No. 5 Cathedral Close sits within the boundaries of the cathedral precinct, facing out across the picturesque green and towards the north tower of the cathedral. One of only 22 Grade I listed buildings in Exeter, No 5 is everything you would hope to find in an old cathedral city. This is history as architecture. The beautiful brick facade exudes quiet confidence from every beautifully mortared joint but the property has ecclesiastical connections which extend back to before the Reformation.
Like so many of Exeter's most interesting surviving historical buildings, No. 5 Cathedral Close retains some significant late medieval fragments. During the Middle Ages, if you were particularly rich, you could leave money for a priest to perform a mass on the anniversary of your death. This mass was called a 'missae annuellaria'. At Exeter these priests were called annuellars (or annivallars), their name derived from the same root as 'anniversary' and 'annual'. They were in effect chantry priests. Exeter Cathedral had a number of chantry chapels, purpose-built shrines financed through the endowment of land and property by wealthy donors, where a chantry priest could perform the anniversary mass before a dedicated altar. The Oldham Chantry below right, endowed by Bishop Oldham and constructed c1519, is particularly fine.
The Annuellars were active in Exeter at least by the end of the 13th century and by 1337 there were twenty one annuellar priests connected to the cathedral. Until the early 16th century it appears that the Annuellars lodged in various houses and rooms scattered across the Cathedral Close. Their ecclesiastical colleagues, the Vicars Choral, had resided together in a purpose-built complex of buildings on the other side of the Close since the end of the 14th century. Consisting of two rows of small houses, a gatehouse, kitchen and refectory hall, this complex was known as the College of the Vicars Choral. No such arrangement was made for the Annuellars. According to Stanford Lehmberg, "there had been talk of providing a home for the annuellars of Exeter as early as the 1380s" (the same decade in which the College of the Vicars Choral was founded). Nothing seems to have come of these plans and the Annuellars continued to live independently of each other until the first quarter of the 16th century.
Lega-Weekes cites a pre-Reformation document from c1525 which refers to "the mansion place latly buylded for the Annylers". This "mansion place" was the College of the Annuellars. Clearly the decision had been made to create a collegiate residence for Exeter's chantry priests where they could eat and live together in one location. The Annuellars' College was probably founded in 1528. It was to prove very short-lived. Regarded as overtly Popish, the chantries across England were abolished in 1547 by the Protestant King Edward VI. With no chantries there was no need for the chantry priests and so, just two decades after it had been founded, the College of the Annuellars was disbanded, the twenty-one annuellar priests pensioned off a year later in 1548.
The photograph right was taken from the north tower of the cathedral and shows the brick facade of No. 5 with the medieval ranges at the back. The bomb-damaged chapel of St Catherine can be seen in the top right corner illustrating just how close No. 5 came to destruction in 1942.
Until recently it was widely believed that the Annuellars' College extended from the north-west corner of the Cathedral Close as far as St Catherine's Almshouses. The substantial remnants of the canonry on Catherine Street were also believed to have been subsumed into the college buildings. Writing in 1821, the historian George Oliver claimed that "behind Moll's Coffee-house, are considerable remains of the college of the annivellars, or annuellars, or chantry priests". He then goes on to describe an arched doorway in the front wall of what was then the Country House Inn, formerly part of the extensive medieval canonry. The 1876 Ordnance Survey map of the city labels the canonry complex on Catherine Street as the "College of Chantry Priests". It is now thought that the College of the Annuellars and the canonry on Catherine Street remained two totally separate entities.
It goes without saying that precise details of the College remain frustratingly elusive. Unlike the College of the Vicars Choral which survived largely intact until its almost total demolition between 1850 and 1893, the College of the Annuellars was quickly divided up and converted into separate tenements which were then subsequently altered or rebuilt.
A lease of c1549 to Richard Weston refers to "the annuellars' house in the Close, whereyn divers chantry-priests now or late did inhabit or dwell together" and another of 1585 mentions "the tenement sometimes called the Annuellars' House, in the Close, together with all edifices, buildings, courtlages, and gardens belonging unto or reputed parts of the same".
Much of the Annuellars' College has vanished beneath later alterations but one of the reasons that No. 5 Cathedral Close was awarded Grade I listed status in 1953 was because it retains a large remnant of the old College buildings. It is a property of two halves. The front part top, visible from the Cathedral Close, has a brick facade of c1700. A date of 1688 on the rainwater head is believed to commemorate the construction making it coeval with other early brick structures in the city, such as the Custom House, the Notaries' House, No. 40 High Street and the now destroyed Paragon House near South Street. The facade is two storeys high with attic windows almost hidden behind a parapet, beneath which runs a modillion cornice. Each window is surrounded with a moulded architrave.
There is no front entrance. Access into the property is through a covered passageway above right. In two of the late 17th century rooms are contemporary panelling as well as a staircase. The back wall of the 17th century range is constructed of stone and almost certainly belonged to the Annuellars' College.
The covered passageway exits into a small courtyard, enclosed on three sides left. From here it's possible to see a large L-shaped building constructed of rough Heavitree breccia attached to the rear of the property. The northern range (with the late medieval arched doorway) is believed to be the College's dining hall from c1528. Although now divided horizontally into two separate floors, it retains a barrel-vaulted ceiling constructed from moulded timber ribs. The room below has a 15th century oak screen, imported from elsewhere, as well as a stone fireplace featuring angel corbels. The east range is also associated with the early 16th century College of the Annuellars.
A reconstruction of the College by Piran Bishop, formerly of Exeter Archaeology, suggests that the residence was built around a quadrangle. The documents mentioned above also imply that the "mansion place" was built as a unified project rather than cobbled together out of pre-existing houses. On Piran Bishop's reconstruction the entrance into the quadrangle in the 16th century is shown as being in the same place as the existing covered passageway at No. 5.
The former site of the Annuellars' College is shown on the the aerial view right. The late 17th century range of No. 5 is highlighted in purple. The standing remains of the College are highlighted in green. Based on Bishop's reconstruction, I've highlighted the possible 16th century extent of the College in red. It's easy to see how the remaining fragments once formed part of four ranges surrounding a central quadrangle. The peculiar alignment of St Martin's church, founded in 1065, makes it difficult to know how the College might've abutted up to it so I've just guessed. According to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, "a recent archaeological survey has shown that much of the college remains, embedded in later housing". This later housing would include the current sites of Mol's Coffee House, Nos. 2 to 4 Cathedral Close as well as No. 5, all of which occupy the footprint of the college. The photograph below shows Nos. 1 to 5 Cathedral Close today.