Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Subdeanery: No. 6 Cathedral Close

The former Subdeanery is part of a small group of picturesque and important buildings in Exeter's Cathedral Close. It's located at No. 6, sandwiched between part of the Annuellars' College at No. 5 and the Devon and Exeter Institution at No. 7. Most of the buildings now on the northern side of the Close have medieval origins, including the former Subdeanery.

The position of the subdean of Exeter Cathedral was created in 1284 by Bishop Peter Quinil. According to Oliver, the first subdean was William de Bisiman who was installed on 07 July of that year and Lega-Weekes claimed that the subdean's residence has been on this site since at least 1458. Francis Godwin, later a Bishop of Hereford, was made the subdean in 1587. Godwin wrote 'The Man in the Moone'. Published anonymously in 1638, it is regarded as the first story involving space travel to be written in the English language.

From the outside at least the Subdeanery appears to date from the 18th century. It is five bays wide with a central doorway framed by a porch resting on Roman Doric columns. A modillion cornice runs across the width of the building above which can be seen three little dormer windows let into the roof. Hugh Meller says that "the date on the downpipe is 1696" but the two rainwater heads are usually covered by the vine which scrambles across the facade. Pevsner and Cherry state that the building was subject to alterations between 1770 and 1772 which is probably when the porch was added. Writing in 1915, Lega-Weekes described "medieval fabric" which survived "internally and at the rear" although I don't know the extent of these survivals.

One very interesting feature which can be seen from the outside is a large blocked medieval archway above right. Located on the right side of the facade it's similar in style to a blocked arch in the garden wall at the nearby Chancellor's House. The arch at the Subdeanery is built of blocks of moulded purple volcanic trap. Some of the moulding is still visible as are some of the relieving blocks of Heavitree breccia above. The arch is a remarkable remnant of the medieval Subdeanery. It probably dates to the 15th century and a covered passageway must've once led through into a courtyard or stables at the rear of the property.

From what I can gather the archway remained open until 1807. At this date the size of the Subdeanery was increased through the appropriation of part of the house next door at No. 7 Cathedral Close (now the Devon and Exeter Institution and a former townhouse of the Earls of Devonshire). Several rooms at No. 7, including a brewhouse and kitchen, were subsumed into the boundaries of No. 6 and subsequently demolished.

The archway was blocked up and the passageway was incorporated into living area within the house itself. The window opening which can be seen today was added at this time. Access was still needed to the rear of the property and so a second archway was created in part of the facade of No. 7. The rest of the windows were probably replaced at the same time (the pattern of unequal panes of glass is a particularly nice feature). Much of the front wall is probably medieval in origin. It is constructed from Heavitree breccia with much sandstone and a few blocks of purple volcanic trap.

One curiosity is the fact that some of the sandstone blocks seem to be inscribed with heavily-weathered decoration deeply scored into the surface. This can really only be seen during the winter and when the sun casts a shadow across the facade. Perhaps the front was once rendered and the stones scored to create a key for the render. A more exciting possibility is that they were reused from another building. It's likely that more of the medieval Subdeanery survives within the rest of the building although I don't know anything about the interior or the original medieval layout.

No longer used as the subdean's residence, the structure was granted Grade II* listed status in 1953. The photograph below shows the very attractive front of the building. The replacement archway of 1807 which led to the rear of the property can be seen set into the facade of No. 7 Cathedral Close to the far right.


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