Exeter Cathedral is not only the city's finest building. It is also the most celebrated example of Decorated Gothic architecture in England and one of the most lovely medieval structures in Europe.
The interior, in particular, is of remarkable beauty and successfully pulls off the difficult trick of being both intimate and spectacular. In many ways the cathedral is Exeter.
It is impossible to imagine the city without it. As a former chancellor once said: "Nowhere is there a cathedral of greater originality, of more complete harmony, of more obvious and striking unity". Although it is probably overshadowed in the popular imagination by other English cathedrals which are significantly larger or older or taller or more immediately impressive, in its own way Exeter Cathedral is incomparable. It is filled with wonderful things. The 300ft unbroken stretch of tierceron rib vaulting has been called "the longest and probably finest Gothic vista in the world". The cathedral has the oldest existing set of misericords in the country, an image screen of 14th century sculpture which is amongst the most complete in England and a vast early-14th century bishop's throne described as "the most exquisite piece of woodwork of its date in England and perhaps in Europe".
It has the 'Exon Domesday' of 1068 and the 'Exeter Book', donated by the cathedral's first bishop and which is the largest single collection of Anglo-Saxon literature in existence. Until the construction of Liverpool's Anglican cathedral in the 20th century, the south tower had the heaviest peal of bells in the world. There is a late-15th century astronomical clock, a great east window of 14th and 15th century stained glass and two enormous Norman towers which stand above the transepts in an arrangement which is unique in any cathedral in Britain.
Much of the beauty is in the detail, in the harmonious arrangement of pillars and arches, in the subtle use of coloured stone and in over 400 medieval bosses carved with breathtaking virtuosity depicting dogs and dragons, mermaids, pelicans, owls, lions, cats and calfs, rabbits, kings, queens, knights and bishops, and foliage and flowers of incredible botanical naturalism. And it is set within the Cathedral Close with its medieval canons houses which, together with the cathedral itself, comprise one of England's most charming and picturesque townscapes.
Unlike many English cathedrals, the vast bulk of the building has remained essentially unchanged since it was completed in c1342. There have been no collapses of towers, or damaging fires, or reconstructions of west fronts by over-enthusiastic restorers, although the Nazis tried and failed to obliterate it in 1942.
Although it is a complex building, the history of its construction is relatively straightforward. The site of the Cathedral Precinct has been occupied for nearly 2000 years. In c50AD it was part of a 42 acre fortress built by the Second Augustan Legion. The extensive remains of the bath house built and used by the Roman soldiers still lies under the steps leading to the cathedral's west front. (The bath house was one of the largest and most elaborate ever to be built in early Roman Britain). By c200AD the site of the bath house had been incorporated into a basilica. There would've been a shrine here dedicated to a pagan deity. At the end of the 5th century the basilica complex was being used for pre-Saxon Christian burials. It's possible that the basilica itself had been converted into a centre for Christian worship prior to the withdrawal of the Empire from the British Isles in the early 400s.
A monastery had been founded on a site just west of the present cathedral before c690AD, in the same location as the pre-existing 5th century cemetery and old Roman basilica. It was probably at Abbot Wulfhard's monastery that St Boniface, the patron saint of Germany, began his education at the end of the 7th century. It seems that the monastery was refounded as a Benedictine establishment dedicated to St Peter and St Mary by the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan in c932, by which time Exeter was about the sixth most prosperous settlement in Britain.
The monastery was rebuilt by Cnut in 1018 after the Anglo-Saxon town was devastated by the Danish king, Sweyn Forkbeard, in 1003 possibly as revenge for the death of his sister during the St Brice's Day Massacre. The raid also probably destroyed numerous documents relating to the earlier monastery making it difficult to be precise about various dates and facts. The detail from Hedgeland's model of Exeter above right shows part of the Cathedral Precinct as it appeared towards the end of the 18th century. The church of St Mary Major, highlighted in red, was on the site of the late Saxon minster which became Exeter's first cathedral. Although the church had been altered in the late Middle Ages, it's highly likely that some fabric from the minster remained within the church walls until it was demolished in 1865.
In 1050 the Bishop of Crediton, Leofric, received papal approval to move the See from Crediton to the more secure town of Exeter, still surrounded as it was by much of its 800-year-old Roman defensive wall. The Diocese of Crediton had been created in 909 to cover the two counties of Devon and Cornwall. With the relocation of Leofric's throne (or 'cathedra') Exeter became a cathedral city. Leofric didn't even need to build a new church as the active Benedictine monastery at Exeter already had a fully-functioning minster.
This minster, approximately 75ft west of the present cathedral, was Exeter's first cathedral and it was here, probably on St Peter's Day in 1050, that Leofric was enthroned as the first Bishop of Exeter in the presence of Edward the Confessor himself. The monks at the monastery became the first canons of the new cathedral. The image above left is a drawing of the first seal which was used by the Cathedral Chapter. Its earliest surviving appearance is on a document from 1133. The seal probably depicts the Saxon cathedral where Leofric was enthroned in 1050. Unfortunately it's not possible to gauge the architectural accuracy of the illustration. It is known that Leofric's minster had a very simple layout with no aisles but with an eastern apse, a chapel or porch and probably a crypt where Leofric was interred in 1072. It certainly had a bell tower as well. When Leofric arrived in 1050 he found seven bells already installed. It was also probably built largely from materials reclaimed from the ruined public buildings of the Roman city.
The continuity of occupation and the sheer depth of the history spanning almost exactly an entire millennium is extraordinary: Roman military bath house and civilian basilica to early-Christian cemetery, Saxon monastery to late Anglo-Saxon cathedral, and the Battle of Hastings is still 16 years in the future.
It's worth remembering that the old minster functioned as Exeter's first cathedral for 83 long years. It was still being used, and Leofric was still the bishop, when William the Conqueror turned up outside the East Gate and laid siege to the city in 1068, and it was still being used in the 1110s when William Warelwast, the third Bishop of Exeter and allegedly the Conqueror's nephew, decided to replace the Saxon cathedral with a new Romanesque building. Work began in 1112 on a new site slightly to the east of the Saxon cathedral, although the minster continued to be used for cathedral services until 1133. The new cathedral was predominantly built from a pale sandstone quarried at Salcombe Regis in East Devon with an inner rubble core of purple volcanic trap quarried from sites around Exeter. Compared with its Saxon predecessor, the Romanesque cathedral was gigantic. It was the same width as the current cathedral and extended for approximately 270ft (82m) from the west front seen today as far as the second bay of the choir. The eastern end had a five-sided main apse.
The first part to be completed was the eastern arm which was consecrated in 1133 although the minster church was retained and used as the parish church of St Mary Major for over 730 years. The two tremendous transept towers, both of which survive today, were built in stages between c1120 and c1170 above right. Each tower is over 140ft (44m) high and ornamented with dog-tooth decoration, blind arcading and (on the south tower left) blind occuli. Each tower is slightly different although both were originally capped with a squat, four-sided spire.
It is not known why the Norman cathedral was given transeptal towers instead of a central crossing tower. Such an arrangement has few parallels anywhere in Europe, although the abbey church of Cluny III has been proposed as a model. It has also been speculated that the collapse of the central tower at Winchester Cathedral at the beginning of the 12th century might've dissuaded Warelwast from repeating the design at Exeter. When completed in c1170, the Romanesque cathedral at Exeter would've been overwhelmingly larger than anything else ever built in the southwest peninsula of England up to that point, an expression of political and military power as much as it was a building for spiritual enlightenment. More like a castle than a cathedral, it is difficult to imagine the impression it must've made on Exeter's population. Work continued even after the main bulk of the building had been completed. The chapter house was added by Bishop Brewer in c1225, the misericords were carved between 1230 and 1270 and various tombs were installed, including one for Leofric whose remains were transferred from the former minster.
The Norman cathedral was less than a century old when Exeter's bishop, Walter Bronescombe, attended the consecration of Salisbury's newly-built cathedral in 1258. The Early English Gothic architecture at Salisbury, with its lavish use of pointed arches and large window openings, is believed to have inspired Bronescombe to plan rebuilding the cathedral at Exeter.
Between c1275 and c1342 the entire cathedral was rebuilt, except for the two 12th century transept towers. It is this version of the cathedral which can still be seen today. The architectural style was to be the newly-emerging Decorated Gothic, especially in its geometric form, a style characterised by an increasing elaboration of the vaulting and window tracery and by a proliferation of flowing and naturalistic carving.
Preparations had probably begun by c1270 and construction work by c1275. The eastern arm of the Romanesque cathedral was demolished and much of the rubble was used to level the ground to the east. This created a level platform on which the Lady Chapel and ambulatory could be built, approximately 100ft beyond the end of the Romanesque building. The flanking chapels of St James and St Andrew were ready for glazing in 1279 although the Lady Chapel was only at window sill level in 1280 when Bishop Bronescombe died. The interior walls of the north and south towers were thrown down in 1286 and work on the choir went on throughout the 1280s and 1290s. The retention of the two Norman towers dictated the height of the vaulting to some extent, which remains low in comparison with many others.
There are some stylistic differences in the earlier phases of the rebuilding but in c1290, during the construction of the choir, the second master mason involved in the overall design of the building discovered one of the architectural keys which would unlock the entire building: the Exeter pillar. This pillar left appears for the first time in the cathedral behind the High Altar, after the construction of the Lady Chapel and other eastern chapels. It consists of 16 shafts of Purbeck marble grouped together into a single column, possibly inspired by similar clustered shafts at Old St. Paul's in London. From this point onwards the Exeter pillar was used as the template for nearly all of the other supporting pillars in the cathedral. The pattern of the tierceron vaulting was established at the same time. Using more tiercerons than anywhere else, the master mason conceived of a vault which was more opulent than anything else in England at the time. This mason, known as the Exeter Master, didn't create a new style. He simply used a pre-existing style and took it beyond anything that anyone had attempted before.
Construction continued westwards. A succession of different bishops were enthroned and at least six master masons, including the unknown Exeter Master responsible for most of the overall design, came and went, but the template remained the same. It is this general uniformity of style, and the inspired quality of its execution, which makes Exeter Cathedral the epitome of Decorated Gothic architecture.
The entire eastern arm, including the choir right, was structurally complete by c1310 and the High Altar was dedicated in 1328. The nave was then demolished down to the current level of the window sills and the western arm rebuilt in the same style as the rest of the cathedral below left. Despite the decades which had passed since the design was initiated, the master masons who supervised the rebuilding generally respected the stylistic direction of their predecessor's work. The only major exception would be the installation by Thomas of Witney of the triforium in the already completed presbytery c1315. As Pevsner and Cherry state, "evolution can only be seen in the details", particularly in the carving of the ceiling bosses as the work progressed from east to west.
The west gable was completed in 1342 and this is probably when the main works ceased, although the lower two tiers of the image screen on the west front and the Minstrels' Gallery in the nave were added between c1342 and c1360. The cloisters were rebuilt c1377 and one of the last projects of the Middle Ages was the rebuilding of the roof of the Chapter House between 1465 and 1478 which had been damaged by fire earlier in the 15th century. (More about the areas above the vault can be found here.)
It's difficult to comprehend the number of people who must've laboured their lives away on the cathedral, or the busy hands that spent years carving stone and wood, or the sheer physical effort involved in hauling the building out of the ground, but as a unified architectural vision Exeter Cathedral is stupendous, a testament to the imagination and determination of its medieval creators.
Like most other cathedrals in England, Exeter Cathedral has experienced its share of vicissitudes since it was completed. The altars were dismantled during the Reformation. Bishop Stapledon's silver retable and colossal stone reredos, bristling with up to forty-eight statues, were destroyed. Worse occurred during the Commonwealth when the cloisters were demolished in 1657 and the space used as a cloth market. Much of the stained glass was also destroyed and some of the iconography was defaced, although fortunately the 14th century image screen mostly survived intact. The medieval choir stalls were also demolished in order to accommodate pews for the Presbyterians (part of the choir stalls were installed in St Lawrence's church before they were destroyed in 1942.) The medieval cathedral was saturated with colour and much of this has been lost in the subsequent centuries. A major restoration was carried out under George Gilbert Scott between 1870 and 1877 but this was relatively sympathetic e.g. Scott refused to destroy the pulpitum of 1324 as some of his critics had demanded. Scott replaced the post-Restoration choir stalls but reused the 13th century misericords which had been carved for the Romanesque cathedral.
In 1939 the Bishop's Throne was dismantled and, along with the medieval glass from the east window, the misericords and the superb effigy of Bishop Bronescombe, was removed from the cathedral for safe-keeping. It seems unlikely that Exeter would've been targeted during World War Two if it hadn't been for the cathedral. Its complete destruction was the ultimate aim of the devastating air-raid of 04 May 1942. The late 13th century St James's chapel was completely destroyed by a high-explosive bomb. Many of the memorials were shattered along with the medieval side-screen, and much of the Victorian and Edwardian stained glass throughout the cathedral was blown out but the damage was repaired between 1945 and 1953.
A perhaps unfortunate attempt was made in the early 1970s to repaint some of the ceiling bosses in the nave but this was abandoned in favour of a more sensitive cleaning operation which revealed traces of the original paintwork. Although most people experience the cathedral via its west front, the finest view of the exterior is probably from the east and the grounds of the Bishop's Palace, which aren't frequently open to the public below. (A Red Coat guided tour does include them though for anyone interested.) From there the bulk of the cathedral and its two flanking towers rises from behind the Lady Chapel in a beautiful series of diminishing pinnacles and flying buttresses.
The image above right shows an aerial view of the cathedral with some of the key areas numbered as follows: 1 Nave; 2 Choir; 3 Lady Chapel; 4 North Tower; 5 South Tower; 6 St Gabriel's Chapel; 7 St John the Evangelist's Chapel; 8 Oldham Chantry; 9 Speke Chantry; 10 St James' Chapel; 11 St Andrew's Chapel; 12 St John the Baptist's Chapel; 13 St Paul's Chapel; 14 North Porch; 15 St Edmund's Chapel; 16 St Radegund's Chapel; 17 West Front and Image Screen; 18 Chapter House; 19 Cloisters; 20 Bishop's Palace.