If you go down the High Street today and turn right into the abysmal 1970s Guildhall Shopping Centre you'll find a jewellers, H Samuel, inside which is something entirely unexpected. The construction of the Guildhall Shopping Centre almost completely trashed one of the few remaining areas of Exeter's historic cityscape, so it's incredible to find an overmantel and window dating from the time of Elizabeth I totally surrounded by modern development.
There's a little framed information card next to the overmantel which reads as follows: "This interesting Coat of Arms and fireplace occupy their original positions and were discovered during the purchase of Messrs. Stead & Simpson Ltd. The heraldic panel contains arms, supporters, crest and motto of Queen Elizabeth, and has been restored in the original colours. The red lion is unusual, being generally depicted in gold. The room was evidently the parlour of a wealthy Tudor merchant and originally had a fine plaster ceiling and oak panelled walls. An oak window containing the old glazing may still be seen "in situ" on the right of the fireplace, which is etched in the right hand with a name and date".
Absolutely nothing else remains today of the Tudor house apart from the window right and overmantel above left. So what happened? The construction of the Guildhall Shopping Centre resulted in so much demolition that it's impossible to say exactly what was torn down to build the present-day jewellers in the 1970s. However, in the Westcountry Studies Library are a series of photographs dated 1914 which show the overmantel and window in their original setting.
It seems that Messrs. Stead & Simpson (a local firm of shoemakers) purchased the property in 1914 and set about modernising it. During the process substantial remains of a large, high status Elizabethan merchant's house were discovered and photographed. The photo below © Devon County Council shows the overmantel in the same position it's in today. Remains of a plasterwork ceiling can be seen along with some sheets of oak panelling resting against the wall. Also visible is a smaller window to the left of the overmantel which originally looked out into Parliament Street. Another photograph shows that a second, simpler fireplace also survived at least until 1914. A third photograph shows a room upstairs with another fireplace.
Another question that arises is whether the Tudor house originally fronted onto the High Street. The Westcountry Studies Library has the 1914 photographs labelled as being from a house in Parliament Street. Parliament Street once ran down the side of the property. Little more than an alley, it is one of the narrowest streets in England so it's highly unlikely that a magnificent Tudor townhouse opened directly onto it. It seems that the Stead and Simpson refurbishment of the building in 1914 was highly destructive. Harbottle Reed lamented in 1931 that an "elaborate strapwork plaster ceiling has been removed as a thing of little worth". But it's likely that significant remnants of the fabric of the Elizabethan house did remain intact other than the overmantel and the window.
Fortunately, in March 2011, the Exeter Archaeology unit wrote a detailed report on No. 195 High Street. No. 195 stood nextdoor to No. 196 and the history of No. 195 was entwined with that of its neighbour. The history of the house with the Tudor fireplace was as follows: in c1580 a pair of townhouses was constructed on the site of a large tenement plot. Such pairs were constructed fairly frequently in Exeter, as at Nos. 46 & 47 and Nos. 41 & 42, both still surviving on the High Street. These pairs were usually constructed with a front block and a rear block divided by a courtyard. At some point c1700 the front block of one of the houses, now No. 195, was totally rebuilt and turned into an independent property. The rooms in the rear block which weren't included in the division were then incorporated into the house next door, No. 196. This accounts for No. 195 appearing to sit on the alignment of the overmantel and window, No. 195 being the house to which they had indeed once belonged. A painting of the High Street dating from the end the 18th century shows No. 196 when it still retained its original, gabled late-16th century facade. It is highlighted in red on the image above right and is depicted prior to the reconstruction of its facade c1800.
No. 196, High Street was given Grade II listed status in January 1953. The 1953 listing text describes it as dating from c1600 with a much-altered 18th century facade. The description continues: "Interior: room at back, now part of show-room, has late C16 fireplace. Plaster overmantel with Royal Arms. Caryatid figures on each side. Nearby is 4-light mullioned and transomed oak window with good original casement catches".
In 1973, and despite its Grade II listed status, No. 196 High Street was completely demolished by Exeter City Council to build the High Street entrance into the Guildhall Shopping Centre left. Incredibly, no architectural record was made of the property either before or during its destruction. However, under the foundations of the Elizabethan house archaeologists did discover the remains of Saxon or Norman timber buildings. Incidentally, Denecke and Shaw's 1988 book, 'Urban Historical Georgraphy: Recent Progess in Britain and Germany', is entirely incorrect when it states that the entrance into the shopping centre from the High Street was created "using existing streets and retaining the original buildings". Apart from No. 196, two other historical buildings (Nos. 197 and 198, both originally constructed as a matching pair) were destroyed in order to create the entrance.
The only parts of the structure remaining today are the overmantel and window. The overmantel is made from plaster and almost certainly dates to the last few years of the reign of Elizabeth I e.g. 1585 - 1603. The coat of arms of Elizabeth I is easily recognisable: the three lions of England quartered with the French fleur de lis supported by an English lion rampant and a dragon representing Wales. Similar examples once existed in Exeter at the Abbot's Lodge and No. 229 High Street. The two caryatids on either side consist of sculpted busts atop classical pedestals. Never common, even when it was first installed, the overmantel is now a rare survival in Exeter.
The manager in H Samuel kindly let me take photos of these Elizabethan fragments, some more of which are shown below. The last photograph shows the exterior of the shop where the overmantel and window can currently be seen. Everything else dates from the 1970s.