Exeter Cathedral History Part 1: Saxon & Norman Times

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The History of Exeter Cathedral in Devon, Part 1
By David Nash Ford


From Minster to Cathedral

There has been a church in the general region of Exeter Cathedral since the early Saxon period. A monastery is oft quoted as having been established in the city in AD 670, though, in fact, the foundation date is unknown. There was certainly a flourishing community here by the 680s when the attached school was attended by the future St. Boniface, the German evangelist. The Abbot at the time was apparently one, Wulfhard, whose Saxon name confirms the monastery's position within English rather than Celtic territory, despite the early date. Its remains have been excavated before the west front of the present cathedral.

During the early 10th century, King Aethelstan of Wessex refounded the monastery, probably as a minster with a staff of clerics. He was a keen collector of saintly relics and gave a large number to his new foundation. The late Saxon period was a time of constant change for the City of Exeter and its minster church. In AD 968, King Edgar the Peaceable exchanged the clerks for monks but this monastic institution was destroyed by the Danes in 1003 and, when re-established by Canute, sixteen years later, it reverted once more to minster status.

Such ravages, no doubt, led to a massive decline in the wealth of Exeter Minster, yet the buildings remained solid. Thus, in 1050, Bishop Leofric of Crediton saw it as an ideal place to which he might transfer the centre of his Episcopal See. There was a general movement of Saxon Cathedrals into major towns, in line with the Continent, at this time; and the walls of Exeter were, furthermore, better protection than the fields of Crediton.

Leofric converted the minster church into his Cathedral and was personally installed there by King Edward the Confessor and his Queen. Twenty-four canons were instituted help in his Episcopal work and he spent many years rebuilding the monastery's land holdings. Upon his death, he left a large collection of books to the Cathedral Library, several of which survive inlcuding the famous Exeter Book of Anglo-Saxon Poetry.

Leofric remained in office after the Norman Conquest but, unlike the new Norman Bishops, he was quite content with his Saxon Cathedral. His successor, though he hailed from across the Channel, was brought up in England and was similarly unmoved toward construction. However, by 1114, Bishop William Warelwast began work on a grand new edifice in the Romanesque architecture then in vogue. It took some nineteen years to complete just the quire but this, at least, meant that the clergy could move in and worship in their new cathedral. The building of the nave was greatly hindered by a fire caused by King Stephen's Siege of the City in 1136 and it was not finally completed until the end of the 12th century. Building continued for the next two hundred years as new Bishops wished to make their mark on the Cathedral with the latest architectural style. The old Saxon building, alongside, was probably not demolished, but was converted for use as the parish church of St. Mary Major.

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