United Kingdom

Exeter Cathedral: The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter at Exeter

Exeter Cathedral: one of the oldest Cathedrals in England

In the year 705, the great diocese of Wessex was divided, and Devonshire with Cornwall came under the control of the bishops of Sherborne. So they continued until 909 when the see of Crediton was founded for the two counties. In 936, Athelstan having completed the conquest of the West, a separate see was established for Cornwall at St. Germans. Crediton and St. Germans were again united in 1042 under Bishop Living: eight years later the place of the see was removed to Exeter by Bishop Leofric. Athelstan had founded a monastery there, which Sweyn destroyed in 1003.  But Canute in 1019 built a new church, and this in 1050 became the Cathedral. It stood on the site of the present building, and all trace of it has now disappeared. Bishop Warelvrast was the first builder of the church as we now know it: the two transeptal towers of his work remain. In 1280 Peter Quivil succeeded to the bishopric and began his wonderful transformation: it is to him that we owe the decorated work of the building.

the west front of Exeter Cathedral
The Exeter Cathedral from the west front, showing the 12th century Norman north tower and 13th14th century decorated Gothic exterior.

The see of Exeter, with its thirty-two manors and fourteen palaces, was one of the richest and most attractive in England. Its bishops being largely drawn from the wealthy families were able to carry out their building operations in a lavish manner. Walter de Stapledon, whose rule, 1307-1329, corresponds with the reign of the first two Edwards, not only spent a whole year’s revenue on the festivities attending his enthronement but an enormous sum on the Exeter Cathedral as well. He also built Exeter College, Oxford, and a palace in London. John Grandisson (1327- 1369) whose sister, the Lady Catherine, is the heroine of the romantic story of the institution of the Order of the Garter, was another wealthy and magnificent prelate of royal and noble lineage. Succeeding to the peerage of his brother in 1358, he built the nave of the Cathedral, and the church of St. Mary Ottery.

The nave in Exeter Cathedral.
The nave in Exeter Cathedral.

He was the trusted friend of Edward III, to whom he left a splendid legacy. But the interest in the bishops of Exeter is by no means confined to those who were statesmen or great builders. Miles Coverdale, the Bible translator, was bishop for two years, and The Prayer Book Psalter is, in essence, the Psalter of Coverdale’s Bible.

The Martyrs' Pulpit in the Exeter Cathedral.
The Martyrs’ Pulpit in the Nave was erected in memory of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson who was ordained in Exeter Cathedral.

The Exeter Cathedral was spared by express condition on the surrender of the city to the Parliamentary forces under Fairfax. But during the Commonwealth, the cloisters were demolished, and a cloth market established on the site. A partition wall was built, dividing the church into two parts – East Peter’s for the Presbyterians, and West Peter’s for the Independents.

The diocese has sent forth two great missionaries, Winifrith (St. Boniface) to Germany in 716, and John Coleridge Patteson to Melanesia. Patteson was martyred in 1871, and the pulpit in the nave of the Cathedral is to his memory.

The Choir of Exeter Cathedral.
The Choir of Exeter Cathedral.

Features to be Noticed

The transeptal towers, the church of St. Mary Ottery is the only other example in England. Ingenious opening of the towers as transepts. The choir and Lady-chapel are together longer than the nave. Lowness and breadth of the whole building. Great breadth, and variety of tracery, of windows. Clerestory of nave unusually high; triforium unusually low. Clustered columns of the nave, a very beautiful feature. Groining of the roof, and beauty of detail throughout the building. The throne; the minstrels’ gallery decorated with carved angels playing instruments; the sedilia (used by clergy as seating during services); the clock; the misereres, among the best in the country. The excellent modern glass of Clayton & Bell.  The library is very rich in Anglo-Saxon, and other manuscripts, and contains the original Exon Domesday with unique information about politics, society, and the landscape of South-West Britain a thousand years ago

The Lady Chapel of Exeter Cathedral.
The Lady Chapel of Exeter Cathedral.

Building Dates

1112Saxon church pulled down, and Norman building was begun by Bishop Warelwast. The towers and some smaller work remain
1191The Norman building finished
1194-1206The choir enlarged; north porch; cloister doorway; Lady-chapel, and five other chapels —Bishop Marshall
1224-1244The Chapter-house (raised c. 1420); the misereres —Bishop Bruere
1257-1280Chapels of St. Gabriel, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. James restored by Bishop Bronescombe
1280-1291The rebuilding of the Cathedral planned and begun by Bishop Peter Quivil. He built arches in the Norman towers, thus making them a part of the church, finished the easternmost bays of the nave, and transformed the Lady-chapel
1292-1307Quivil’s work in the choir continued by Bishop Bytton
1308-1327The choir completed, and cloister begun by Bishop Stapledon, who also erected the bishop’s throne, the screen, and the sedilia
1328-1367The nave finished in Quivil’s design by Bishop Grandisson, who also built the west front of the chapel of St. Radegund and part of the cloister
1370-1394Cloister finished by Bishop Brantyngham, the builder of the screen of the west front, and the east window
1420-1455Nave windows glazed, and chapterhouse raised by Bishop Lacey
1478-1486Pinnacles and turrets added to towers
1504-1519The Oldham and Speke chapels
1657The cloisters destroyed
1662-1667Restorations under Bishop Seth Ward
1766Glazing of the west window
1871Work of Sir Gilbert Scott begun
1942the Cathedral suffered a direct hit blowing out the windows and destroying St James Chapel.
1945-1953The bomb damage repaired, both towers completely restored

Visiting Exeter Cathedral

The Exeter Cathedral remains a site of worship as well as a building of historic significance. Guided tours, special events and religious services continue to take place within its walls.

The Cathedral is open daily for prayer and worship.

Monday to Saturday from 09:00 – 17:00 hrs

Sunday from 11:30 – 17:00 hrs

Admission price: GBP 7.50

Address: 1 The Cloisters, Exeter EX1 1HS, UK

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