Wells Cathedral Precinct

Has been described as a Certain Fortified Ecclesiastical site

There are major building remains

NameWells Cathedral Precinct
Alternative NamesPenniless Porch; Brown's Gate; The Dean's Eye; The Bishop's Eye
Historic CountrySomerset
Modern AuthoritySomerset
1974 AuthoritySomerset
Civil ParishWells

Penniless Porch

Gateway to Cathedral Green. c1450, built by Bishop Bekynton. Doulting ashlar stone, with lead roof. The upper floors communicate with and are used by the occupants of No.16 (qv). EXTERIOR: 3 storeys, single bay, exposed on west and north sides only. Plinth, moulded strings between floors and under battlemented parapet, octagonal south-west corner turret. West face has 4-centre arch with rosettes set in mouldings, carved spandrels with letter TB (for Thomas Bekynton) interwoven with foliage; first floor has two windows set slightly proud, a double-and a single-light, with cinquefoil cusping to ogee tracery under flat heads, and between them a carved angel figure bearing a coat of arms, further shields in cusped recesses under windows; second floor panelled, with two 2-light windows with blank underpanels, with worn statue niches between them and to either side. The north face has a plainer 4-centre arch with arched label, a corbelled panelled feature in the northwest corner at first floor level and a double-ogee arched statue recess to the left, otherwise the two upper floors rough-rendered and plain, with string and battlemented parapet, angled buttress to north-east corner, and rendered lean-to building set in front of the main east building. In the S wall are two doorways, one plain 4-centred, the other a late C18 pedimented elaborate lierne vault. INTERIOR: there is a single room at each upper level. The first floor has C17 panelling with pilasters, including panelling to seats in window embrasures, and a bolection-mould fireplace to the E. In the SE corner, behind a C17 door in a 4-centred arch is a recess, possibly a former garderobe. The spiral stair in the SW corner has stone treads to the lower flight, but wood treads to the upper flight. The upper room has a 2-bay arch-braced roof with wind-bracing. On the S side are very large moulded brackets or corbels, and a small cusped lancet

HISTORICAL NOTE: the porch is said to be so named as it was the spot where beggars normally sought alms; a stone bench runs along the E wall. (Listed Building Report)

Gatehouse and south boundary wall to the Old Deanery

Gatehouse and boundary walling. C15 much restored. Gatehouse has ashlar ground floor and dressings, with coursed rubble above, gabled Welsh slate roof behind battlemented parapets. EXTERIOR: 2 storeys, 2 bays. Lower bay 1 has a moulded 4-centred waggon arch with a pair of wooden doors which may be at least partly medieval; bay 2 a matching pedestrian arch, above are chamfer-mullioned and transomd 2-light windows with cinquefoil cusping and square labels, between bays a corbelled chimney stack, cropped at the lower edge of the parapet. The inner elevation has a wider segmental arch embracing both bays, above which, towards the east end, is a 2-light window without transom, small stair turret to north-west corner. The soffit over the archway has 2 heavy chamfered beams and plastered panels. In the wall to the right at ground floor is a small rectangular light, and a 3-plank door with stopped moulded frame in a 4-centred flush opening. INTERIOR: the ground floor has a bedroom, part of a former stable, with wide braced plank and batten door under a 16-pane transom-light, and a 3-light stone casement with C17 ovolo-mould mullions and early leaded glazing. The entrance has a fine overlapping 3-plank door, and under the staircase is a 4-panel C17 door, with raised fielded panels on the reverse; over the stair is a deep beam with lamb's-tongue stop. The first floor single room has in the S wall a stone fire surround with chamfered square opening; above this is a floating mantelshelf with a brattished cornice, carried on 3 conical brackets, possibly statue bases. In the SW corner is an entrance to a former privy, with hinge-pin, and from the NW corner is a stone spiral staircase with stone pinnacle. SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: extending to the E is a high random rubble wall with ashlar crenellated coping, with a 4-centred moulded arched doorway giving to the Wells Museum (qv), at the eastern end, and finishing to a straight joint. A double wall extends westwards for about 12m to the Old Deanery (qv), and beyond this a further 20m of high wall to match, with gateway (possibly C20) into the former herb garden of William Turner (1508-1568); this also finishes to a straight joint. (Listed Building Report)

Brown's Gatehouse

Gateway to churchyard, 1451, by Bishop Beckynton as part of his "New Works". Local stone rubble with Doulting stone dressings, Welsh slate roof with coped gables behind parapets, stone chimney stack to south gable. EXTERIOR: 2 storeys, single bay, with abutment on north side.

Ground floor has wide 4-centred arch without side columns or capitals, having carved tablet decoration on west face, above is a central 3-light mullioned window, now blocked, with square recessed panels on either side, and on extreme right a statue niche with semicircular arched head, the base corbelled and linked to ground floor by an attached shaft, string course under parapet, parts of which are now missing, and indication of former corner pinnacles. East elevation to Cathedral Green simpler, with battlemented parapet, first floor has central 3-light chamfer-mullioned window with square label. North elevation has a plain gable, the smaller abutment is about two-thirds the tower height, in bands of Doulting ashlar and local stone, apparently with a flat roof, on west face to Saddler Street a 4-centre pedestrian archway with almost square panel over, with 2 putlog holes to left, and a small cusped- arched window immediately under the parapet string course. North elevation of abutment plain, and only about 2m wide. Soffit of archway has an 8-panel vault with hollow-chamfered ribs and foliated boss. The north wall of the undercroft has a central shaft, and 2 openings into the pedestrian way. The pedestrian passage has a rough pointed barrel vault, with an access doorway, presumably to a staircase in the abutment. INTERIOR: not inspected. HISTORICAL NOTE: the gatehouse takes its name from one Richard Brown, the 1553 tenant of No.20 adjoining; in C19 it was sometimes referred to as "The Dean's Eye"; with the three buildings attached to the south, it cost 200 marks to build. Scheduled Ancient Monument Somerset No.233. (Listed Building Report)

Gatehouse Comments

Licence to crenellate issued 1286, "to enclose the churchyard of the cathedral church of Wells and the precinct of the canons' houses in the city with a stone wall, and to crenellate the same for their better security, making sufficient gates and posterns, to be opened at dawn." Clearly expressed as a defence against thieves rather than military or even as a status symbol. A further licence of 1340 for the bishops palace and the close required the gates and posterns to be open for thoroughfare from dawn till night. A further licence of 1451 gives licence to execute the provisions of the previous licence not hitherto executed, which seems to be the whole previous provision. Since the bishops palace was completed by this time this presumable reference to the close around the cathedral of which there are several gates surviving, most notably the Penniless Porch of about 1450 (also Brown's Gate - aka The Dean's Eye - and The Bishop's Eye), which is a clear expression of the status of the Cathedral. Were the earlier licences acted on and the 1451 repeat part of a new building programme. Tension between the cathedral and the town could run quite high at times and the licence may well have been part of mollifying these issues.

- Philip Davis

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceST551457
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Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved
Photograph by Philip Davis. All rights reserved

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  • Creighton, O.H. and Higham, R.A., 2005, Medieval Town Walls (Stroud: Tempus) p. 105, 108, 257
  • Pevsner, N, 1958, Buildings of England: North Somerset and Bristol p. 311-


  • Camden, Wm, 1607, Britannia hypertext critical edition by Dana F. Sutton (2004)
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  • Coulson, C., 1982, 'Hierarchism in Conventual Crenellation: An Essay in the Sociology and Metaphysics of Medieval Fortification' Medieval Archaeology Vol. 26 p. 69-100 see online copy

Primary Sources

  • Maxwell Lyte, H.C. (ed), 1893, Calendar of Patent Rolls Edward I (1281-91) Vol. 2 p. 229 online copy
  • Maxwell Lyte, H.C. (ed), 1898, Calendar of Patent Rolls Edward III (1338-40) Vol. 4 p. 466 online copy
  • Maxwell Lyte, H.C. (ed), 1909, Calendar of Patent Rolls Henry VI (1446-52) Vol. 5 p. 473 online copy


  • Gathercole, C., 2003, An Archaeological Assessment of Wells (English Heritage Extensive Urban Survey) online copy