The body of Vicars Choral has been in existence since the 1100s, singing the daily round of divine services in the Cathedral in place of the canons. Initially they lodged among the townsfolk rather than on Cathedral grounds, allowing them to succumb to worldly temptation. To rectify this unsatisfactory situation, in 1348 Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury founded a College of Vicars, of whom there were more than forty, and provided a communal hall and buildings for accommodation grouped around a quadrangle, in much the same manner as an Oxford or Cambridge college. Bishop Ralph also endowed the Vicars with a landed estate which provided them with a small income. In the early fifteenth century a chapel was built for the Vicars, and the quadrangle was converted into a street, now known as Vicars’ Close. Largely undisturbed, Vicars’ Close is the oldest continually inhabited street in Europe and still houses the organists and the men of the choir, as well as other employees of the Cathedral.
The first houses on this attractive street, close to Wells Cathedral in Somerset, were constructed during the mid 14th century and the street was completed about a century later. The area was initially used to house a group of chantry priests. Although changes and improvements have been made over the years, the properties are still essentially the same as they were centuries ago. Almost all of the 27 houses on Vicars’ Close are protected as grade 1 listed buildings. The street derived from a significant land grant by the canon of Wells Cathedral, Walter de Hulle. The chantry priests were supported by the rents from tenants who lived on the land.
During the 12th century, the group of clergy who served the cathedral were responsible for chanting the divine service eight times a day and were known as the Vicars Choral. At the end of the street is the Vicars’ Hall which housed several communal and administrative offices relating to the Vicars Choral. In particular, was a room associated with the collection of rents used to support the clergy. This hall contains a gateway that links Vicars’ Close to St Andrew Street.
The residences are built of stone from the Mercia Mudstone Group. There were originally 22 houses on the east side and 20 on the west. They line each side of a quadrangle which appears longer than it is because of false perspective achieved by building the houses at the upper northern end nearest the chapel 9 feet (2.7 m) closer together than those at the lower southern end closest to the Vicars’ Hall. Each house originally comprised a ground floor hall of approximately 20 by 13 feet (6.1 by 4.0 m) and an upper floor of the same size. Both had a fireplace in the front wall. Washing facilities and a latrine were outside the back door. The date of some of the buildings is unclear but it is known that some had been built by 1363 and the rest were completed by 1412.