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Seven Things to See When Visiting Exeter Cathedral

Often lauded as an impressive example of the architecture of the Middle Ages, the current appearance of the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in Exeter is actually a product of various changes over the centuries. Its Medieval façade disguises a range of architectural styles.

For any visitor staying in or passing through Exeter, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter is a must-see. An impressive example of Gothic architecture situated in one of the oldest parts of the city, the building’s elaborate West-front displays a series of notable 14th Century figures, whilst its interior contains a variety of unusual features from across the ages. Retaining its original Norman towers, boasting a spectacularly lengthy vaulted ceiling, and containing treasures such as its 15th Century astronomical clock and the breath-taking Great East Window, Exeter Cathedral is widely regarded as a masterpiece of medieval craftsmanship. However, the building also contains nineteenth-century renovations and commemorations to figures that have fallen throughout the years, including a memorial to the soldiers that lost their lives in the Boer War.

As a Cathedral that has served as a site of worship since 1133, this remarkable building has been witness to over 900 years of history, and is a worthy site of pilgrimage for any visitor with historic or religious interests. Optional guided tours of the interior run throughout the year at several times during the day, and are included in the small admission fee. For purposes of prayer, however, there is no cost. An audio tour is also available, and the building contains a small shop and café which are accessible to disabled visitors. For the most up-to-date information about opening hours, and the seasonal tower, roof, and night time tours that also take place, it is best to consult the Cathedral website before making your visit.

Exeter Cathedral Nave
The nave has the longest, continuous stretch of Medieval vaulting in the world.

Exeter Cathedral: A Brief History

Whilst a monastery is thought to have existed on the current site of the Cathedral from about the 7th century, this building’s status as a significant place of worship can probably be dated from 1050, when Leofric, the new Bishop of Credition, persuaded the Pope to move the centre of the diocese to Exeter. However, whilst the existing church seemed sufficient for Leofric and his successor, things seemed to change when William Warelwast, a nephew of William the Conqueror, became Bishop in 1107. Around 1112, orders were received for a new church to be built, and an extensive building project ensued. Finally consecrated in 1133 and constructed in the Norman Romanesque style, the remnants of this church are still apparent in the North and South towers that continue to cast their long shadow over the surrounding green.

The oldest surviving parts of the Cathedral, the imposing edifices remain as rather magnificent displays of the square, blocky forms that are traditionally associated with the Romanesque, particularly when the building is approached from the Princesshay Shopping Centre. Placed at the North and South of the building, the towers’ placement is unique in England, and rejects the traditional tendency to place an architectural emphasis on the West and East in order to encourage the congregation to look towards Jerusalem. Whilst this architectural choice certainly provides the structure with an unusual appearance compared to most other cathedrals in the country, the building’s lack of a central tower- a decision that was possibly due to the collapse of Winchester’s only five years before- also allows it to boast the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England. However, this vast structure has nonetheless been witness to a varied and vibrant history.

Exeter Cathedral Richrd Hooker
Looking on to the north tower, with a statue of Richard Hooker in the foreground.

Built primarily between the 12th and 14th centuries, the Cathedral continued to evolve throughout the years, particularly during the episcopacies of Walter Bronsecombe and Peter Quinil, which saw the construction of the original stone reredos (later replaced) and the completion of the Lady Chapel in 1303. In the 1600s, however, the structure became more exclusive rather than expansive, and during the height of the Civil War the divides across the country became mapped out across the Cathedral floor. After a dispute over whether the Cathedral should be a place of Presbyterian or Independent worship, a door was cut into the wall of the Speke chantry and the Cathedral served as two churches, known as “East Peter’s” and “Peter’s West.” The division was finally knocked down following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. During this time, the nearby Chapter House was also used a stable.

By the 19th Century, however, focus once again shifted to additive, rather than a reductive, process. Whilst the 18th Century had favoured simple, balanced, classical forms, in the Victorian Era the Cathedral of course attracted attention from Gothic revivalists and enthusiasts, and it was subject to a rather extensive restoration project by Sir Gilbert Scott, a notable architect and renovator of churches. Opening up the quire and adding new stalls, new stained glass and a spiral staircase between the years 1870 and 1877, the architect nevertheless remained largely faithful to the original structure, and the current quire was intended to work in harmony with the 14th century Bishop’s Throne. Today, viewing the seat within this setting, the visitor would easily be forgiven for supposing the two originated from the same time. However, the two elements are separated by at least 550 years, and much of the original interior would likely have been more brightly painted than these nineteenth-century additions would suggest. Subsequent attempts to restore the Cathedral have always been subject to a difficult debate over whether to bring the building back to its original glory or to maintain a level of authenticity, particularly in regards to the Cathedral’s many bosses. Looking at the ceiling today, visitors can witness the shift from the bright lurid colours of the bosses towards the West Entrance of the Cathedral to the more subdued bosses towards the East as visual evidence of a shift in thinking. Over the years restorers have adopted a less invasive method of preservation, rather than renovation.

During the 20th Century, however, the desire to preserve the Cathedral took on an added significance as Britain became plunged into war once again, and at the height of the Blitz the Cathedral presented a rather pared-back interior compared to its current appearance. Expecting the historically significant Cathedral to be a target of German planes, objects such as the 13th century misericords and the towering Bishop’s throne were removed from the building to prevent them becoming damaged during the air raids. On the night of 4th May 1942, this decision proved wise, as Exeter suffered an attack that destroyed many homes and most of Exeter’s South Street, as well as causing considerable damage to some of the Cathedral’s memorials. The chapel of St James, in the south quire aisle, was completely destroyed. It is widely believed that had it not been for its Cathedral, Exeter may have been spared. Following the end of the war in 1945, the removed objects were eventually returned to their original places. The dismantled throne proved something of a task to reconstruct, however, and now it is held together by bolts as well as its original wooden pegs.

Today, the Cathedral remains a site of worship as well as a building of historic significance. Guided tours, school visits, special events and religious services all take place within its walls. Close to the main building, much more of this structure’s history can be discovered in the Cathedral’s nearby Library and Archive, which also contains the Exeter Book, one of only four examples of Old English poetry in the world.

Small Things to Spot: Seven Unusual Features

Considering its impressive history, it is perhaps unsurprising that Exeter Cathedral contains some particularly unusual features. However, within this vast, impressive structure, there are a series of objects, sometimes especially small in size, which really provide a sense of the character of the Cathedral. Whilst it is easy to lose yourself in the majesty of this building, the following features, though sometimes easy to miss on first glance, are really worth seeking out:

13th Century Misericords

Whilst Exeter Cathedral’s 49 13th century misericords, a decorative feature found underneath the quire stall seats, were considered so precious that they were removed from the building during World War II, one in particular is a great curiosity. Made of wood and usually displayed in a glass cabinet outside the quire, this misericord is thought to be the earliest portrayal of an elephant in Britain. As the first elephant in England was presented to King Henry III in 1253, it has even been suggested that the artisan may have worked from life.
Exeter Cathedral Elephant Misericord

Boss Depicting Murder of Thomas Becket

At the meeting point of several fan vaults of the cathedral’s impressive ceiling near the west entrance, one boss is thought to depict the Archbishop Thomas Becket. Martyred after his murder in Canterbury Cathedral by the King’s men in 1170, this particular depiction of his killing is notable for its dramatic and innovative composition. The image would take on added significance when Exeter Cathedral became witness to a murder in its own surrounding grounds, that of Precentor Lechlade, another wronged man of the church, in 1283.
Exeter Cathedral Becket Boss

Bishop Edmund Stafford’s Effigy

Exeter Cathedral displays notable examples of commemorative stonework, from a dedication to fallen soldiers of the Boer War to the 14th Century monument to the second Earl of Devon. Bishop Edmund Stafford’s effigy always attracts attention; a polychrome depiction that was originally designed to work in harmony with the black basalt effigy of his predecessor (Bishop Walter Bronsecombe – situated opposite). Stafford’s effigy is covered in graffiti, the oldest being 1687, a witness to numerous visitors who have sought to leave a mark of their pilgrimage.

Exeter Cathedral Bishop Stafford

Bishop Oldham’s Chapel

Located to the right of the Cathedral, Bishop Oldham’s Chapel may appear at first glance to be a beautifully decorated, but nonetheless relatively commonplace place of rest for such a religious figure. However, stay longer and you will spot a curious recurring image in the chapel. The ceilings, walls and even the prayer mats are littered with depictions of owls. Serving as a rebus, or pun, on the name ‘Oldham’ that is rather lost in our day and age, trying to count the most owls is an interesting challenge for both children and adults alike.

Owls Exeter Cathedral

14th Century Minstrels’ Gallery

A beautiful feature unique in England, the Minstrels’ Gallery will undoubtedly catch your eye. Whilst the gallery is beautiful as a whole, what is particularly interesting is that each figure carries a different instrument. Depicting twelve of the fourteen angels, from left to right they carry a gittern, bagpipe, shawm, vielle, harp, Jew’s harp, trumpet, organ, citole, recorder, tambourine, and cymbals. Bearing traces of its once bright paint, this 14th Century piece, originally used as a screen to disguise performing choristers, is one of the Cathedral’s most striking features.

Exeter Cathedral Minstrels Gallery

The Mouse Ran Up the Clock

Though the Cathedral’s beautiful 15th Century astronomical clock is perhaps difficult to miss, it is worth casting your eye closer to the floor. At the bottom of the doorway below the clock, you will notice a small hole that was bored at some point during the 17th Century for the Cathedral cat, charged with catching any unwanted rodent visitors. Often, mice were attracted by the animal fat used to lubricate the clock mechanism, and this ingenious solution is thought to be the inspiration behind the popular nursery rhyme ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’.

Exeter Cathedral Astronomical Clock
Exeter Cathedral Bishops Throne

14th Century Bishop’s Throne

At 18 metres high perhaps the 14th Century Bishop’s Throne is not a small object. Although the base and enclosure are Victorian, the throne was first constructed in 1312 out of local Devon oak, and has housed various Bishops over the years. In November 1688, the chair even held a future King, William of Orange, whose coronation would take place less than six months later. Considered to be such an important a piece of woodwork that it was removed from the Cathedral during the Second World War. The throne is a magnificent piece of craftsmanship even by modern standards.

Archaeology Travel Writer

Beth Howell

I am a history enthusiast and heritage volunteer, with interests ranging from Gothic architecture to 19th century painting. I love learning and writing about the world around me, and recently completed a degree in Art History and English Literature at the University of Exeter. When I haven’t got my nose in a book I’m usually doodling, and I am currently working on a series of drawings of Victorian women.

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