Wells is a cathedral city and civil parish in the Mendip district of Somerset, England, on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills. Although the population recorded in the 2001 census is 10,406, it has had city status since 1205. It is the second smallest English city in terms of area and population after the City of London although, unlike the latter, Wells is not part of a larger metropolitan conurbation, and is consequently described in some sources as being England's smallest city.
The name Wells derives from the three wells dedicated to Saint Andrew, one in the market place and two within the grounds of the Bishop's Palace and cathedral. There was a small Roman settlement around the wells, but its importance grew under the Saxons when King Ine of Wessex founded a minster church in 704, around which the settlement grew. Wells became a trading centre and involved in cloth making before its involvement in both the English Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion during the 17th century. In the 19th century, transport infrastructure improved with stations on three different railway lines.
The cathedral and the associated religious and architectural history have made Wells a tourist destination, which provides much of the employment. The city has a variety of sporting and cultural activities and houses several schools including The Blue School, a state coeducational comprehensive school originally founded in 1641 (and became commonly known as the Blue School by 1654) and the independent Wells Cathedral School, which was founded in 909 and is one of the five established musical schools for school-age children in Britain. The historic architecture of the city has also been used as a location for several films and television programmes.
From 1889 to 1974 Wells was known as Wells Municipal Borough.
The city was a Roman settlement but only became an important centre under the Saxons when King Ine of Wessex founded a minster church in 704. Two hundred years later, this became the seat of the local bishop; but in 1088, this had been removed to Bath. This caused severe arguments between the canons of Wells and the monks of Bath until the bishopric was renamed as the Diocese of Bath and Wells, to be elected by both religious houses. Wells became a borough some time before 1160 when Bishop Robert granted its first charter. Fairs were granted to the City before 1160.
Wells was listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Welle, from the Old English wiells, which was not listed as a town, but included four manors with a population of 132, which implies a population of 500–600. Earlier names for the settlement have been identified which include Fontanetum, in a charter of 725 granted by King Ina to Glastonbury and Fontanensis Ecclesia. Tidesput or Tithesput furlang relates to the area east of the bishops garden in 1245. An established market had been created in Wells by 1136, and it remained under episcopal control until its city charter from Elizabeth I in 1589.
During the English Civil War, Parliamentarian troops used the cathedral to stable their horses and damaged much of the ornate sculpture by using it for firing practice. William Penn stayed in Wells shortly before leaving for America, spending a night at The Crown Inn. Here he was briefly arrested for addressing a large crowd in the market place, but released on the intervention of the Bishop of Bath and Wells.
During the Monmouth Rebellion the rebel army attacked the cathedral in an outburst against the established church and damaged the west front. Lead from the roof was used to make bullets, windows were broken, the organ smashed and horses stabled in the nave. Wells was the final location of the Bloody Assizes on 23 September 1685. In a makeshift court lasting only one day, over 500 men were tried and the majority sentenced to death.
There was a port at Bleadney on the River Axe in the 8th century that enabled goods to be brought to within of Wells. In the Middle Ages overseas trade was carried out from the port of Rackley. In the 14th century a French ship sailed up the river and by 1388 Thomas Tanner from Wells used Rackley to export cloth and corn to Portugal, and received iron and salt in exchange. Wells had been a centre for cloth making, however in the 16th and 17th centuries this diminished, but the town retained its important market focus.
Wells has had three railway stations. The first station, Priory Road, opened in 1859 and was on the Somerset Central Railway (later the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway) as the terminus of a short branch from Glastonbury. A second railway, the East Somerset, opened a branch line from Witham in 1862 and built a station to the east of Priory Road. In 1870, a third railway, the Cheddar Valley line branch of the Bristol and Exeter Railway from Yatton, reached Wells and built yet another station, later called Tucker Street. Matters were somewhat simplified when the Great Western Railway acquired both the Cheddar Valley and the East Somerset lines and built a link between the two that ran through the S&DJR's Priory Road station. In 1878, when through trains began running between Yatton and Witham, the East Somerset station closed, but through trains did not stop at Priory Road until 1934. Priory Road closed to passenger traffic in 1951 when the S&DJR branch line from Glastonbury was shut, though it remained the city's main goods depot. Tucker Street closed in 1963 under the Beeching Axe, which closed the Yatton to Witham line to passengers. Goods traffic to Wells ceased in 1964. A Pacific SR West Country, West Country Class steam locomotive no 34092 built by the British Railways Board was named City of Wells following a ceremony in the city's Priory Road station in 1949. It was used to draw the Golden Arrow service between London and the Continent. It was withdrawn from service in 1964, and rescued from a scrapyard in 1971. It is now undergoing a complete restoration on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway in Yorkshire.
During World War II, Stoberry Park in Wells was the location of a Prisoner of War camp, housing Italian prisoners from the Western Desert Campaign, and later German prisoners after the Battle of Normandy. Penleigh Camp on the Wookey Hole Road was a German working camp.