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  • Richard Hanks

The Early Economic Development of Wells from 500 to the 1400s

Updated: May 2

Wells Civic Society monthly meeting - 13th March 2024

Offering insight into the historical development of the economy of Wells, Mark traced its beginnings back to the 6th century through to the City that we start to recognise by the 1400s.
Offering insight into the historical development of the economy of Wells, Mark traced its beginnings back to the 6th century through to the City that we start to recognise by the 1400s.

Living in Wells is like living in Heaven without having to die first. With this remark, which he had recently overheard, the Reverend Dr Mark Hutchinson concluded his presentation entitled, The early economic development of Wells: 500 to the 1400s, which he gave to the civic society at their March meeting. But the comment refers to Wells today, whereas Mark’s talk had described how the Wells people of hundreds of years ago, when judged by current standards and expectations, mostly lived lives of drudgery and poverty in a nondescript place. 

1500 hundred years ago the economic situation hereabouts was dire with people scraping a living. There was no Wells, no towns, no villages, and no bishop: just a few scattered homesteads. There were the springs, sacred to many, and these did to some extent attract people, who brought also their sheep and goats.

The Saxons divided the land into designated areas, of different sizes, known as 100s, and there came into being the 100 of Wells. 

A minster church was built in Wells in 704 and this had, of itself, somewhat increased the prosperity of the area, so much so that in 909 the new diocese of Wells – not Bath and Wells – was created by King Edward the Elder, separating it from Sherborne, under whose jurisdiction it had previously lived. And the church was designated the first St Andrew’s cathedral.

Then came the Norman Conquest and the ownership of land, already important as a sign of wealth and power, became even more significant than hitherto, when William deposed many of the early land owners across the entire country and reallocated the lands to his allies and associates. But so far as Wells was concerned, and bearing in mind the importance of the former cathedral  to the city, there came a hiccup in 1090 when the first Norman bishop moved his seat to Bath, leaving Wells out in the cold and thus provoking something of an economic decline. Fortunately for Wells, Bishop Roger in 1244 moved his seat back to Wells. Wells Cathedral had been started in about 1175 and this increased the prosperity of the area with its need for both a skilled and less skilled workforce and associated trades, and the needs of the cathedral personnel for food, clothing and other everyday items. It was a relatively large community and the vast majority of its needs would be met by local people.

King John’s charter for Wells of 1201 elevated Wells to a borough, and the appointment of local people as burgesses. These were, significantly, responsible to the king and not the bishop. Burgesses were people such as local merchants and craftsmen who were allowed to trade freely. They also ran the corporation and administered civil authority. So, in 1201 there were 19 days of fairs each year, these being both a sign of and a cause of busy commerce and trade. In fact, among the various essential trades and crafts that fuelled the local economy, the most important had actually come to be cloth making. 

But by modern standards, Wells was, even in the 1300s, only a small place. Before the plague the population was approximately 2,500, and after it, in 1377 this figure had shrivelled to 1100. 

And so, in line with his brief, Mark paused this fascinating overview of the economic story of the growth, albeit sometimes uneven but generally heading on an upward curve, of the relative prosperity of Wells. The number of further discussion points raised by the audience and their comments afterwards showed how interesting they had found Mark’s effortlessly audible and visually clear presentation.

The next meeting will be on Wednesday, April 10 at 7.30pm in the Wells museum, Cathedral Green. Light refreshments are available and all are welcome. For further details of this event or the society in general, please contact the chair, Chris Winter, e-mail or is the society’s website.

Richard Hanks


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