Much of the exterior has been thoughtlessly maimed and the church is surrounded by a blighted landscape of post-war rebuilding, and the church experienced its own share of bomb damage in 1942, but much remains of one of Exeter's most spacious medieval parish churches.
The church could possibly have been an Anglo-Saxon foundation but the first mention of it appears in the will of Peter de Palerna c1200. The name of St Mary Arches (or Arcubus) is thought to derive either from the 12th century arches in the nave or the supposition that an arched, or bowed, gateway was once prominent in the area (as was once used at St Stephen's and St John's in Exeter). I think the former is probably more realistic and the interior remains unique in Devon: two Norman four-bay arcades either side of a nave, separated by a sequence of massive, circular stone piers. Each pillar is topped with a square capital each carved with a typically Romanesque scallop design.
The entire arrangement above dates to c1190 and it is the oldest surviving church interior still in existence in Exeter, predating the Cathedral's 14th century Decorated Gothic remodelling by about 100 years. The postcard view also shows the 15th century barrel-vaulted roof prior to its destruction in 1942. The roof had wooden bosses on the ties of the beams and in 1898 the roof was pierced by skylights to help illuminate the interior.
Like many other parish churches in Exeter, St Mary Arches underwent significant remodelling in the 15th century, which is probably when many of the current windows and the, now lost, roof were added, as well as two of the bells in the tower (a third was added in 1827). The west tower also dates to the 15th century although there are indications that there was once a larger tower further to the west. The four stone balls which sit on top of the current bell tower were brought from the old water conduit which was located close to the dining hall of the Vicars Choral in South Street and demolished in 1830.
The most significant monument remaining in the church is the tomb of Thomas Andrews left, mayor of Exeter in 1505 and 1510 who died in 1518. The tomb was originally part of a chantry chapel dedicated to Saint Thomas and Saint Andrew which was accessible through its own door in the south wall now blocked (see image below right). The tomb has a recumbent effigy over which is a large ogee arch profusely carved with undercut foliage. Inset into the spandrels of the arch are the Andrew coat of arms. On the sides of the tomb are the figures of St Mary Magdalene, St John the Baptist, St John the Evangelist and St Barbara. The shields at the base of the monument repeat the Andrew heraldry as well as featuring the coat of arms of the Merchant Adventurers. Another fine memorial is that of Thomas Walker, who died in 1628 and his wife. Life-size kneeling effigies of the couple face each other for eternity on the north wall. Numerous memorial tablets from the 16th and 17th centuries stud the walls commemorating various former mayors of the city. The last mayor to be buried in the church was Burnet Patch in 1815. As Cresswell says, St Mary Arches has had over "300 years of importance as the civic church of the city".
The reredos, altar table and altar rails were all restored after the war but date to the late-17th century. One of the most remarkable survivals, part of a very rare 15th century cope (a semi-circular cloak used in church services) can be seen at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Converted into a coffin pall by the parishioners in the middle of 16th century, it is one of the few pieces of a medieval vestment to have survived from pre-Reformation England. The east window was replaced in 1880 and the north wall was rebuilt in 1814, but despite other alterations the church remains an essentially medieval building, constructed out of the local red breccia quarried at nearby Heavitree, with some blocks of purple volcanic trap from Rougemont.
And then, in keeping with the Exeter trend, it all started to go wrong. In the first quarter of the 20th century steps were taken to 'renovate' the soft breccia stone. The solution was to add a layer of cement to the front facade and parts of the side walls. The image above left shows the south wall at the point where the cement render ends and where the original medieval fabric is still visible. The cladding extends over the remains of a blocked-up early 16th century door which led into the chantry chapel containing the tomb of Thomas Andrew.
The addition of the cement had the almost instantaneous effect of totally destroying the medieval appearance of the church. I was talking to someone recently who had always believed that the church was a 19th century structure, an easy mistake to make when seen from the front.
Even worse, the cement can never be removed without destroying the medieval stone work. Cement is not a naturally porous material and any moisture trapped between the face of the original stone and the cement will only hasten the deterioration of the former. A quick comparison between the photograph at the top of this post with a view of the rear of the church above right, still with much of its original medieval fabric, illustrates the point better than any description. The staircase at the side of the tower was also clad in cement but this has since been removed and replaced with a clumsy, pale pink render.
Even worse was to befall the church in 1942 when a smouldering incendiary dropped by German bombers ignited the 15th century barrel-vaulted roof. One of the nuns from the Community of St Wilfrid's who were in the church at the time managed to salvage the still-burning processional cross. Almost the entire roof structure was destroyed. The rebuilt roof does not match its medieval predecessor. A plain arched roof was built instead which naturally omits the visible ribs of the 15th century original. The structural supports allegedly came from a disused D-Day landing craft moored at Topsham. The restoration was overseen by the church architect Stephen Dykes-Bower.
Unfortunately the attractive cupola which once graced the top of the tower was not reinstated, although according to Jenkins the cupola was a relatively new feature even in 1806. The church suffered even more during the post-war redevelopment. The entrance of Mary Arches Street with Fore Street was devastated by bombing and was subsequently rebuilt in a grim, utilitarian style of no architectural merit. The entrance into Bartholomew Street East was totally demolished and redeveloped in the early 1950s. The street was drastically widened in the post-war years. One half was demolished and rebuilt with bland flat-roofed buildings and the other half was knocked down to build a car park. The church therefore has no coherent context within a wider historical cityscape, despite its importance to the city's civic history.
Mary Arches Street today isn't particularly prepossessing and so unfortunately the church doesn't rank high on anyone's itinerary. Only the most dedicated visitor to Exeter would bother to seek it out, standing as it does amidst the wasteland of Mary Arches Street itself, but even if anyone does find it, the interior of the church is open to the public for just one day every month!