Bath and Wells, diocese of

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Bath and Wells, diocese of. The present see, created in 909, is roughly conterminous with the old county of Somerset. Though Wells itself was founded in c.704 as a religious centre by Ine, king of Wessex, and his nephew Aldhelm, first bishop of Sherborne, it was not until 909 that Edward the Elder split the bishopric of Sherborne into four, Wells being the new see for Somerset, and Athelm, a monk from Glastonbury nearby, the first bishop. In 973 Dunstan crowned Edgar as king of all England at Bath abbey. The first Norman bishop, John de Villula (1088–1122), became abbot of Bath, to which in accordance with the Council of London (1075) he transferred his see (1090). This led to friction between the monks of Bath and the canons of Wells over episcopal elections. In 1176 Pope Alexander III resolved the dispute by declaring the cities to be joint-sees and ordering the chapters to hold elections together. Complications intensified when Savaric, bishop of Bath and Wells (1192–1205), became abbot of Glastonbury and styled himself ‘bishop of Glastonbury’. In 1245 Pope Innocent IV finally resolved the matter in favour of joint elections and the retention of the title ‘Bath and Wells’. Later bishops were often important nationally. Robert Burnell (1275–92), chancellor of England, Edward I's friend and adviser, Thomas Beckington (1443–65), Latin secretary to Henry VI, and Thomas Wolsey (1518–23) held the see in commendam. Though at the Reformation the bishopric lost over half its estates it nevertheless had further notable bishops, including William Laud (1626–8), later Charles I's archbishop, and Thomas Ken (1685–91), the saintly non-juror. Despite the bishopric's relative lack of importance, its bishops still retain the shadow of former glory, the privilege, along with bishops of Durham, of supporting the sovereign during the coronation. The magnificent 13th-cent. cathedral at Wells stands within a complex of buildings, including the moated bishop's palace, started by Burnell, and the 14th-cent. Vicars' Close.

Revd Dr William M. Marshall