History Group Talk November 2009


                                            The building of Exeter Cathedral by Archeologist Dr John Allan.

Dr John Allan gave a detailed and interesting illustrated talk on The building and history of Exeter Cathedral. He is currently Project Manager to Exeter Archaeology. He last came to our Group in 2004 when he was curator to The Victoria and Albert Museum in Exeter. He then organised a visit to the Museum and we looked around behind the scenes. He also looked at several local collections of flints and stones. This time he has organised a guided tour of The Cathedral as well as a tour of The Custom House on the Quay at Exeter. His first slide was a view of The Cathedral Close with many people sat on the grass enjoying a summer day. They were totally unaware that beneath them lie buried several thousand bodies of bygone days. There was a Minster there in Anglo Saxon Days and as with many religious sites the buildings have developed over many years, in the case of Exeter many hundreds of years. The Norman influence and Gothic architecture is there today to be seen and admired. It was interesting to hear how precise some parts of the Cathedral can be dated and he quoted several dates with precision. Construction of the present Cathedral began in 1112, built in The Norman (Romanesque) style. Between c1270 and c1350 a major rebuild in the Decorated Gothic style took place. A comprehensive guide book is available at the Cathedral. The Cathedral has a most extensive library which includes the world famous 10th century Exeter Book and the 1086 Exon Doomsday. A wide range of events take place in the Cathedral. There is much to see and as soon as one enters the building from the Great West Door look up and see the vaulted ceiling. The bosses in the ceiling act as keystones locking the vaults in place. Plants, animals, heads, figures and coats of arms are depicted on them. Possibly the most famous is the ‘Becket Boss’ depicting the murder of St Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170. On the north side of the nave is the unique Minstrel’s Gallery c1360. Nearby is the stone Martyr’s Pulpit by Sir George Gilbert Scott who carried out major restoration works which was erected 1877. Just above the pillars in the nave are elaborate carvings known as ‘corbels’. On the north wall is the large face of the Exeter Astronomical Clock dating from 1484 and below it is a small hole cut in the door between 1598 and 1621 to provide access for the Bishop’s Cat to deter the rats and mice.  Notice also the stone screen or Pulpitum which was built between 1317 and 1325. This separated the clergy area of the quire from the public area of the nave. This was the style before the reformation of the mid 16th Century. Close by the ramp leading to the quire, is the Elephant Misericord, (a hinged chair seat), one of 50 tip-up seats in the Cathedral, carved with an elephant, in the mid 13th Century and amongst the oldest in England. The magnificent Bishop’s Throne, 59 feet tall, was carved using local Devon oak between 1312 and 1316, it is held together by wooden pegs. The Great East Window must be viewed, dating from 1304 depicting nine figures. Fortunately that, and other valuable items in the Cathedral, were removed during world War II, so avoiding the possibility that they might have been damaged when the Cathedral was bombed in 1942. There are canopied tombs to be seen, including that of Bishop Walter Stapledon murdered in 1326 and his brother Sir Richard Stapledon who died in 1332. On the south side is a basalt figure portraying Bishop Walter Bronescombe (Walter the Good), who died in 1258. There is a small chapel containing the tomb of Bishop Hugh Oldham in which are many depictions of Owls on the walls and ceiling. The owl was the Bishop’s emblem which originated from the pronunciation of his name ‘Owl-dom’. Adjoining is The Chapter House often now used for meetings, built in 1225 and originally held two floors. Walking along the south aisle of the nave towards the west door one notices the Exeter Rondels on the ledges along the walls. Made in 1980s these embroidered cushions trace the history of Exeter. So much for the interior.
On the outside of the Cathedral one must admire the West Front of the building and all the stone images of angels, kings and prophets originally painted and carved between c1342 and c1470. On the south of the Cathedral are the Cloisters of the mid 17th century. The Cathedral Refectory is housed in the only reconstructed part of the Cloisters, completed in 1887. The enthusiasm that John Allan has for the Cathedral was brought home to all of us and a guided tour of The Custom House on the Quay and The Cathedral was arranged for Friday 6th November, commencing at The Custom House at I p.m. and followed by the Cathedral at 4 p.m. this to be followed by a cream tea at 5. p.m. in the Refectory.

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