Exeter Cathedral History Part 2: Medieval Times

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The History of Exeter Cathedral in Devon, Part 2
By David Nash Ford


Medieval Construction Site

The ecclesiastical community at Exeter Cathedral was completely re-organised by Bishop Bruere in 1224 along more contemporary lines. The office of Dean was initiated and given to the Archdeacon of Exeter, who was joined by the great offices of Precentor, Treasurer and Chancellor, still helped by the twenty-four canons. In the subsequent years leading up the mid-13th century, the Early English cloisters and chapter house were built to serve these new arrangements, which have remained in place ever since.

The building of the Lady Chapel and remodelling of the quire in Decorated Gothic style, began under Bishop Branscombe in the 1270s. The canons were obliged to move out to hold services in the nave which was shut off from the construction work by a temporary barrier. By this period, the cathedral close had become one of the busiest parts of the city. Now a huge building site as well as a place for prayer, it was also a centre of commerce, sport and revelry, despite the objections of the Dean and Chapter. Such undesirable developments ultimately led to the darkest hour in the history of the Cathedral and its canons. In 1283, a local man named John Pycot managed to get himself elected Dean of Exeter under somewhat dubious circumstances. The Bishop, Peter Quinel, did not approve and tried to have him removed. The ensuing quarrels split the chapter and the town and eventually led to the murder of one of the Bishop's supporters, the precenter, Walter Lechlade. He was seen as a heavy-weight threat by Pycot's followers who hunted him down after matins and stabbed him to death in the Cathedral Close. The precenter's family brought legal proceedings against Pycot, his associate, Mayor Alured de la Porte, and nineteen others; but little was resolved and the case dragged on for two years before the Bishop asked the King to personally intercede. King Edward I, Queen Eleanor and three of their daughters arrived in Exeter in late December 1285. Though they stayed at the castle, they would, no doubt, have celebrated mass in the Cathedral on Christmas Day: the only break which the King permitted himself from sitting in judgement upon the accused. Five laymen, including the mayor, were hanged, but the clergy escaped with lesser penalties.

The building of the present quire proper began not long afterward, followed by the nave around 1310. The canons moved back into their still incomplete quire at this time, but the high altar was not finally dedicated until 1328. The dawning of the new century also saw the strong episcopate of Bishop John Grandisson. He completed the present Cathedral around 1342, with the fine sculptured West Front being painted in bright colours. Only five years later, the Black Death deprived the city of the many laymen who had been its builders and the clergy were permanently reduced in numbers. Grandisson was keen to uphold his rights as Bishop in Exeter and even refused a visitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury by meeting him at the West Door with a band of armed attendants. A bloody skirmish was only narrowly avoided! He is better known for laying out the Cathedral 'Ordinal' (1337), still in use today, which defines how all cathedral services should be carried out. He also re-discovered the city's connection with St. Boniface, though his attempts to initiate a popular cult were unsuccessful.

Other saints, however, did draw the crowds. Since the donation relics by of King Aethelstan in the 10th century, Exeter had held one of the most important collections of spiritual possessions in the West Country. These had been added to over the years. Bishop Bruere apparently brought a number of relics back from the Holy Land in 1227, including hairs of Christ and St. Peter and other relics of Ss. Stephen, Demetri and Katherine. Dean Bartholomew St. Lawrence acquired a major portion of St. Brannoc, from nearby Braunton, in the early 14th century; and St. Sidwell appears to have been translated from the church dedicated to her on the edge of the City, though details are sketchy. Certainly Exeter was a major medieval pilgrimage centre. Pilgrims' donations made the Cathedral rich, while prayers to the saints apparently made the pilgrims healthy, as recorded in a number of miracle cure stories.

After the Lechlade murder, the Bishop had been given permission to enclose the cathedral close by a high wall, with seven gates, to protect his community. Houses were gradually built there for the canons, and halls for annuellars and vicars choral. These latter offices were introduced in the early 15th century, when the original canonical community of twenty-four were becoming increasingly involved in secular administrative work. King Henry IV granted the cathedral a charter establishing the Vicars Choral at Exeter in 1401. They were able to relieve the canons of many of their religious duties and were later joined by chantry priests or annuellars. These were paid, through wealthy bequests, to pray for the souls of great patrons and their families. Exeter once had as many as twenty chantry chapels for this purpose. The King stayed in the close only two years later, while escorting his second wife, Joan of Navarre, to their wedding in Winchester.

The close was always under the complete jurisdiction of the Church and its new walls did nothing to dispel the discord which this caused with the city authorities. Things reached a peak during the conflict of the 1440s between the Bishop Edmund Lacy and Mayor John Shillingford. The latter's men tried, unsuccessfully, to arrest a servant of the Cathedral Chancellor in the middle of an Ascension Day procession; and a tenant of the Bishop, named Hugh Lucas, was chased into the very cathedral by city sergeants with daggers, swords and other "invasive weapons" drawn. Despite the service in progress, the clergy ran from the quire to defend him - also armed with cudgels and long knives! The city officers barely escaped alive and both authorities made appeals to the Lord Chancellor.

The Wars of the Roses had a direct impact on the cathedral and the city of Exeter through the sympathies of both the West Country gentry and clergy. Edward IV's sister-in-law, the Duchess of Clarence, set up Court in the Bishop's Palace in 1470, during her husband's phase of Lancastrian support. Bishop Booth moved north to one of his Surrey manors and escaped the subsequent siege. Later, the Yorkist, Richard III travelled to the City, in 1483, to stamp out hostilities, particularly from Bishop Courtenay and his brother. They both fled while the King declared them outlaws from the Bishop's own Palace where he was lodging. In 1497, during the reign of Henry VII, Exeter was instrumental in helping the King to crush an uprising headed by the pretender to throne, Perkin Warbeck. Soon afterward, Henry himself came to the City and stayed at the Treasurer's House. He ordered some of the trees there to be felled so he could watch the rebel prisoners who he had had lined up in the close with nooses around their necks. He later gave them a stern address upon the meaning of loyalty before pardoning the lot. Four years later, the Cathedral clergy played host to the King's future daughter-in-law, Catherine of Aragon. On her journey to marry Prince Arthur, in October 1501, she landed in England at Plymouth and moved west through Exeter where she spent several days at the Deanery. She was one of the few women allowed the privilege of staying the night in the close but, unfortunately, it was something of a sleepless one. The West Country storms were terrible and the weathervane on St. Mary Major made such a noise that a servant was sent up to remove it, at not a little personal risk.

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