excavated foundations which can be seen in the cloisters. The baptismal font in the south transept is the oldest surviving part of the cathedral which is dated to c.700 AD. Δ]

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. Ε] It was also around this time that Wells Cathedral School was founded.

Present structure

The present structure was begun under the direction of Bishop Reginald de Bohun, who died in 1184. Ζ] Wells Cathedral dates mainly from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries the nave and transept are masterpieces of Early English architecture. It was largely complete at the time of its dedication in 1239. Η]

The bishop responsible for the construction was Jocelyn de Wells, one of the bishops at the signing of Magna Carta. Jocelyn's buildings included the Bishop's Palace, a choristers' school, a grammar school, a hospital for travellers and a chapel. He also built a manor at Wookey, near Wells. ⎖] The master mason associated with Jocelyn was Elias of Dereham (died 1246). Jocelyn lived to see the church dedicated but, despite much lobbying of Rome, died in 1242. Cathedral status was granted in 1245. ⎖] ⎗] Masons continued with the enrichment of the West Front until about 1260.

King John was excommunicated between 1209 and 1213. During this time, work on the cathedral was suspended. In this period, building methods advanced so that bigger blocks of masonry could be moved and put into the walls. The effect of this advance can be seen on the walls of the cathedral at a point in the building's walls, the blocks of stone increase in size.

By the time the building was finished, including the Chapter House (1306), ⎘] it already seemed too small for the developing liturgy, in particular the increasingly grand processions. A new spate of building was therefore started by Bishop John Drokensford. He heightened the central tower and began a dramatic eight-sided Lady chapel at the far east end, finished by 1326. ⎙] Thomas of Whitney was the master mason.

Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury followed. He continued the eastward extension of the quire. He also built Vicars' Close and the Vicars' Hall, to give the men of the choir a secure place to live and dine, away from the town with all its temptations. ⎚] He enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the citizens of Wells, partly because of his imposition of taxes. ⎚] He surrounded his palace with crenellated walls and a moat and drawbridge. The Palace was now a castle.

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 University and Winchester Cathedral. ⎛] Under Bishop John Harewell, he built the south-west tower of the West Front and designed the north west, which was built to match in the early 15th century. ⎜] Inside the building he filled in the early English lancet windows with delicate tracery.

In the fourteenth century, the central piers (upright supports) of the crossing (where the building forms a cross) started sinking under the weight of the crossing tower. 'Scissor arches' were inserted to brace and stabilize the piers as a unit. ⎝] The building was now complete, and it looked much as it does today.

Wells Cathedral

The usual definition of a city is a large town created a city by charter and containing a cathedral.
Where Wells differs is the fact that it can hardly be defined as a large town. The population is not much more than 10,000 and it might better be described as a large village, nestling in a sleepy Somerset backwater.
In fact, it is the smallest cathedral city in the UK.

Yet it is also one of the most beautiful, and the cathedral itself is a magnificent building which has a number of special attractions which makes it appealing to the modern eye, while at the same time bearing remarkable record of the history associated with the city, which derives its name from the wells, or springs, which can still be seen today in the Bishop’s Palace garden, close by the cathedral.

The wells were the reason for the original settlement of the area and it was as long ago as 705 AD that King Ine of Wessex gave permission for a minster church to be founded there. A little town grew up around the church and in
1175 the present Cathedral was begun.

It was the first English cathedral to be built entirely in a new Gothic style and the first phase took about eighty years, building from east to west and culminating in the magnificent West Front, where 300 or so of its original medieval statues remain.

Then there is the famous Wells clock, which houses the second oldest clock mechanism in Britain to survive in original condition and still in use.
When the clock strikes every quarter jousting knights rush round above the clock and the Quarter Jack bangs the quarter hours with his heels.

Other features are the Jesse Window, one of the finest examples of 14th century stained glass in Europe the scissor arches, cleverly constructed between 1338 and 1348 to solve a structural problem and Vicars’ Close, a street which is the only completely medieval street in England.

More things to do in Wells Somerset

Even though we hadn’t been to Wells before, its Market Place felt strangely familiar. Some time after our visit, the penny dropped: the beloved-of-ITV2 crime caper Hot Fuzz was filmed here. If you’re a fan of the film you can book a Hot Fuzz tour of the city for a more irreverent take on Wells. Watch out for the swan.

In the local area we would also recommend visiting either Cheddar Gorge, Wookey Hole or both attractions for amazing caves in the limestone Mendip Hills. You’re also not far from the lovely city of Bath (a real must) and Stonehenge. Kids will also love nearby Longleat House which has a zoo and safari park.

And on our list to do on a return visit to Somerset is the spiritual town of Glastonbury and its Tor, only 8 miles away. But this will have to wait for another time!

8. The Wells & Mendip Museum Provides A Fascinating Look At The Area’s History

Located in the heart of Wells along the western edge of Cathedral Green, the Wells & Mendip Museum explores the natural history, geology, and cultural heritage of Wells and Mendip Hills. You’ll find a large collection of local rocks, fossils, and minerals, including an impressive ichthyosaur on display in the lobby. There are Stone Age tools, Iron Age artifacts, and prehistoric remains, most discovered during excavation at the nearby Wookey Hole Caves. One gallery focuses on the history of caving and cave diving beneath Mendip Hills.

Other galleries tell the story of early cathedral stonemasons, cover the history of Wells, and provide an immersive walkthrough of the World War I trench approach.

Pro Tip: Use the City Trail prepared by the city of Wells as your guide. The 3-mile trail is in the form of a figure eight, allowing for two shorter walks if preferred. The leaflet contains a map and information about the sights along the way.

  • Donna Janke View Full Profile

Donna Janke is a writer based in Canada out of Winnipeg, Manitoba. She shares her travel discoveries on her blog, Destinations Detours and Dreams, using a combination of narrative, photography, and personal reflection, all with an eye for detail. Her interest in travel started as a child when books transported her around the world, and grew as she explored the world in person. Her life as a travel writer began after she retired from a professional career in IT. Donna loves discovering the unique character of places, near and far, and writing to inspire others in their travels. Her travel stories have been published in several outlets, and tend to focus on culture, history, nature, art, architecture, and food.

5. Walkthrough the Penniless Porch to Wells Market Place

There are a series of historic gates in Wells that will lead you around the town but are also attractions in their own right.

One is the Pauper’s Gate or Penniless Porch in the Market Place.

This gate was specifically built as part of the walled precinct of the Liberty of St Andrew. Which, years ago, housed the cathedral, Vicar’s Close and Bishop’s Palace.

It was built to provide alms to the poor and to provide a spot for beggars to work. It has stood here on this spot since 1450 and was originally constructed by Bishop Thomas Beckington.

As you make your way through the gate, you’ll enter Wells Market Place. This is a focal point of the city and has a twice-weekly market on Wednesdays and Saturdays!

You’ll also spot the Town Hall, a medieval conduit fountain and the local Post Office.

The Penniless Porch

38. Wells


Every journey on this trip so far has been short as we have hopped from one cathedral city to another. Most have been less than an hour, few longer than 90 minutes. So it’s a bit of a shock when it dawns that Truro to Wells will be a multi-hour stint as we go back past Exeter and upwards again. We pause for lunch in the middle of a wet and blustery Dartmoor, and by the time we reach our destination it’s getting dark. That hour clock change at the weekend really makes a difference when you are doing something like this and we’re going to have to maximise daylight hours in the last few days.

After our final overnight stop with a curate in Wells we set out for the Cathedral and decide that we’ll try to get the shot of Clara before the visit. Up until now we’ve tended to scope the shot and grab it afterwards, but the poor weather recently combined with the earlier darkness can make this difficult, so we drive straight into the Cathedral Close where we have been told that there is a dead end and an ideally located turning circle. The fact that it is a dead end makes for quiet traffic conditions, and I pull into the turning circle and we both leap out. By the time Tash has positioned herself as photographer a car has appeared from nowhere and is trying to turn. The driver isn’t impressed with me. I think he’s looked at Clara’s green wheels and decided that they say everything he needs to know. As he reverses into the turning space and – might I point out – successfully turns around he lectures me on the fact that this is for turning in and not for parking in. There is apparently plenty of roadside parking along the street (yes, I know, I just drove past plenty of empty spaces, but they aren’t in the right place for this photo…) and I should park there. He’s not interested in anything I have to say and drives off. This has all meant that I was there much longer than if he had just let it be. And he still managed to turn despite me. It’s the first time I have encountered such anger on the trip, and I wonder if I would have faced it had I been wearing a dog collar.

No turning back for Clara in Wells

The visitation of the Wells Welcoming Committee complete I go and find a legitimate parking space, and wander through the streets of Wells back to the cathedral. I try not to pause too long on any one spot, just in case it’s a local offence and I manage to make it without upsetting anyone else.

The West Front of Wells Cathedral is unique and I suspect was the inspiration for the brown tourist roadsign symbol for cathedrals. Two towers flank a pointed wall, which is inset with hundreds of niches, most containing statues.

Many are heavily eroded, although its clear that several have been recently replaced, most notably at the peak, where the one of Christ in Glory is only about 10 years old. Another tiny one at the bottom is almost brand new, having no sign of weathering yet.

You enter via a modern Welcome Centre, which includes a covered queuing area, along with one of the more ‘strongly suggested donation’ points that I’ve seen and then you are into the Cloisters. Upon exit you are back here but leave via the shop. In the middle of it is a carefully tended alpine/herb garden.

Once you make it into the cathedral itself via the West of the nave you can’t miss That Scissor Arch. I know that last week I said that scissor arches aren’t unique to Wells (and they are not), but I had forgotten just how breathtakingly daring they are here. At Salisbury they are tucked away behind the central tower, presumably bracing the weight of the spire and could be easily missed. Here they are an integral part of three sides of the Crossing – north, west and south. The western one is centre stage at the head of the nave – it’s not in the background by any means – and this has been capitalised on by having a substantial crucifix above it and framed by it. One guide book I read said you either love it or hate it. I loves it, I does.

The Scissor Arches were introduced in the early 1300’s after the central tower was heightened, and because an earthquake had caused the tower piers to start leaning. I struggle to imagine how such a substantial modification would be introduced now with modern technology, never mind 700 years ago.

“That’s a supporting wall Mrs Fawlty, It could give way at any moment. Keep this door shut until I can get a screwjack to prop it up before the lot comes down. Cowboys!”

In the middle of the empty nave stands a candle and an encouragement to pray for those who have died and those who have served in the pandemic. It is simple, powerful and difficult to miss.

Around the walls of the nave are the Stations of the Cross in icons, mounted on rough wood and with nail style ironwork reflecting the brutal materials of the Cross

In the North transept is the Astronomical Clock which keeps perfect time, and provides entertainment every 15 minutes with a clockwork jousting tournament which has been running for the last 600 years with the same result every time. As it is approaching a performance a number of people are gathering to watch. Externally on another wall at 90 degrees to this is a second face run from the same mechanism, which must run through hidden tunnels in the stone.

Below the timepiece is a carving “The Lord of Time and Eternity”. Unfortunately far fewer people are taking the time to examine this more closely.

A little further on is the stairway to the Chapter House, both of which are currently closed. I remember coming here before and it being stunning. The stairway itself is an amazing piece of work as it both continues upwards to a bridge which crosses the road to choir accommodation and twists rightwards into the Chapter House – which I remember from a previous visit as being stunning. Its unique claim is that it is the only Chapter House built atop an undercroft.

Continuing past the Quire, which is also closed to public access, the processional corridor is lined with recumbent stone effigies of former bishops. I try in vain to find Blackadder’s baby eating Bishop of Bath and Wells, although a good candidate is the one which is incised with ancient graffiti. There are three such examples in the building, all made from soft alabaster. I’ve not seen such defacing before and I can’t quite believe it. Photos here are of the tombs of Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury and Bishop Harewell.

The eastern end is taken up with a handful of chapels, most significantly the Lady Chapel. Several windows here are composites made up of broken fragments, from when the cathedral was ransacked in the Civil War.

The tomb of Bishop Bekynton is notable, although it is difficult to photograph behind dense and thick iron railings, which themselves hold a good level of detail including some ‘baby bishop heads’ – as a guide describes them to me. The tomb has two figures on it: one of the bishop in all his finery, and below it a representation of his cadaver. The bishop knew how he wanted to be memorialised and had this prepared some 15 years before his death. I like his honesty and the humility displayed by the contrast between his finery and the actual state that he woild end up as.

Finally we come to the South Transept, which holds the font, although I was preoccupied and missed that! This then leads to the cloisters and the shop. The cloisters are lined with the type of marble memorials that are usually found inside, and it strikes me that the cathedral itself is relatively clear of them. This, I learn, is due to “The Great Scrape” in the mid 19th Century when the Dean had a major clearout. The cloister itself is fully glazed, the first time I have seen this, which adds to the peaceful feeling here. Inset into several panes are memorials to 20th century bishops and deans – a modest modern way of memorialising those who have played leading roles in this place.

I’m meeting the Dean, John Davies, today. He tells me that this is a place of beauty which speaks for itself. I agree. The scissor arch does all the hard work here – structurally and touristically. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it for the last two months and 37 cathedrals. The cathedral is a place of peace which cradles people during their time here and which speaks subliminally. Poetic and true, although I did appreciate the handful of interpretation boards which I encountered on my walk through. Subliminal only gets you so far – occasionally you need some handy pointers.

We talk about the modern nave furniture. It’s quite organic in form, and the chairs at the rear have really high backs. He explains that under normal circumstances those high backs are the back row and help to form a non-permanant backdrop to the choir. A nice effect.

300,000 people a year come here, so this cathedral does not need to work at attracting visitors – although obviously this year has been exceptional and the three month closure lost 70,000 of those. We talk of whether some of the things that other cathedrals have done have been gimmicks, or not, and I share with him what some of the other places have told me, but which will remain unrecorded here. He was at Derby when Jerram’s Moon was there – highly successful in drawing people in, but in that tiny space it completely destroyed the prayerful atmosphere for the duration. So there is justified scepticism of the benefits of such things, but Moon is coming here in the New Year.

I ask if there will be a supporting programme of events for Moon, and am reminded that it’s difficult enough to plan Christmas this year. I’ve been out of the parish for nearly three months and I had almost forgotten how much work is going on behind the scenes against a continually evolving background in order to provide some form of Christmas services. I remember that I don’t even know what service pattern I will be returning to in late November, and I think of my clergy and lay colleagues back in the Woodbridge Group who are probably paddling furiously like Wells’ famous swans under the waterline whilst maintaining a serene public face.

It’s time to move on. The Dean buys me lunch and excuses himself. I continue to be impressed that people with busy diaries like him can spare their time for random visitors like me.

Returning to Clara we head out of the city. We have slightly reordered our final four visits, partly because of when cathedrals could see me, but also because I have decided to finish ‘at home’ in Bristol. And it avoids doing 5 on successive days, which is energy sapping. However, to get from Wells to Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester we have to skirt Bristol. As we cross the swing bridge over the Cumberland Basin and head left to pass underneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge the three towers of my own Cathedral call to me from about a mile away. We’ll be back, soon, I promises my precious.

Watch the video: Πανηγυρικός Εσπερινός από τον Καθεδρικό Ναό Ευαγγελισμού της Ρόδου 22-3-2019 (July 2022).


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