Exeter Cathedral (officially the Cathedral Church of St. Peter in Exeter) is a Gothic cathedral in Exeter dating mostly from the 13th and 14th centuries. It is notable for its stout Norman towers, its Gothic west front covered in weathered sculptures, and its beautiful nave, which boasts the longest unbroken Gothic ceiling in the world.
Exeter Cathedral is considered the finest surviving example of Decorated Gothic, a form of architecture that flourished in England from 1270 to 1369. The Cathedrals of England calls it "the Decorated cathedral par excellence." Frommer's England agrees, adding that Exeter Cathedral is simply "one of the prettiest churches anywhere."
The site of Exeter Cathedral has a long and illustrious history. The Roman II Augusta Legion camped here and it was occupied by Britons, Saxons, Danes, and Normans. The English St. Boniface, who converted northern Germany to Christianity, was trained here in 690 AD.
A Saxon minster dedicated to St. Mary and St. Peter was the main church of Exeter at the time. In 1050, the minster became a cathedral when the seat of the bishop of Devon and Cornwall was transferred from Crediton because of a fear of sea-raids. The minster was used by Bishop Leofric as his seat, but services were often held out of doors, close to the site of the present cathedral building.
In 1107, William Warelwast, a nephew of William the Conqueror, was appointed bishop, and this was the catalyst for the building of a new cathedral in the Norman style. Construction began in 1112 and its official foundation was in 1133, but it took many more years to complete.
Exeter Cathedral was rebuilt beginning in the 13th century, but this was not necessitated by any disaster. Unlike many other English cathedrals, the strong Norman towers had not fallen and there was no fire. The rebuilding was the result of successive enterprising bishops who wished to make their cathedral more up-to-date and more beautiful.
Rebuilding began in about 1275 under Bishop Walter Bronescombe and took less than a century to complete. Made entirely of local stone, including Purbeck marble, the new and improved Exeter Cathedral was complete in 1369.
The Norman towers and some of the nave walls were retained, but it was otherwise entirely rebuilt with a uniform design at the height of the Decorated Gothic style. Exeter Cathedral is thus the most stylistically consistent medieval cathedral in England besides nearby Salisbury Cathedral, which was Exeter's model.
Exeter Cathedral suffered some damage during the English Civil War and the Puritans destroyed the cathedral cloisters in 1655. During the Victorian era, some refurbishment was carried out by George Gilbert Scott.
The German bombing of the city on May 1942 during World War II caused considerable damage to the cathedral, including the loss of most of the stained glass and the demolition of the twin Chapels of St. James and St. Thomas.
Subsequent repairs and the clearance of the area around the western end of the building uncovered portions of earlier structures, including remains of the Roman city and of the original Norman cathedral.
What to See
Exeter Cathedral occupies a roomy, attractive position in the city center, surrounded by green spaces and fronted by a large plaza that is a popular hangout for local kids.
Across the grass on its northeast side is the picturesque Cathedral Close, lined with buildings from various eras and the outdoor tables of the Cafe Bar, which serves delicious coffee, snacks and sweets.
The magnificent west front of Exeter Cathedral is dominated by a Decorated Gothic image screen begun in the 1340s and completed nearly a century later. It features three tiers of very weathered sculptures, which include the rulers Alfred, Athelstand, Canute, Willliam the Conqueror and Richard II.
The sculptures are informal and lively, sitting cross-legged in apparent conversation. The images were originally brightly painted (see reconstruction drawing). One downside to the fine-looking screen, however, is that it covers up the bottom part of the west window.
A similar image screen was added just a few years later to the facade of Lincoln Cathedral, the sculptures of which are also informal but better proportioned and in much better condition thanks to the superior stone.
The decision to retain the Norman towers and walls during the Gothic rebuilding accounts for the comparative low height of Exeter Cathedral. Had it been built to the height of Salisbury Cathedral, it would have dwarfed the towers. The dimensions of the nave and choir of the Norman building were also retained; only the presbytery and the Lady Chapel were entirely new.
Inside Exeter Cathedral, the Late Decorated Gothic nave (1328-1369) makes quite an impact. It is sheltered by the longest unbroken Gothic ceiling in the world, which stands at a height of 20m (66 ft) and stretches for 90m (300 ft). It features graceful rib-vaults and oversized, richly painted bosses - one near the west end depicts the murder of Thomas a Becket. The overall effect has been compared to an avenue of stately trees.
High on the left side of the nave is the Minstrels' Gallery (c.1350), with painted sculptures of angels playing various musical instruments. These have been repainted and regilded after their original design. A replica can be seen in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Below the gallery are sculptures of Edward III and Queen Philippa.
In the southwest corner of the nave is the baptismal font (1687), made of Sicilian marble and topped with an oak cover inlaid with eight figures of apostles. The pulpit at the northeast corner of the nave was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The side chapel in the northwest corner of the nave is dedicated to St. Edmund.
A long bench with brightly embriodered cushions, along with countless medieval tombs and memorials, line the walls. Near the entrance is a monument to R.D. Blackmore, author of Lorna Doone.
The transept crossing is dominated by the huge organ (1665), which is supported by a beautiful pulpitum (1317-25), which is decorated with 17th-century paintings of biblical scenes and shelters two altars. The openings behind the altars were created by Gilbert Scott (1870-77).
On the north wall of the north transept is a large, blue-faced astronomical clock, donated by Bishop Peter Courtenay (1478-87). The minute hand was added in 1759. A fleur-de-lys represents the sun cycles around a 24-hour dial, with noon at the top and midnight at the bottom. The moon's phases are shown and the day of the lunar month can be read from the inner ring. The gold ball in the centre represents the earth.
A door in the south transept leads to the Chapter House (Early English Gothic; 1224-44). The rectangular room is now decorated with large modern bronze sculptures depicting biblical scenes from creation to the Resurrection of Christ.
The rib-vaulted ceiling continues in the choir, which also contains a full set of misericords dating from 1260 (unfortunately roped off during my visit). The oak canopy over the bishop's throne stretches 60 feet high and was begun in 1312, using wood from the bishop's estates. It is considered a fine example of English woodwork.
East of the choir is the broad and attractively-tiled presbytery with the high altar. The tomb of Bishop Walter Stapeldon (1308-1326) is to the left of the altar.
The east end contains an ambulatory and several side chapels. In the center, behind the high altar, is the Lady Chapel (begun 1270), which contains the tomb of Bishop Stafford.
In between the Lady Chapel and the Chapel of St. Gabriel to the south is the tomb of Bishop Walter Bronescombe (1258-1280), who started the great Gothic rebuilding of the cathedral. Traces of medieval paint can be seen in the Chapel of St. Gabriel.
The Chapel of St James and St Thomas, off the south choir aisle, was completely destroyed by a German bomb on May 4, 1942 (photo here). It has since been reconstructed and is now associated with the Devon and Dorset Regiment.
Festivals and Events
Exeter Cathedral's famous choir sings evensong every day at 3pm except Wednesday during school term. Visiting choirs perform during school holidays.
Quick Facts on Exeter Cathedral
|Names:||Cathedral Church of St Peter; Cathedral Church of St. Peter in Exeter; Exeter Cathedral|
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|Coordinates:||50.722506° N, 3.529948° W (view on Google Maps)|
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Map of Exeter Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Exeter Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.
- Personal visit (July 21, 2007).
- Exeter Cathedral - official website
- The Rough Guide to England, 7th ed. (May 2006), 429.
- Alec Clifton-Taylor, The Cathedrals of England (Thames & Hudson, 2001), 147-55.
- Frommer's England 2007.
- Wikipedia under GFDL
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