Wells Cathedral is a Church of England place of worship in Wells, Somerset, dedicated to St Andrew the Apostle, and is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. As with other cathedrals, it is the mother church of the diocese and contains the bishop’s throne (cathedra). The present building dates from 1175 to 1490, an earlier church having been built on the site in 705. It is moderately sized among the medieval cathedrals of England, falling between those of massive proportion, such as Lincoln and York, and the much smaller cathedrals of Oxford and Carlisle. With its broad west front and large central tower, it is the dominant feature of its small cathedral city and a landmark in the Somerset countryside. Wells has been variously described as “unquestionably one of the most beautiful” and as “the most poetic” of English cathedrals.
The architecture of the cathedral presents a harmonious whole which is entirely Gothic and mostly in a single style, the Early English Gothic of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. In this Wells differs from most other English medieval cathedrals, which have parts in the earlier Romanesque architectural style introduced to Britain by the Normans in the 11th century.
Work on the cathedral commenced in about 1175 at the eastern end with the building of the choir. The historian John Harvey considers this to be the first truly Gothic structure in Europe, having broken from the last constraints of Romanesque. The stonework of its pointed arcades and fluted piers is enriched by the complexity of the pronounced mouldings and vitality of the carved capitals in a foliate style known as “stiff leaf”. The exterior has an Early English façade displaying more than three hundred sculpted figures, and described by Harvey as “the supreme triumph of the combined plastic arts in England”. The eastern end retains much ancient stained glass, which is rare in England.
Unlike the many English cathedrals of monastic foundation, Wells has an exceptional number of surviving secular buildings associated with its chapter of secular canons, such as the Bishop’s Palace and the Vicars’ Close, a residential street which has remained intact from the 15th century. The cathedral is a scheduled monument and is designated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building.