It’s unlikely that many people in Exeter are even aware of its existence, but hidden behind the half-timbered façade of No. 9 Cathedral Close is one of the most remarkable medieval sights in the southwest of England: the 15th century roof of the Law Library left, almost a copy, in miniature, of the great hammer beam roof at Westminster Hall in London. To find such a thing in Exeter is remarkable.
In the first half of the 15th century, Nos. 8, 9 and 9a Cathedral Close formed a large complex of ecclesiastical buildings constructed around an elongated quadrangle. The exact layout and use of the rooms remains uncertain as the building’s original purpose is unknown, although it is possible to speculate. Based upon current understanding of the building, the front south range probably contained lodging chambers for retainers of relatively high social standing, with the more prestigious chambers in the north range at the rear, now occupied by the Notaries’ House of c1690. The Law Library hall formed the western side of the central courtyard. The eastern range (now 9a Cathedral Close) probably contained the kitchen, buttery, pantry and other service rooms, running parallel to the hall and completing the quadrangular ground plan. Naturally, if the buildings’ function were largely administrative then the arrangement of the rooms would’ve been quite different.
The photograph right was taken from the north tower of the cathedral looking down onto Nos. 8, 9 and 9a in the Cathedral Close. The Law Library is highlighted in red. The 18th century Notaries' House is at the rear. The gateway and passageway leading to the Law Library are to the far left.
The entire complex was probably built for one of the cathedral’s many canons although no consensus exists for precisely whom the buildings were constructed. Both the cathedral’s medieval Chancellor and Treasurer have been suggested as candidates but there had been residences providing for these two offices on the opposite side of the street since at least 1311.
The hall is accessed through a gateway and a flagged external passageway directly off the Cathedral Close. At the entrance into the gateway is a wide four-centred arch. The lintel of the archway is made from Beer stone and inset into the spandrels at each corner is the heraldic device of the office of the cathedral’s Chancellor: four crosslets and a saltire. This would seemingly prove a connection between the hall and the Chancellor but much depends on when the lintel was installed.
The style of this entrance arch left is often referred to as ‘Tudor’ because of its prevalence throughout the 16th century but it was probably first used in England at the chapter house and cloisters of Old St Paul’s cathedral in London in the first half of the 14th century, nearly one hundred years before No. 9 Cathedral Close was constructed.
It's possible that both the arch and its association with the Chancellor of the cathedral are contemporary with the 15th century hall itself. If this was the case then the hall and its associated buildings could’ve been connected to the Diocesan Chancery, an administrative department which oversaw the handling, writing and copying of all of the ecclesiastical documents connected to the Exeter Diocese. The opulent scale of the hall certainly suggests that it was intended to act as a statement of power and status in its own right. As Portman says in his book ‘Exeter Houses 1400-1700’, the “superb quality of the work makes it exceptional and it may well have been unique in the city”.
A recent report by Exeter Archaeology states that the complex was most likely a "canon's residence, with a grand hall for semi-public use and chambers, lodgings and service buildings in the other ranges", although it should be added as a caveat that there is no documentation that proves the matter one way or the other. If it was a canon's residence then the presence of the Chancellor's arms on the doorway remains a mystery.
The hall’s use as a Law Library only dates to the end of the 19th century when the hall was sublet to the Exeter Law Library Society, but it has been known by that title ever since despite the fact that it no longer serves that purpose.
The panelled doors with bolection moulding at the entrance to the gateway almost certainly date to the early 1700s and are contemporary with the reconstruction of the Notaries’ House at the rear. To the right can be seen a now-blocked medieval arched doorway that once led into the front range. The low height of the doorway suggests that at some point the ground level outside was lower than it is now and documentary evidence does exist to indicate that the ground level at this end of the Cathedral Close was raised at the end of the 16th century.
Set into the rear wall of the gateway is a 16th century oriel window and entry into the hall itself is through another four-centred arch off the passageway, similar in style to the arch at the entrance into the gateway. It’s likely that this was the original external entrance into the hall (shown left, from inside the hall). Opposite the entrance, but now hidden behind the plaster, is another arched doorway that originally exited into the small courtyard. The presence of this opposing doorway is an importance piece of evidence for determining the medieval layout of the hall.
It seems likely that there was once a wooden screens passage running across the entire south wall, accessed both from the main entrance off the passageway as well as the blocked doorway opposite. It is a typical arrangement. In medieval halls the screens passage usually provided access to the service rooms. It's not difficult to imagine servants running through the small courtyard and bringing food into the hall from the east range via the now blocked doorway and the screens passage. There are two windows in the eastern wall with a third in the opposite wall, all with three-centred arches. These windows are late-17th century replacements. The jambs are all made from Beer stone except for one surviving medieval jamb of purple volcanic trap in the window opposite the main entrance. The 17th century windows are regarded as some of the finest surviving examples of their date in the entire city.
One of the windows is partially blocked by a partition that was erected in the 1840s when a portion of the hall was requisitioned for a passageway in the Notaries’ House to the north. As one 19th century antiquarian put it, “the fine appearance of the hall has suffered more in proportion than the dwelling-house has benefited”. The partially-blocked window is also the only one with any decorative details, a little flower motif called a 'fleuron' that runs along the top of the arch. This decoration is believed to be a fragment of the original medieval window suggesting that this was the 'high' end of the hall where the property's occupier and his guests would've sat, probably on a raised dais.
On the eastern wall of the hall is a late-17th century fireplace although an examination of the exterior of the wall indicates that this has probably always been the location of the chimney. The south wall is a partition constructed of timber-framing which rises to the full height of the roof and beneath which are sections of late-17th century panelling. The partition separates the hall from the south range. Hidden from view behind the panelling is a now-blocked high-quality decorated Gothic doorway that originally provided access into the hall from the south range.
But everything in the hall pales under the brilliance of the hammer beam roof itself, one of the great glories of medieval Exeter. Dendrochronology carried out by English Heritage has returned a felling date for the oak trees used in its construction as being between 1417 and 1442. It was probably built c1425, along with much of the rest of the complex, during the first years of the reign of Henry VI. Measuring 32ft long with a span of 22ft 9ins and 30ft high, four great arch-braced trusses divide the roof into three bays. Both the arches and the curved braces that support the hammer beams spring from five-sided stone corbels carved with stylised foliage. The two main purlins that run from one end of the hall to the other are themselves supported by more arch-braces that rest on the backs of each angel. The narrower secondary purlins, lower down the roof, are supported by diagonal wind-braces.
One feature of the roof that is highly characteristic of a medieval school of Devon carpentry based around Exeter is the inclusion of a coved apex that runs above the arch-braces at the very top of the roof itself, almost like a barrel fault in miniature. This instantly recognisable feature is something that appears in other surviving medieval hall roofs in the city i.e. at the Guildhall (c1468), the Deanery (c1420), at the Archdeacon’s house in Palace Gate and at the medieval manor house of Bowhill (c1500). Another slightly later example exists at Cadhay House, about 11 miles from Exeter. (The Cadhay roof was originally a hammer beam structure too, very similar to the Law Library, but the hammer beams were cut off in the 1730s!)
The Law Library roof has been almost untouched since the 15th century, and the richness of the decoration is astonishing. Nothing else in the city is comparable apart from the vault of the cathedral itself. Nearly all of the main timbers are heavily moulded. The eight horizontal hammer beams terminate in carved angels. The two angels at each end of the roof carry books and are turned slightly inwards, the others clutch shields painted with heraldic devices. The angels aren't merely decorative additions as each hammer beam was carved from a single piece of wood. It is also believed that the beams now hidden beneath the current plaster ceiling were originally exposed to view.
One strange feature is at the south end of the roof into which is set what looks like a small hexagonal louvre or smoke hole. It might once have been the site of a lantern for letting in more light rather than an exit for smoke. Its presence led 19th century antiquarians into speculating that the hall was once longer than it is now and that the louvre was originally in the centre of the hall but this is highly unlikely. All the evidence, including the inward-looking hammer beam angels against the walls, the lack of seriously smoke-blackened timbers and the survival of 15th century features in the south range, suggests that the hall has always been its current size.
At the base of the rafters are huge attenuated lions sejant, magnificently carved from solid oak and sculpted almost completely in the round. The lions to the west snarl at their more benign counterparts opposite, one of which has its tongue stuck out in reply (one of the aggressive lions is shown below left). Their manes trickling in rivulets down onto their shoulders, these lions are beautiful and one of the highlights of the entire roof.
There are thirteen carved bosses at the intersection of the ribs and the wind-braces. Seven of these bosses run in a line along the very top of the roof. From the south wall to the north wall they depict: an abstract pattern; a face hidden in foliage; a male face; two male faces joined at the cheek; an angel holding a ribbon on which is a shortened version of the Latin phrase “Non nobis Domine non nobis” (‘Not to us, Lord, not to us’) from the 115th Psalm; the head of Christ; and finally a black eagle carrying a ribbon in its beak inscribed with the Latin phrase “Comes Virtutis” (‘Virtue is a companion’).
The remaining six bosses cover the join between the secondary purlin, the wind-braces and the rafters. There are two in each bay. The bosses on the western side of the hall, where the main entrance is located, depict: a green man with his tongue stuck out, his beard and moustache made from foliage; a face hidden amongst hawthorn leaves; and another green man enveloped in vine leaves. The bosses on the opposite side of the roof depict: a rose surrounded by foliage; yet another green man peering out from hawthorn leaves; and a woman’s head, the only female representation in the entire hall.
And the abundance of medieval art continues as the top of each rafter is surmounted with a carved head. Starting above the entrance and moving clockwise: there is a man with a tall flat-topped circular hat with a cross on the front; a king with a flowing beard wearing a crown; another man wearing a pointed hat with a little ball on top; a man with no hat but with a long, flowing beard; a bishop with long hair but no beard wearing a mitre, and another male head wearing a peculiar hat which looks like a nightcap but which is probably a Phrygian cap, often used in medieval art to signify a Jew. As if all of that wasn’t enough then the spaces between the hammer beams and the arch-braces are filled with wonderful Perpendicular Gothic tracery, again all carved from oak. When new every surface would’ve been brightly painted. Everything is of the highest quality.
The Notaries’ House, which forms the rear range of the quadrangular layout, was rebuilt in brick c1700. It was at this time that a vantage point was formed high up in the roof that provided a view down into the hall itself. This is now blocked although a section of balustrade remains near the apex on the north wall. The heraldry depicted on the shields carried by the angels was also executed at this time when the hall underwent a major refurbishment. The coats of arms on the shields appear to be those of local families who were prominent towards the end of the 17th century.
Immediately above the main entrance is the coat of arms of the local Bale family: three stars divided by a bar against what was originally a silver background, an allusion to Christopher Bale who was the MP for Exeter from 1689 until 1695. Christopher Bale also occupied the property from 1668 and it was probably under his instigation that the rear buildings were reconstructed in brick c1692 following a major fire.
Adjacent to this are the arms of the Exeter Smyths, three gold birds (or martlets) divided by a bar against a black background. This is a possible reference to Sir James Smyth, MP for Exeter from 1661 to 1679. On the opposite angel's shield is the coat of arms of the Brutons of Heavitree, a silver bar and two chevrons against a red and blue background (shown above right). A William Bruton, Esq. died in 1608 and was buried in the cathedral but one of his granddaughters, Margaret Bruton, married Christopher Bale c1659. The Bruton family also occupied the property in the 16th and 17th century before it was leased to Christopher Bale in 1668. Margaret Bruton died in 1675 so it seems likely that the shields were painted between c1660 and 1675. Another William Brewton was a ‘notary public’ in the 1580s and a John de Brueton was a Chancellor of the cathedral in 1307.
On the shield opposite the main entrance door is the coat of arms of the Stawell family left, a cross made of lozenges against a red background. The inclusion of Stawell is perhaps in remembrance of Sir John Stawell, a former High Sheriff of Somerset and Royalist soldier who was captured by General Fairfax in Exeter in 1646 when the city fell during the English Civil War. He refused to swear not to bear arms against Parliament and spent the entire Commonwealth period imprisoned in the Tower of London.
It’s impossible to write about the hall without commenting on its similarity to the tremendous hammer beam roof at Westminster Hall below right which undoubtedly served as its model. The immense Westminster roof, designed for Richard II by Hugh Herland, was finished at the end of the 14th century and became one of the wonders of medieval Europe. Perhaps someone from the cathedral’s chapter simply saw the roof at Westminster Hall within a few decades of its completion and decided to imitate it at Exeter.
Apart from its hammer beam form, the decorative resemblances are striking: the Gothic tracery above the hammer beams and the carved angel terminals are clear inspirations, but there is also a more general affinity of style that is unmistakeable.
There are also clear structural differences, as if someone sketched or memorised the hall in London and then presented a rough plan to the Exeter carpenters who set about recreating it using their own individual, localised techniques. And surely that was the whole idea. The spectacle of a piece of medieval London was seen and carried to Exeter as an idea. The mechanics of how to construct it were secondary compared with the vision that its medieval creator wanted to convey. It was perhaps the impression of Westminster Hall that was the impetus, not the actual technicalities of the roof itself.
The roof, and the Cathedral Close in general, came within metres of total destruction during the bombing raids of 1942 and the city nearly lost one of its greatest treasures. Fortunately the hall survived unscathed but for many years it remained closed to public view, divided by temporary partitions and cluttered up with filing cabinets and boxes. It was only possible to glimpse the roof itself through one of the hall windows. The hall came onto the market several years ago and it was purchased by a private buyer. It has recently been let to SustainCare, a social enterprise company who specialise in self care approaches within local communities. Fortunately the new tenants have generously decided to open the hall to the public! The hall is now open from 12 noon until 2pm on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday of each week, which is a very welcome development. It must be seen in person as my photographs fail to do it justice.
The hall is a Grade I listed structure and a Scheduled Ancient Monument of national importance. It is described in a recent archaeological report as "one of the outstanding structures of its kind in the country", and hopefully it will now receive the wider attention that it so fully deserves.