The small church dedicated to St Pancras is a remarkable survival. Narrowly escaping demolition, it now stands within the 1970s' Guildhall Shopping Centre, stripped of all its historical context and "incongruously dished up on a platter of municipal planting in the middle of a paved square" (Pevsner and Cherry). The medieval street plan which surrounded the church until the mid-20th century suggested an ancient origin but this has unfortunately been swept away. The foundation itself though is ancient, as is much of the still-standing building, and it's possible that St Pancras church occupies the earliest site of Christian worship in Exeter. There has been some speculation that the church was founded by the Romano-British Christian citizens of Isca Dumnoniorum, the Roman town which evolved out of the Second Augustan Legion's fortress in the first century AD.
Christianity had been imported into the British Isles centuries before St Augustine founded the Diocese of Canterbury in 597. The church at Exeter's patron saint was probably St Pancras of Rome, a 14-year-old martyr who was allegedly killed on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian in Rome c304 AD and who was one of the first martyrs to be venerated by the early Christian church. Unfortunately, apart from some bits of Roman tessellated pavement excavated from around the church, there is little actual evidence to support the claim of a Roman foundation. The theory seems to rest on an early 19th century tradition that the Roman praetorium stood in the vicinity. Jenkins repeats the tradition in his 1806 history of the city and it had been repeated by numerous commentators ever since. The Roman pavements were probably installed in the corridors of private houses.
The church is referred to in 1191 but it's highly likely that the foundation is pre-Conquest in origin even if it doesn't date back to the Romans. There is some evidence that the remains of a Saxon doorway were found embedded in the south wall of the chancel during restoration in the 19th century. The Anglo-Saxons did have a number of churches in Exeter, including St George, St Martin, St Olave and a monastery in what is now the cathedral precinct. St Pancras was almost certainly another, very early foundation.
For over a thousand years the church stood on a narrow street called Pancras Lane. A detail from Hedgeland's early 19th century model of Exeter above right gives a good idea of the medieval layout of the church and surrounding street plan. It remained little altered from the Middle Ages until the middle of the 20th century. The church is highlighted in purple. The now-vanished buildings which fronted onto Pancras Lane are highlighted in red. The street had a very noticeable dog leg in it, even more exaggerated than a similar one formerly in Mary Arches Street. Quirks in an old street plan are always interesting. Maybe there was a Saxon enclosure around which the street was forced to make a detour, as is believed to have been the case at Mary Arches Street. Either way, the church probably predated Pancras Lane itself.
Pancras Lane connected Paul Street with Waterbeer Street. Another route off Pancras Lane was Trichay Street. Until 1349 it was possible to walk from Pancras Lane down Trichay Street and into North Street. Although blocked up in the 14th century by the rectory for St Kerrian's church, Trichay Street survived as a route until the 1970s. It's interesting to compare the image above left with the Hedgeland model. It shows a detail from the 1905 map of Exeter overlaid onto a modern aerial photograph of the Guildhall Shopping Centre. St Pancras church is highlighted again in purple. Pancras Lane is shown running past the church from Waterbeer Street and exiting into Paul Street at the top. The building plots highlighted in red have all disappeared since 1905. The photograph also shows the vast expanse of flat roofs and car parks of the Guildhall Shopping Centre which now covers much of this part of Exeter.
The photograph right © Exeter City Council shows a rare view looking down Pancras Lane towards Paul Street c1937. The photograph indicates that even in the 1930s the street still retained its built-up character with properties lining both sides of the narrow thoroughfare. The buildings might've been different but this had been the character of the street since the Middle Ages. The covered passageway visible to the left of the car led into Arthur's Buildings, a courtyard with properties on either side.
Most of the buildings on Pancras Lane were deliberately removed between c1937 and 1951 as part of the city's council's planned redevelopment of the area behind the Higher Market. This left most of the ancient street as little more than a large car park. The alignment of the street had already been altered when the police station on Waterbeer Street was constructed in 1887. The new police station also resulted in the demolition of several houses to the north-east of the church which, until then, had been "hidden from public view by the gradual accumulation of squalid tenements around it". The area was left unscathed by the Exeter Blitz but the church was threatened with demolition in the 1960s. Fortunately it was spared, and although the surroundings are now bland and mediocre the church itself is of genuine interest.
The plan is very simple, consisting of just a nave and a chancel with no aisles or porches or towers. The layout and the extremely small dimensions have been compared with the Anglo-Saxon church at Escomb in County Durham. Although the oldest parts of St Pancras date to the 13th century, the ground plan could well have remained unchanged since Saxon times. The walls have been patched over the centuries and the church today is largely constructed from blocks of purple volcanic trap with scattered blocks of sandstone, red Heavitree breccia and white-veined volcanic trap from Pocombe. This gives the church a quite different appearance to most of Exeter's surviving parish churches, many of which were rebuilt in the 15th century from red Heavitree breccia with dressed sandstone around the windows and doorways.
A number of descriptions of the church state that it's built from friable red Heavitree breccia but close examination of the walls show that this is clearly untrue. It seems likely that the church was rebuilt or overhauled in the 13th century. A two-light lancet window with Y tracery above left and a one-light lancet window, both in the north wall of the chancel, date to the 1200s. A three-light (restored) east window, also with distinctive Y tracery, is of a similar date. The insides of the chancel windows have round-headed rere-arches. These are some of the oldest surviving windows in any of Exeter's parish churches.
The three windows in the nave are of the mullion type and were probably installed in the 16th century although the nave itself also dates to the 1200s. The exterior of the west wall has a relieving arch embedded in it made of purple volcanic trap. I wonder if there was once a western bell tower here with an internal opening into the nave.
The 1587 Braun and Hogenburg map of Exeter shows St Pancras church. No tower is visible but there are two windows set into the west wall so perhaps the relieving arch took a single large window.
Inside the chancel is a piscina right, used for washing the communion vessels. It has a three-foiled cusped arch and also dates to the 13th century. It features a shallow bowl carved in the shape of a quatrefoil. Above it is a strange little niche. Cresswell believed it might've been an aumbry, used for storing chalices and other vessels, but it does seem a bit small. Maybe it was used to hold a small reliquary or the sacramental bread. The oldest visible feature in the church today is the 12th century circular font with a band of bead moulding around the top below left. According to Cresswell, the font was damaged by over-zealous restorers in 1831 who "scraped it until all traces of antiquity were well nigh scraped away". Compared with other Norman fonts in Devon, such as the superb example at Stoke Canon near Exeter, it does seem rather plain but it is also perhaps the oldest font in the city. (A more elaborately carved Norman font also survives at the church of St Mary Steps.) There's no reason to doubt that the font has been on the same site since the 12th century.
In 1658, during Cromwell's Commonwealth, the church was sold to its parishioners for £50. The parish register for St Pancras also records an earthquake which shook all the houses in Exeter on 19 July 1727: "It was felt all over England, and in some places beyond the sea". Jenkins described the church in 1806, stating that it "bears evident marks of great antiquity" and adding that "it is a very small and plain building, forty-six six inches in length, and sixteen feet in breadth.
The interior is dark and gloomy, consisting of a Nave and Chancel, the latter only is seated; the pulpit and font are very old. As no use is now made of this Church, excepting as a Cemetery for a few families, it is consequently very much neglected, and may soon be desecrated". The church wasn't desecrated but was partially restored in the 1830s. The church reopened in 1830 "having been disused for a number of years". The 'Exeter Flying Post' believed it hadn't been used "either wholly or partially since the execution of "Archbishop Laud"! Certainly untrue, but it does appear that the church was badly neglected throughout much of the 18th century. A 19th century sketch shows the church with a gaping hole in the chancel roof and smashed glass in the 13th century windows.
The roof of the nave right, although restored, dates to the 15th century. It has a barrel vault, a type also found at St Mary Steps, St Mary Arches (roof destroyed in 1942), St Lawrence (destroyed in 1942), St Olave (sadly hidden beneath a later roof), at St Martin and at Tucker's Hall in Fore Street (probably the finest of all).
The entire roof structure is now visible at St Pancras but in the 15th century the spaces between the ribs would've been covered in plaster. I've recreated the effect of the plaster panels to give a better idea of the roof's medieval appearance. Carved wooden bosses, once brightly painted, cover the points where the ribs meet. The church received a major restoration between 1887 and 1889, having been closed again for 12 years.
The work was carried out under the supervision of John Pearson, the Gothic Revival architect of Truro Cathedral and the partially reconstructed cloisters at Exeter Cathedral. For once, the Victorian 'restoration' was relatively sympathetic and didn't involve the complete reconstruction of the entire building. The chancel was in a particularly advanced state of decay and was rebuilt stone for stone, reincorporating much of the original fabric and all of the surviving 13th century features, such as the windows and the piscina (although unfortunately not the remains of the Saxon doorway). The chancel roof was rotten, having been left open to the elements for part of the 19th century, and so Pearson replaced it entirely with a wagon roof similar to the surviving 15th century roof in the nave.
The stonework of the 13th century east window was consolidated. Pearson believed that the east window was an insertion added into a pre-existing wall. Three carved fragments with Romanesque decoration were discovered in the walls of the chancel. These have now been inserted into the south wall of the chancel but they are so badly damaged that it's difficult to see them as anything more than ragged bits of stone. They appear to have been part of a corbel table, but whether they were originally belonged to the church itself or were recycled from another building in the city is unknown.
The photograph left shows the view inside the church looking east towards the chancel. It's clear to see how the apex of the nave roof and the apex of the chancel roof don't line up. Both parts of the church are built on a slightly different alignment suggesting two distinct phases of construction. The pulpit, just visible to the left, dates to c1600 and came from the church of Allhallows on Goldsmith Street when it was demolished in 1906. Pearson's one major error was in building a new chancel arch resting on corbels and using Bath stone, a material completely at odds with the rest of the church. Pevsner and Cherry called it "unsympathetic", and so it is. The arch had already been replaced with brick in the 1830s. Following Pearson's restoration, the church reopened on 02 June 1889. The lesson was read by the Archdeacon of Exeter and the Bishop of Exeter preached the sermon.
The church contains a few other interesting features. Pearson's work involved stripping all of the plaster from the walls. This action uncovered the arched doorway of the rood stair right, probably added in the 14th century. Built into the thickness of the wall was a stone staircase leading via an internal doorway at first-floor level to the rood loft above the rood screen (the screen, separating the nave from the chancel, was apparently removed c1800).
A few of these steps still remain in situ and the blocked up doorway of the rood loft can be seen as a scar high up on the north wall. The rood loft provided access to the top of the screen so that the great rood, an effigy of the crucified Christ, could be cleaned or decorated, or so that candles could be lit. The church had a number of floor slabs, the earliest of which dated to 1669 and commemorated the burial of Benjamin Board, one of the city's merchants. Unfortunately these slabs are now presumably covered by the modern flooring. The few wall memorials all came from Allhallows on Goldsmith Street. One of them records the death of Loveday, the daughter of Christopher Bellett. She died of smallpox in 1711. Four of her sisters died from the same illness in February and March 1717.
The photograph left shows the interior of the church looking towards the west wall. The church also has a single medieval bell hanging in a bell turret above the western wall. It was cast during the 15th century by the Exeter bellfounder, Robert Norton. It is inscribed, in Latin, with the motto: "I may be small but I am heard over a great distance". I've lived in Exeter for nearly 40 years and I've never heard it ring once.
The other particularly lovely addition is the fine late 19th century stained glass inserted into the east window below. It shows St Pancras of Rome, with Christ in the centre and St Boniface to the right. St Boniface is believed to have studied at a Saxon monastery in Exeter and the site of the monastery was thought to be close to St Pancras' church. (In reality the site of the monastery is almost certainly near the west front of the cathedral. The remains of the Saxon minster there were only excavated in the early 1970s.) The stained glass in the east window was the gift of Bishop Tozer, the first Bishop of Zanzibar. Beautifully executed, I don't think it would look out of place in one of the side chapels of the cathedral.
St Pancras church is well worth visiting for anyone who is in Exeter and hasn't yet been inside. As Hugh Meller says in his book 'Exeter Architecture': "St Pancras has survived. Miraculously it retains an atmosphere of tranquillity which most other central Exeter parish churches have lost and it serves as a constant reproach against the arid post-war development in Exeter represented by the Precinct that surrounds it".