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South West Exeter Cathedral

Exeter Cathedral is regarded as the most complete surviving example of Decorated Architecture in England and reflects the importance and wealth of Exeter when it was built. The west front with its statues is magnificent.

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It is unusual as the cathedral has two towers over the transepts but no central tower. These are part of the original Norman building with their round topped windows, arches and dog toothed carving.

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There has been a Minster Church here since the C7th and in 1050, Leofric, Bishop of Crediton gained permission to move the Bishop's seat from Crediton to Exeter, because of a fear of sea-raids. He became the first Bishop of Exeter.

In 1107 William Warelwast, a nephew of William the Conqueror, was appointed to the see, and began building a new Norman cathedral, which was consecrated in 1133 and finished by 1160 and the chapter house added later in the early C13th.

Walter Bronescombe became Bishop in 1258 and replaced the Norman Cathedral with a new and much larger decorated gothic building made of Purbeck marble. Only the towers above the transepts survive from the Norman building. Building began at the east end. The nave was completed in the C14th with the west front finished last. External buttresses gave additional support, allowing larger windows which flood the inside of the Cathedral with light.

As Exeter wasn’t a monastic foundation, there was little damage during the reformation. The cloisters were destroyed during the civil war. Following the restoration of the monarchy, a new pipe organ was built.

There was some refurbishment by George Gilbert Scott in the C19th with new choir stalls and stained glass.

On 4 May 1942 an early-morning air raid took place over Exeter. Known as the ‘Baedeker Blitz’ after the series of guidebooks used to identify suitable targets, this was intended to destroy Britain’s cultural and historic cities.

The cathedral sustained a direct hit by a large high-explosive bomb on the chapel of St James, completely demolishing it. The muniment room above, three bays of the aisle and two flying buttresses were also destroyed in the blast. The medieval wooden screen opposite the chapel was smashed into many pieces by the blast, but it has been reconstructed and restored. Fortunately, many of the cathedral's most important artefacts, such as the ancient glass (including the great east window), the misericords, the bishop's throne, and other precious documents from the library had been removed in anticipation of such an attack. The precious effigy of Bishop Bronscombe had been protected by sand bags.

After the war, the chapel was rebuilt as a reconstruction of the original .

The Cathedral is a simple cruciform building with nave, quire, presbytery with retroquire and Lady Chapel beyond and side transepts. What makes it unique are the number of smaller chapels and large number of Bishop’s tombs from the very simple to very elaborate.

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The Nave

The first impression on entering the cathedral is its size. Lack of a central tower and crossing means the nave stretches seamlessly into the quire and beyond. Even the stone pulpitum and massive organ above seem insignificant.


The lovely vaulted ceiling with its bosses stretches as far as the eye can see. This is the longest uninterrupted stone vault ceiling constructed in Medieval England.

Arches of ribs rise up from the side walls to meet the continuous centre rib where they are linked by decoratively carved stone bosses. There are lovely carved corbels between the arches. Each is different.




The most famous is the Becket boss at the back of the nave depicting the murder of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. This is a rare survival after HenryVIII decreed in 1528 that all images of Becket were to be destroyed.


The bosses are huge as can be seen by the replica on display in the south aisle.This depicts a knight fighting three dragons.


High on the north aisle is the Minstrels’ Gallery.

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This dates from around 1360 and is unique in English Cathedrals. Its purpose is unknown and the name comes from the twelve carved angels.


The stained glass in the lovely west window was replaced after being damaged in the war. The figures along the bottom are Kings and Bishops.


The font at the back of the church is Scillian marble and late C17th.


The pulpit was designed by George Gilbert Scott and is known as the Martyr’s pulpit. It is in memory of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson, the missionary Bishop, who was ordained in Exeter Cathedral. He worked among the peoples of Melanesia and was murdered in the Solomon Islands in 1871. The central pulpit panel depicts three islanders placing his body in a canoe to be returned to his ship.


Another pulpit panel shows St Boniface setting sail from Britain to begin his missionary work in Europe. Boniface was born at Crediton, near Exeter, towards the ends of the C8th and was murdered for his beliefs in Germany. 


A third panel depicts the beheading of St Alban, the first British Christian martyr, around 300AD during the Roman occupation of Britain.


The walls of the side aisles are lined with memorials to the great and good.


This lovely memorial is to Matthew Godwin, a young organist appointed here in 1586 but died eight years, aged just 17. He is surrounded by a variety of instruments.




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The Quire

A massive stone pulpiutum separates the quire from the nave. The arches originally contained statues, but these were destroyed during the reformation and have been replaced by C17th paintings depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. 

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On either side of the central gilded doors are small altars.


Above the pulpitum is the organ


The massive Bishop’s throne dates from the C14th. At 53’ high, it is almost too big to photograph, as it soars up to the ceiling.

The quire stalls were designed by Gilbert Scott at the end of the C19th to complement the Bishop’s throne. At the four corners of the back row are the larger seats for the four senior dignitaries of the cathedral - dean, preceptor, chancellor and treasurer.


The choir stalls have beautifully carved ends and poppyheads. 



The seats along the back row have the original C13th misericords. 






The elephant misericord is the earliest know depiction of an elephant and is now displayed behind glass in the north aisle.



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The Presbytery

A small step separates the quire and presbytery with its beautiful geometric marble floor.



Steps lead up to the high altar set beneath the splendid east window, which still has some C14th stained glass.



Double arches which replaced the original medieval reredos that was destroyed in the Reformation, lead through into the retroquire and Lady Chapel beyond. 

The presbytery is surrounded by a carved screen and there are tombs of early Bishops beneath it. These include Bishop Henry Marshall (1194-1206) between the north aisle & presbytery



Near it is the tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacey (1420-55). He was unofficially venerated as a saint and pilgrims came to his tomb. It was stripped of its memorial brass at the Reformation


The splendid tomb of Bishop Walter Stapledon (1307-26) and Treasurer of England is adjacent to the high altar, reflecting his importance at the time.


This is even more impressive when viewed from the north aisle.


On the south wall is the sedilia with a magnificent carved stone canopy above. This gives an indication of how splendid the medieval reredos that stretched from above the high altar to the east window must have been. The backs of the seats have the remains of paintings. The figures of Edward the Confessor, Bishop Leofric and Queen Edytha were added in 1939.


On either side of the retroquire, at the end of the side aisles, are two small chantry chapels.

On the north side is the Chapel of St George, or the Speke Chantry Chapel, set behind a carved stone screen.


On the side of the door is a carving of St Anne with the young Virgin Mary, still with some of its original paint.


Sir John Speke was an important land owner and also a member of Parliament and his effigy lies against the wall.


The chapel has an amazing stone ceiling with hanging stone bosses. 


The carved reredos above the altar has carvings of the Annunciation, the birth of Christ and his presentation in the temple.


On the south side is the Chapel of St Saviour and St Boniface, or the Oldham Chantry Chapel.


This has the glorious painted tomb of Bishop Hugh Oldham (1505-19) on the south wall. 




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The Lady Chapel, Chapels of St John the Evangelist and St Gabriel

Beyond the retroquire is the Lady Chapel with two smaller chantry chapels on either side, which were added in the early C16th. On the north side is the Chapel of St John the Evangelist. To the south is the Chapel of St Gabriel.

The Chapel of St Johnthe Evangelist is set behind a stone screen and has a blue painted ceiling with stars and moons.


On the side wall is the memorial to Sir Gawen Carew and his wife Mary. Below is the effigy of his brother George


Between the Lady Chapel and the Chapel of St John the Evangelist is the tomb of Bishop Edmund Stafford (1395-1419.) 


The Gabriel Chapel is behind a stone screenwhich has the remains of paintings on the base panels and door.






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Between the Gabriel Chapel and the Lady Chapel is the canopied tomb of Bishop Walter Bronescombe (1258-80).


A carved stone screen leads into the Lady Chapel.


This is a lovely chapel with painted vaulted ceiling that was restored by Gilbert Scott. The stained glass in the east window was replaced after the Victorian glass was lost during bombing in 1942.


At the back is a carving of St Anne with the Virgin Mary and Christ child.


On the north wall are two C17th canopied tombs of Sir John Doddridge and his second wife. He was a lawyer and was appointed a Justice of the King’s Bench as well as a Member of Parliament.


On the south wall are the effigies of Bishop Leofric (1046-72) and Bishop Simon of Apulia (1214-23). 


Outside the Lady Chapel is the memorial to Joseph Raillard , an Exeter Merchant, which is mainly memorable as it obscures the lower part of a C16th wall painting of the Assumption of the Virgin with the nine orders of angels.


Beneath is a painting of what the original may have looked like.




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The Transepts

The North Transept contains the Astronomical clock. This dates from the C14th or C15th and is an early attempt to represent the relationship of earth, moon and sun. The golden ball in the centre is the earth. The sun, represented by a fleur de lys, circles the outer disc every 24 hours. The outer disc measures the hours. The inner disc, the days of the lunar month.

In the middle is a ball representing the moon.This is painted half in black and half silver. As it moves, it shows the correct phase of the moon.


To the bottom left of the clock is part of a Medieval wall painting of the Resurrection of Christ.


This is partially obscured by the Sylke Chantry Chapel with cadaver effigy of Precentor William Sylke. 


It is a very simple chapel with a painting of the women collecting the dead body of Christ.


On the east wall of the north transept is the Chapel of St Paul, set behind a stone screen which has the remains of medieval paint.



The south transept contains the monument of Hugh Courtney, Second Earl of Devon who died in 1377 and his wife Margaret.

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On the back wall is the splendid tomb of Sir John Gilbert of Compton, the half brother of Sir Walter Raleigh and his wife Elizabeth. The walls are covered with other memorials.


Off the east wall of the south transept is the Chapel to St John the Baptist.





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Other Chapels and Tombs

The Chapel of St Edmund, King and Martyr is at the back of the north aisle immediately inside the door. It is also the memorial chapel of the of the Devonian Regiment. St Edmund is depicted in the reredos.


On the wall is a marble memorial to men of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers who died in the Indian Mutiny.


A brass memorial commemorates men who died in the Afghan campaign of 1880-1


A black marble memorial commemorates those who dies in the First World War.


St James Chapel on the south aisle was destroyed by a direct hit during the bombing raid in 1942. It has been lovingly rebuilt, using as much of the original stone as possible The oak screen is a replica of the original which was completely destroyed.



Part of the tail fin of high explosive device is displayed in the chapel in front of one of the altars.



As well as the Bishop’s tombs already mentioned, there are many more along the side aisles. In the north aisle is the monument of Bishop Valentine Cary (1621-5). He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral but is remembered here in Exeter.


This tomb of an unknown Bishop is opposite the tomb of Bishop Lacey.


In the south aisle is the tomb of Bishop William Cotton (1598-1621).


Other tombs include these two unknown knights on the south wall.


On the north wall is the cadaver tomb of Anthony Harvey who was steward and surveyor for the Earl of Devon. He married Eleanor, the widow of John Speke who was the son of the Sir John Speke buried in the of the Speke Chantry.


Near it, and opposite the tomb of Bishop Walter Stapeldon, is the tomb of his brother, Sir Richard de Stapledon (d 1332). His tomb displays the newly acquired wealth of the family, with his squire at his head and groom holding a horse at his feet.


Also in the north aisle, protected by glass is an old embroidered altar front. In front of it is a wooden storage chest for valuables.


Near it is a banner of the Virgin Mary.


Allow plenty of time for a visit as there is so much to see and admire. There is a charge to enter, but if gift aided it gives free admission for twelve months. Entry includes a free guided tour, or there is an audio guide. Roof tours are extra. The guide book contains a lot of information as well as plenty of pictures.

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