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The building of Exeter Cathedral (S Devon Branch)
Thu. 21 November 2019 at 2:15 pm
John Allan, DA’s President 2019–20, will give an illustrated talk about the cathedral for which he has been consultant archaeologist since 1990.
Note our new venue for this season’s talks.
Report on the talk
John Allan started his talk by telling us that Exeter cathedral has the best contemporary documents of the 13th and 14th centuries of any European cathedral. This enables the history of the cathedral to be told accurately.
There has been a church somewhere on the site since Anglo-Saxon times as burials have been discovered going back to the 5th or 6th centuries, but the building of the cathedral has two distinct phases.
Founded in 1133 by Norman Bishop William Warelwast the first cathedral was built in the Norman style with simple, grand arches but rather dark and heavy inside. The two existing towers were built at this time and are the only significant bits of the Norman cathedral still to be seen. The two towers originally had spires and are slightly different to each other, being built at different times. The idea at that time was to build in the latest style, however much had been already built in a different one! Building in the 12th century was all done by hand, stones being carried up ladders by the workmen but the basics tools, for example chisels, have not changed significantly since then. The south tower has been restored in the 1980s and 1990s.
By the end of the 12th century a new style of building was appearing. This Gothic style was full of light and soon caught on. Wells cathedral was one of the first to be built in this new style. In 1258 Bishop Bronscombe decided he would re-build his cathedral in the new style and so the second phase of building began.
Rebuilding the cathedral was a monumental undertaking and was completed in parts, each section being in use as it was finished. A team of about twenty masons was involved along with carpenters and labourers. There was a master mason who would have been an educated person with a knowledge of maths and especially geometry and who would produce detailed drawings. There would have also been a clerk to keep all the records. Stones came from Salcombe Regis, Beer, the Exe valley and Portland. Most of the stone came from Salcombe Regis but Beer was the major source of the fine stone that was needed. Wheels and cranes were used in the building works along with wooden scaffolding but there was no health and safety equipment! From the 1301–02 wage records it is clear that labour was very cheap but materials were very expensive.
One of the Exeter misericords is a carving of an elephant which records a national historical event when the French King gave the English King Henry III an elephant, not seen since the time of Hannibal, which was exhibited in the Tower of London.
The building of the Lady Chapel began in the 1270s but was not finished until 1340s. The new building had giant new windows, flooding the interior with light, and the very heavy vaulting needed flying buttresses – a new technological invention in late 12th and early 13th centuries. The blitz of 1942 caused two buttresses to be destroyed and there was some damage to the vaulting in the aisle but the main body of the cathedral withstood the shock, a credit to the medieval builders and their materials.
The bosses within the vaulting ceilings are huge and well preserved and may have been carved by the same mason that carved the ones in Wells cathedral. In the nave there is a famous boss showing the murder of Thomas Becket.
In 1307 the new bishop, Bishop Stapledon from rural Devon, was responsible for investing a very large amount of money in the development of the cathedral and the new ogee arch was seen in the high altar screen, unfortunately now lost. In 1313 a new throne for the bishop was installed using the high Gothic style which was immensely complex and intricate.
The West Front of the cathedral was built very simply but then decorated with rows of figures, wonderful sculptures showing even the folds in the fabrics of the statues. Many of the statues are in a state of decay and conservation work is currently being undertaken to preserve this wonderful part of our heritage.