The location of Bedford House must rank as one of the most historically interesting places in the entire city. Once part of the Roman civitas, the site's medieval history begins in the 13th century when a portion of ground within the city walls and just north of the cathedral was granted to the religious order known as the Dominicans, or Black Friars. (The Black Friars are first recorded in Exeter in 1232 although their friary church wasn't dedicated until 1259 by the Bishop of Exeter, Walter Bronescombe.) The area of their new religious precinct was bounded by Chapel Street, Catherine Street and the city walls, and the Black Friars' quickly established a monastic complex on the site that survived for over 300 years before it was dissolved by Henry VIII on 15 September 1538.
On 04 July 1539 the land was granted as a royal gift by the king to John Russell, the 1st Earl of Bedford (shown left in a portrait by Holbein). Born in Dorset, John Russell was a courtier at the Tudor courts of both Henry VIII and his father Henry VII. He was made a privy councillor in 1536 and retained royal favour despite the apparent antipathy between himself and Anne Boleyn. Following the arrest and execution of the Catholic-supporting 1st Marquess of Exeter, Henry Courtenay, in 1538/39, John Russell was well-placed to fill the resulting power vacuum left in Devon and was soon appointed to the role of Lord President of the short-lived Council of the West. He was made Lord High Admiral in 1540 and was one of the executors of Henry VIII's will in 1547. In 1549 he was directly involved in relieving the besieged city of Exeter during the Prayerbook Rebellion. He died in 1555. Soon after taking possession of the friars' land Russell began to convert the remaining monastic buildings, probably consisting of the friars' refectory and dormitory, into a large townhouse.
By the mid-16th century it was, by far, the largest and most prestigious domestic house in Exeter, except perhaps the palace of the Bishop of Exeter. One of the few representations of Bedford House exists on the 1587 map of the city by Braun and Hogenberg, which is shown at the top of this post, although its accuracy is debatable.
Another illustration above © Devon Records Office shows the house c1700 viewed across the great court, then known as Bedford Square, looking towards the main range. Note the carved armorial tablet above the doorway. None of the illustrations of the building are particularly detailed, but fortunately there are two sources which help visualise what the house was like.
The first is the vast, magnificent wooden model of the city constructed by Caleb Hedgeland and completed in 1824. It recalls the city as it was in 1769, before the demolition of the city gates and the demolition of Bedford House itself. The Hedgeland model shows Bedford House in some detail left, highlighted in red. It consisted of a single long range with two projecting wings. A wall enclosed the courtyard and the entrance was probably via the driveway visible disappearing at an angle towards Catherine Street to the right. Many of the other buildings in the vicinity of the house were probably connected with the estate. It was vast, a true mansion, many times larger than Bampfylde House and it would've dwarfed most of the other domestic buildings in the city.
The second source of information is the survey of 1594, taken when the house was temporarily empty and unused, and which provides a good description of the sprawling accommodation. Much of the ground floor of the main range was taken up with the medieval great hall, presumably divided into two by the insertion of a floor. In the hall at ground level was the dining room with a screens passage leading to a buttery, pantry and kitchens. Above the dining room was the great chamber, the Russells' main living room. Other rooms on the first floor included the Russells' bed chambers and a drawing room as well as bedrooms for serving maids, although four bedrooms for the male servants were on the third floor and built into roof space. There were also nursery chambers and an audience chamber.
The fishhouse, washhouse, slaughterhouse and stables were contained in a separate range. There was also an armoury house. It appears as though the buildings were constructed around a central court with the main entrance into the house being though a large porch. The entire property and its extensive gardens were surrounded by a high wall, part of which was the city's own defensive wall, with access through a main gatehouse via Catherine Street with a smaller postern entrance in Freren Lane (later Egypt Lane and then Chapel Street).
Bedford House remained at the centre of Exeter's history throughout the 17th century. In 1644, during the English Civil War, the house was still in the possession of the Bedford family, the then owner being William Russell, the 1st Duke of Bedford and lord-lieutenant of the county of Devonshire. Because it was regarded as a relatively safe pro-Royalist retreat amidst the havoc of the civil war, Charles I sent his wife Henrietta Maria of France to Exeter when she was pregnant with their child.
The Queen lodged at Bedford House and it was here that she gave birth to the king's youngest daughter on 16 June 1644, baptised in the nearby cathedral as Henrietta Anna Stuart right, later Duchess of Orleans and sister-in-law to the French king Louis XIV. Soon after the birth, on the 26 July 1644, Charles I arrived in the city where he lodged with his daughter at Bedford House, the Queen having already left England for the continent. (A portrait of the princess still hangs in the Guildhall. Given to the city in 1671, it was a personal gift from her brother, then King Charles II.)
By the 1740s Bedford House had been sub-divided into three separate tenements, and it was in one of these houses that Exeter's most prominent 18th physician, Thomas Glass, took up residence in 1740. Unfortunately time was running out for Bedford House and in the early 1770s the house was completely demolished. A speculative builder by the name of Robert Stribling drew up building plans for the empty ground that, when completed, would prove to be one of Exeter's most important architectural creations: Bedford Circus.
However, at least one trace of the old Tudor mansion still remained. According to Jenkins, writing in 1806, in the "centre of the [new] buildings is placed an ancient tablet, (taken from the front of the old [Bedford] house) on which is carved, in relief, the armorial bearings of the noble house of Russell, quartered with several coats of arms, supported by two angels". And he was right. Just visible in the photograph of the south-facing crescent of Bedford Circus left is the carved tablet taken from the front of Bedford House, highlighted in red. A memorial plaque was also affixed to one of the Circus's beautiful red-brick townhouses in 1897.
The Circus that stood on the site of Bedford House was completed in the 1830s and it remained unchanged as one of the finest pieces of Georgian townplanning in England until it was partly damaged by fire in the bombing raid of 04 May 1942. The city council swept away the salvageable remains and replaced it with the worst sort of post-war trash, and only the wall plaque (shown below © Simon Harriyott) was salvaged. Apart from the reclaimed plaque, today there is no visible sign that either Bedford House or Bedford Circus ever existed.