Devon History: Exeter Bishop's Palace

Search Britannia

History | Travel | British Life Shop Britannia

History Quicklist

Pitkin Guides

History & Description of Exeter Bishop's Palace in Devon
By David Nash Ford


Remains of Medieval Splendour

The Bishop's Palace at Exeter is a building intimately associated with the Cathedral and, despite the few fragments now remaining of this, once great, medieval house, it still demands notice. The massive old entrance gatehouse is one of the better survivals, dating from the 14th century. The palace itself consists mostly of the 13th century great hall, 75ft by 42ft, though now sadly divided into smaller rooms and protected by an 18th century roof. Feasts were once held here for upwards of a hundred poor people, as well occasions of more pomp and circumstance. In the Middle Ages, the embattled building played host to an array of Royalty. Particularly of note was Princess Isabella, Duchess of Clarence, sister-in-law of King Edward IV, though supporter of his rival, Henry VI. She set up Court at the Palace in the Spring of 1470, while the Bishop fled North. The short-lived Second Siege of Exeter ensued before being calmed by mediation. The Lady's husband and father, the Earl of Warwick, then arrived and the whole party fled the West Country from Dartmouth. In 1483, another brother-in-law, King Richard III lodged at the Palace and here declared Bishop Courtenay to be a traitor to the Crown.

In 1845, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, under Ewan Christian, decided to rebuild and repair what remained of the palace in the Neo-Tudor style to be seen today. Surprisingly, its most striking ancient feature, the two-storeyed oriel window, was inserted at this time. It had been removed from a 15th century property known as "Elyot's House," adjoining St. Petroc's Church. Some interesting heraldic glass from a house in Cathedral Yard was also inserted in the present Dining Room. The building was again modernised, in 1948, and, four years later, one of the most famous original features, Bishop Courtenay's 15th century heraldic fireplace, was repositioned and conserved. The west wing is now used as offices.

Linked to the Palace is the 13th century chapel of St. Mary which seems to have been frequently used in preference to the cathedral for the celebration of Episcopal functions. Ordination services were often held within its walls. It was originally built that services might be said there for the repose of the souls of dead Bishops of Exeter. One old document calls upon the parish of Alwyngham to pay the officiating chaplain a yearly sum of four marks, and that of Harberton two. This chapel, now restored, is used for domestic purposes. But at one time it was clearly regarded as a portion of the cathedral, for the Dean and Chapter, on the festival of St. Faith, presented to it a pair of wax candles. Brantingham, in 1381, mentions the "fruit & produce of the chapel beneath our Palace of Exeter for the spirits of our predecessors and of the founder himself".

On the west side of the palace, and attached to it, a prison stood for scandalous and felonious priests. This was not, however, an unique appendage, for Archbishop Boniface commanded that there should be at least one such prison in every diocese: "Every bishop should have, in his diocese, one or two gaols for the punishment of clerics or the detaining of convicts according to canonical law". But, in spite of a law for the perpetual imprisonment of the most deeply offending clerks, they sometimes managed to escape. After six felons, in 1389, had murdered the gaoler and run away, the King gave Bishop Brantingham his pardon, apparently because they were men of such " desperate villainy."

Partly edited from Percy Addleshaw's "Exeter Cathedral" (1898).

Click for Cathedral History
Click for Cathedral Architecture      Copyright ©2000, LLC