Exeter Cathedral History Part 3: Tudor to Modern Times

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The History of Exeter Cathedral in Devon, Part 3
By David Nash Ford


Early Modern Consolidation

The 16th and 17th centuries brought many religious changes in England. The Reformation and the Dissolution, the advent of Protestantism and Puritanism, all had their affect on Exeter and the Cathedral in particular. A local schoolmaster, Thomas Benet, became an early Protestant martyr, in 1531, when he was burnt to death for nailing posters to the cathedral door, denouncing the worship of saints. Only a few years later, his action would not have seemed out of place. In 1534, King Henry VIII made himself Head of the Church of England and widespread church reform was put in place. This situation was less than popular in the West Country but, with the flight of Dean Pole (later Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury), the Crown proceeded to appoint a zealous Protestant, named Simon Heynes, in his place. He white-washed saintly wall-paintings, defaced the books in the Cathedral Library (by removing references to the Pope) and tore Bishop Lacy's brass from his monument in order to make it anonymous and free from pilgrimages. The canons were so outraged that they threw him in prison. Later, the austere nature of worship insisted upon by Edward VI, and his commissioners, required the dismantling of stone altars and the destruction of all holy images. Remarkably, the unique collection of carved bosses and corbels at Exeter Cathedral remained untouched and only one statue was lost from the Image Screen. The Chantries were, however, abolished and Bishop Grandisson's Chapel completely destroyed. The Exeter annuellars were redundant. Miles Coverdale, translator of the Bible, though largely unpopular, had a small protestant following during his short Episcopate. He was preaching in the Cathedral when news reached him of the Catholic Queen Mary's accession to the throne; and the congregation immediately walked out in disgust. Mary's reign was short-lived though and Protestantism soon returned, bringing still worse restrictions.

During the English Civil War, Exeter was first for Parliament and then for the King. Queen Henrietta Maria fled to the safety of City in 1644 and gave birth to her youngest daughter, Henrietta Anne, within its walls. The little Princess was christened in the Cathedral on 21st July. A few months later, the Royalist diarist, Richard Symonds, visited the Cathedral and his passion for heraldry was easily satisfied by the 150 coats of arms that he recorded in the Cathedral windows. He also noted how the church had been despoiled by parliamentarian troops who "when they had this city, digged up a monument in the south chapel where Bishop Carye lies, and they found a coffin od stone with the bones of a man whole together. Upon the breats lay a silver chalice, which they took away." Following the capture of Exeter by Fairfax and Cromwell, two years later, the Cathedral authorities were completely suppressed by the junta which was given power in the City. The chapter dispersed and the city chamber stepped into their shoes. Destruction followed, during the Commonwealth, with the demolition of the cloister and the Cathedral library building in 1655, the land being sold off for use as a new cloth market. The Cathedral books were saved by a respected local physician, Dr. Vilvaine, who moved them to the Lady Chapel and kept them in good order. The two chief religious groups of Exeter - the Presbyterians and Congregationalists - could not, however, agree over the usage of the Cathedral Church. In order to satisfy both parties, a brick wall was eventually erected, in 1657, right across the building, above the quire screen. The Presbyterians worshipped in the quire and the Congregationalists in the nave.

1660 was not only the year of the Restoration of King Charles II, but also of Exeter Cathedral, set about by the Dean, and later Bishop, Seth Ward. He tore down the "monstrous Babylonish wall" and ejected the vendors from the old cloister, which he replaced with a hosital for six poor families, collected chiefly from veterans of the Royalist Army. Further repairs were undertaken on the towers, the quire and the chapter house. The whole work was said to have cost 25,000! The great organ (the case of which survives), considered one of the best in England, was placed on the pulpitum screen in 1665. During the early days of the 'Glorious Revolution' of later Stuart times (1688), Prince William of Orange (later William III) held court, for a week, in the Deanery at Exeter while preparing for his famous march on London. The pro-Jacobean chapter had fled before he arrived.

The 18th century brought an increased interest in the Cathedral's architecture which, by 1815, led John Kendall to clear the many exterior buildings abutting the main structure and reveal its intended symmetry. The Lady Chapel was restored for worship and, in 1870 and 1877, George Gilbert Scott continued this work with a major restoration of the quire which included the insertion of a controversial figured reredos, since removed to Heavitree. John Loughborough Pearson made a start on rebuilding the cloisters, three years later, but lack of funds prevented its completion and only one corner was ever finished.

The Cathedral continued with a relatively quiet history until the Second World War. On 3rd May 1942, German bomber planes descended on Exeter and all but destroyed this ancient City. The cathedral suffered a direct hit and the double chapel of St. James and St. Thomas A'Becket was completely destroyed, along with two bays of the south quire. All the Cathedral glass still in place was destroyed but, luckily, the great east window of 1304 had been removed to a place of safety in 1939. Fears of major structural damage were soon discovered to be unfounded and repair work began as soon as conditions allowed. The war damage rebuilding, of the 1950s, turned increasingly to restoration and conservation in the following decade: the work which continues today on an almost daily basis.

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