This is one of a series of reports on the archaeology of the urban (and formerly urban) areas of Somerset commissioned by English Heritage as part of its Extensive Urban Survey (EUS). The reports were prepared by Somerset County Council in 1994-98. There is a brief history of the town extracted from the report or you can download the whole report and maps in Portable Document Format (PDF).
Wells lies near the end of the Mendip-foot bench, a narrow shelf of fertile land between the upland environment of the Mendips and the wetland environment of the Levels. The site is at a confluence of major routes from all directions. It is also the focus of drainage of three Mendip valleys, and a place of springs. The vigorous issue of water from the springs has produced the Wells Gravels, a well drained island, across which the Axe-Brue watershed runs, and on which the city is now centred. The site is naturally favoured, relatively protected and poised to exploit three environmental zones.
It is perhaps not entirely surprising then that the antiquarian view that settlement at Wells began with the foundation of the Saxon minster by the springs c700 has been challenged by recent excavations. It is now clear that activity at the site goes back much further and it is possible that the Saxon centre at Wells was successor to not only Roman but also prehistoric centres in the locality.
The hills to the north and east of Wells are peppered with well known prehistoric sites, such as the bone caves round Wookey Hole, the Bronze Age barrows round Horrington, or the iron age hillfort at King's Castle. In contrast, comparatively little is known of activity on the fertile shelf between these sites and the sporadically exploited wetlands. Recent excavations, however, have produced evidence of Mesolithic and Neolithic activity and possible occupation at the Wells springs overlooked by the iron age centre of King's Castle.
The same excavations have produced evidence of Roman occupation of the site. There may have been a villa close to the springs, probably at the centre of an affluent estate with mining interests. Certainly by the late- or sub-Roman period there was a religious centre of some kind at the springs, evidenced by the mausoleum found there, the site of which retained its importance until the Reformation.
Wells' first Saxon role was as an ecclesiastical centre, built on a royal estate and linked to the burh at Axbridge and the palace at Cheddar by the road running along the foot of the Mendips. The minster was founded c700 by Ine of Wessex, and attained Cathedral status in 909 under Edward the Elder, its diocese covering most of Somerset. The minster and the springs probably formed an early focus of settlement. But the acquisition of Cathedral status may have been accompanied by a deliberate expansion of the city, with a planned road system, a parish church to the west (St Cuthbert's) and a chapel in Southover (St Etheldreda's).
One of the tantalising things about the history of Wells is that, although the presence of a Cathedral, a parish church and a chapel point to a settlement of some importance, Domesday records neither a town nor a market there, only a markedly large estate (60 hides) belonging to the Cathedral. The size of these estates, however, reflected the comparatively recent activities of the last Anglo-Saxon Bishop, Giso (1061-88): banished by Harold, he returned under the Conqueror, inspired by continental practices, and reorganised and expanded the ecclesiastical properties. So at Domesday, the population was relatively large, certainly larger than that of Bath, the city to which the See was moved in 1088, by Giso's Norman successor, John (1088-1136). Wells was reduced to the status of one of the manors of the See, and John's manor house was built close to the church. There could have been several reasons for this move, including the lack of a formalised market, but some historians put it down to John's personal interests.
Medieval Wells continued to be very much in the power of the Bishops, but from the mid 12th century onwards, their influence was more positive. Whilst the See was still in Bath, charters of Robert of Lewes (1136-66) granted Wells three markets, to be held in the main streets. He also restored canons' property to them, and repaired and modified the Saxon church to produce the first Norman one. In the time of his successor, Reginald (1174-1191) free burgage tenure was granted, though still subject to the Bishops' jurisdiction. He also began the massive realignment and construction project which produced the modern Cathedral: it has been argued that this can only have been undertaken in the expectation of the return of the See to Wells.
Bishop Savaric's charter of 1201 outlined the boundaries of the city, but much of his energy was directed into disputes with Glastonbury Abbey. It was the return of the See to Wells with the election of Joscelin (1206-42), a canon and townsman, which really marked the beginning of Wells' prosperity. Two burgesses represented the city in Edward I's Parliament of 1298. In the 1327 lay subsidy 64 inhabitants are recorded as being taxed. By the 14th century Wells was the largest town in Somerset. It has been described as a "parasitic" town, riding on the back of the Bishops, who had estates and projects all over Somerset in the medieval period. Indeed, although Wells is a natural market centre at a focus of routes and zones, the market must have been boosted by the numbers of visitors who came to the city on church business. Much of the textile industry, which was the mainstay of Wells' economy, was in the Bishops' hands, but it was based on the Mendip grazing, abundant water and local fullers earth deposits.
The Bishops certainly had an extensive influence over the physical shape of the city. Scrase has shown how changes to the Saxon layout took place very early in the medieval period, with the realignment of the Cathedral begun by Reginald. This was completed by Joscelin, who also created the Bishop's Park, which subsequently restricted the city's growth to the south. Subsequent 14th century diversions related to the walling of the precinct seem to have been less significant, with the framework of the city largely solidified by the middle of the 13th century. Scrase has also shown that this influence probably did not include the laying out of regular burgage plots across the blocks of the Saxon street layout.
Unsurprisingly, this amount of influence led to friction between town and Bishop. This was reflected in the walling off of the precinct in the 1340s, which was directly followed by an application by the townsmen to be allowed to wall off the town! (Although the grant was made, the wall was never built).
Not being monastic, the establishment of Wells was not dissolved at the Reformation. However, its power and wealth was much diminished. The city suffered from this, as its importance was reduced accordingly. In 1589 the borough acquired full independence (though the Bishop retained a financial interest in its fairs and markets until 1779, but with the fall in visitors and a slump in the cloth trade, the city struggled for a while. By the end of the 16th century, however, trade was recovering and the Mendip lead mines were thriving. For the rest of the post-medieval period Wells had a quiet but prosperous existence, based on modest trade and attracting (would-be) gentry rather than the great merchants of the high medieval period [from Scrase, 1993].
In the 19th century, the cheese market was the largest in the west of England, but in other respects Wells was hit badly by the impact of the Industrial Revolution elsewhere. Its textile industry was virtually destroyed by the northern mills, the mines declined and the remaining church estates were transferred to central control. Moreover, although the railways did come to Wells, it was only on a branch line, and this proved insufficient to counteract the coming of the main line to other market centres (which were in Somerset too numerous to sustain). The city became little more than a picturesque local service centre.
Wells remains essentially a market town, dominated by the cathedral, but recently there has been a marked growth of modern housing around its historic core.