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. During the Middle Ages these wells were thought to have curative powers. The Wells city arms show an ash tree surrounded by three wells, with the Latin motto Hoc fonte derivata copia (the fullness that springs from this well).
Although the population, recorded in the 2001 census, is only 10,406, it has had city status since 1205. This was confirmed and formalised by Queen Elizabeth II by Letters patent issued under the Great Seal dated April 1, 1974.
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 by 1091, 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 & 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, however earlier names for the settlement have been identified. These include Fontanetum in a charter of 725 granted by King Ina to Glastonbury, and Fontuculi. Tydeston has also been recorded although this may relate to a hill settlement to the south east of Wells. Tidesput or Tithesput furlang relates to the area east of the Bishops garden in 1245.
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.
Wells is within the South West England European Parliament constituency.
Wells City Council has sixteen councillors, elected from three wards: Central, St.Thomas and St.Cuthbert. Wells elects five councillors to Mendip District Council from the same three wards. Wells has one councillor on the Somerset County Council.
The primary schools in Wells are Stoberry Park School, St Cuthbert's Church of England Infants School, St Joseph and St Teresa Catholic Primary School, and Wells Central CofE Junior School.
Wells Cathedral is the cathedral of the Church of England Diocese of Bath and Wells. Parts date back to the 10th century. It is known for its fine fan vaulted ceilings, Lady Chapel and windows, and the scissor arches which support the central tower. Together with the Bishop's Palace (still used by the Bishop of Bath and Wells) Wells has been an ecclesiastical City of importance for hundreds of years. The cathedral is a grade I listed building.
The cathedral is notable for:
Wells is a popular tourist destination, due to its historical sites, its proximity to Bath, Stonehenge and Glastonbury and its closeness to the Somerset coast. Also nearby are Wookey Hole Caves, the Mendip Hills and the Somerset Levels. Wells is part of the West Country Carnival circuit. Somerset cheese, including Cheddar, is made locally.
The Bishops Palace has been the home of the Bishops of the Diocese of Bath and Wells for 800 years. The hall and chapel are particularly noteworthy, dating from the 14th century. There are of gardens including the springs from which the city takes its name. Visitors can also see the Bishop's private Chapel, ruined Great Hall and the Gatehouse with portcullis and drawbridge beside which the famous mute swans ring a bell for food
Vicars' Close – the oldest existing street in the world, which still has the original cobblestoned surface. The Close is tapered by to make it look longer when viewed from the bottom. When viewed from the top, however, it looks shorter.
The Church of St. Cuthbert – often mistaken for the cathedral, the church has a fine Somerset stone tower and a superb carved roof. Originally an Early English building (13th century), it was much altered in the Perpendicular period (15th century). The nave's coloured ceiling was repainted in 1963 at the instigation of the then Vicar's wife, Mrs Barnett. Until 1561 the church had a central tower which either collapsed or was removed, and has been replaced with the current tower over the west door. Bells were cast for the tower by Roger Purdy.