Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Archdeacon of Exeter's House, Palace Gate

It might not look much from the outside but this complex of different buildings is one of the most historically and architecturally important properties in Exeter. Grade I listed, it has a recorded history stretching back nearly 900 years. And most remarkably of all, behind the uneventful facades is one of the finest surviving structures from Exeter's rich medieval past: a spectacular early 15th century roof that once crowned the property's Great Hall, shown left in 1995 © Exeter Archaeology.

The history of what is known as the Archdeacon of Exeter's House is very long and very complex as it has been altered numerous times over many centuries but it began life in the middle of the 12th century. A property on this same site is recorded in documents from c1150 and c1188. A deed from c1210, cited by Lega-Weekes, refers to "land and houses" belonging to the Archdeacons of Exeter* that were "next to the Bishop's court", "adjoining the Bishop's gate" and "next to the gate of the Lord Bishop of Exeter". This places the early 13th century "land and houses" in the same place as the Grade I listed structure today, close to the grounds of the Bishop's Palace and almost adjacent to the palace's gatehouse.

Although known as the residence of the Archdeacon of Exeter, for some of its existence the building was also used by the medieval Archdeacons of Cornwall.

One such archdeacon, Walter, is believed to have begun the current property, specifically the great hall, in around 1200. A 13th century document in the cathedral's archives refers to "the great Hall which Walter, Archdeacon of Cornwall constructed". 

By the end of the 15th century the residence had reverted back to the Archdeacons of Exeter, by which time it had achieved its late medieval form. By at least 1500 the residence was a courtyard house, a form found at nearly all of Exeter's great ecclesiastical residences during the end of the Middle Ages e.g. the townhouses of the Abbots of Tavistock, the Abbots of Buckfast Abbey and the Priors of Plympton Priory as well the Chantry, the Chancellor's House and several canons houses in the Cathedral Close. These houses were distinguished by the presence of a gatehouse, a great hall, a chapel and private chambers built in ranges around a central courtyard as well as stables and accommodation for servants. 

The front gatehouse range at the Archdeacon of Exeter's house at Palace Gate has since been demolished but it is visible in the plan of Palace Gate and South Street drawn by John Hooker in the mid 16th century, above right. The 'Great Hall' is still essentially the building painted a sort of salmon pink in the photo below, though much altered. 

The late 19th century brick building to the far right in the same photo corresponds with the 'Chamber Block' on Hooker's plan, fragments of which survive in the present structure. Hooker hasn't included the late medieval range to the north, parts of which survive in the unit known today as the The Coach House. With its end wall facing into Palace Gate, part of the white wall and roof of The Coach House can be seen to the left in the photograph below.

The gatehouse range was perhaps the first part of the residence to be demolished and it doesn't appear on Caleb Hedgeland's early 19th century model of Exeter in 1769. In a detail from the model above left some of the residence's buildings have been highlighted in red. The approximate location of the missing gatehouse range is highlighted in purple. It's easy to see how the late medieval buildings would've been arranged around a central courtyard. (What does appear on the model is the old Palace Gate, spanning the narrow street close to the missing gatehouse. One of the gated entrances into the cathedral precinct, the Palace Gate originated in the late 13th century. Not to be confused with the surviving gatehouse to the Bishop's Palace, the Palace Gate was demolished in 1812.)

The Archdeacon of Exeter's House was massively altered around 1830 when the surviving ranges were remodelled and further additions were made in the late 19th century. In 1896 the property was purchased by a Roman Catholic convent from William Peters, a former mayor of Exeter, and it was used as the Presentation of St Mary Convent School.

The school added an enormous two-storey brick-built chapel in 1928 and the property remained as a school until 1996 when it was closed and the buildings sold. In the late 1990s the school buildings were subdivided into six separate residential units. Fortunately the architectural significance of the site has resulted in the preservation of the most important historical features.

Despite all of the alterations, the property retains three late medieval buildings at its core. Part of the medieval chamber range survives to the south, along with what is possibly the site of the chapel under an addition from 1908. The north east range, now known as The Coach House and next to the gatehouse of the Bishop's Palace) is also late medieval in origin and part of the original roof survives.

However the most astonishing survival is the roof of the medieval great hall, now part of a unit called The Tudor House. During the modifications of the 1830s a new parallel frontage was added to the great hall (now painted salmon pink) completely disguising its origins, and the space was carved up into smaller rooms, a process that already seems to have begun in the 17th century. It was divided horizontally to make two floors and the roof appears to have remained almost forgotten, hidden above later ceilings, until it was practically rediscovered during an archaeological survey in the 1990s, a discovery of such importance that it increased the listed status of the building from Grade II to Grade I.

The roof of the great hall has six bays, twice the number of bays as at the almost contemporary roof of the Law Library. It is designed as a series of variant base-cruck trusses with intermediate trusses. The tie beams are richly moulded and there is evidence for carved bosses at the junctions of the intermediate trusses, purlins and windbraces. Some of the spandrels are infilled with boards pierced with decorative cinquefoil-headed mouchettes. Tree ring samples taken from the oak structural timbers returned a felling date of between 1415 and 1440.

The structure therefore forms part of a local group of outstanding medieval roofs around Exeter which includes two roofs at Bowhill above left just beyond the city walls, and one each at the Guildhall right, at the Law Library below and at the Deanery. Unfortunately the roof at the Archdeacon of Exeter's House isn't viewable, and it is still hidden above the later ceilings, but it has been described by English Heritage as "one of the finest 15th century roofs in southwest England, of national importance and distinguished by its base cruck form, upper roof construction and the quality of its moulded and carved detail." These roofs really are one of the city's greatest glories.

It's hard not to be impressed by Exeter as it was in the 15th century. The late Middle Ages was one of the cultural highlights of the city's 2000 year history. Just within the 93 acres of the city walls there was Rougemont Castle, the Cathedral, the recently rebuilt Guildhall, numerous small parish churches, a sprawl of spectacular ecclesiastical residences, a Benedictine monastery, a Dominican friary, medieval gatehouses within the city wall, medieval gatehouses within the wall of the cathedral precinct and a large number of impressive timber-framed merchant houses. It was the county town of Devonshire and the great capital of the southwest peninsula of Britain, a status reflected in the architecture of the city itself.

*The story of Exeter's archdeaconries begins with the Anglo-Saxon Leofric who, in 1050, became the first Bishop of Exeter. It was probably Leofric who introduced an archdeacon at Exeter, a huge diocese that covered all of Devon and Cornwall. Following the Norman Conquest such large dioceses in England proved difficult to manage for a single bishop and so, from the 11th century onwards, they were subdivided into separate archdeaconries. An archdeacon was appointed to oversee his own particular archdeaconry in which he could act in the absence of the bishop (who was often away at the Royal court or on the Continent). By the end of the 11th century there were four archdeacons at Exeter, one for each of the archdeaconries of Exeter, Cornwall, Totnes and Barnstaple. Between them they effectively covered the whole of Devon and Cornwall and, eventually, each office came with its own house within the cathedral precinct at Exeter. The Diocese of Truro was formed out of the old Archdeaconry of Cornwall in 1876.


1 comment:

annieP said...

Your site is one of the most fascinating I know and your passion for the past makes it all the more exiting!!
Love ! love! Love it- its a shame the town planners have't loved Exeter as much as you do!!

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