Very “Real” Estate: Vicars’ Close, Wells, Somerset, England

The oldest purely residential street in England is known as Vicars’ Close, which is located in Wells, Somerset, England, and dates from the mid 14th Century.  Planned by Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury, at one time it was 42 separate houses, built of stone from the Mercia Mudstone Group, a rock strata found in plenty in the English midlands. 22 houses were on the east side of the street and 20 on the west side. They line a quadrangle, which is visual delight because it appears longer than it actually is because the houses at the northern end of the quadrangle and nearest the chapel are nine feet closer together than those at the lower/southern end, which is closer to Vicars’ Hall. 

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Each house had two storeys, both approximately 20 x 13 feet. Both storeys had sport a fireplace. The latrine is outside the back door.  The date of some of the buildings is unclear but it is known that some had been built by 1363 and the rest were completed by 1412.

The street is comprised of Grade I listed buildings, nowadays consisting of 27 residences (some of the originals were combined when the clergy were permitted to marry), a chapel and library at the north end, and a hall at the south end, over an arched gate. It is connected at its southern end to the cathedral by way of a walkway over Chain Gate.  

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Choristers walking down Vicars Close – Wells Cathedral School ~ https://wells.cathedral.school/audition-chorister/

“The Close is about 460 feet (140 m) long, and paved with setts. Its width is tapered by 10 feet (3.0 m) to make it look longer when viewed from the main entrance nearest the cathedral. When viewed from the other end it looks shorter. By the nineteenth century the buildings were reported to be in a poor state of repair, and part of the hall was being used as a malt house. Repairs have since been carried out including the construction of Shrewsbury House to replace buildings damaged in a fire.

“The Vicars’ Hall was completed in 1348 and included a communal dining room, administrative offices and treasury of the Vicars Choral. The houses on either side of the close were built in the 14th and early 15th centuries. Since then alterations have been made including a unified roof, front gardens and raised chimneys. The final part of the construction of the close was during the 1420s when the Vicars’ Chapel and Library was constructed on the wall of the Liberty of St. Andrew. The south face includes shields commemorating the bishops of the time. The interior is decorated with 19th century gesso work by Heywood Summer and the building now used by Wells Cathedral School.”

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The Vicar’s Hall ~ commons.wikimedia.org

Wells Cathedral‘s website tells us, “The first building of the new College was the Hall, with its kitchen and bakehouse, where the vicars met and ate their meals. This was in use before the end of 1348, because, in her will dated 7 November 1348, Alice Swansee bequeathed a large brass pot for the use of the Vicars, together with a basin with hanging ewer and a table for the Hall, in memory of her son, Philip, a Vicar who had just died, probably of plague; the Black Death was raging in 1348. The east window, the fireplace and the lectern were added about a hundred years later.

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“On 30 December 1348, Bishop Ralph made over to the vicars ‘the dwellings newly built and to be erected by us for the use of the vicars, and ‘quarters with appurtenances built and to be built’. The houses were built in two rows running north from the Hall, and were completed by the time of Bishop Ralph’s death in 1363. The quadrangle was finally completed with the building of the Chapel at the north end in the early fifteenth century. The Chapel was dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Katherine, and it is first mentioned in a charter of 1479, but shields on the Chapel door carry the arms of Bishops Bubwith and Stafford, suggesting that the chapel was begun in the episcopate of the former and finished under the latter, giving it a date of c.1424-30. A room over the Chapel served as the Vicars’ Library.” 

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Resources: 

Bush, Robin.  (1994). Somerset: The complete guide. Wimborne, Dorset: Dovecote Press. pp. 221–222.

Wells Cathedral 

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in architecture, British history, buildings and structures, customs and tradiitons, England, Great Britain, history, medieval, research and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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