Building of Exeter Cathedral                          Part 2: after 1326 

Talk at Jurys Inn  on Wednesday, 10 October 2018 

John Allan began his talk by taking us through the different phases of building and the time frames of completion and explained how different styles crept in over periods of time and are still evident today.  He also told us that several manuscripts from its Library were donated to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. He touched on those who were still remembered for work on the Cathedral or for notoriety. Bishop Stapledon, for instance, was a local man born in North Devon who was barbarically murdered in Cheapside, London.  His monument was erected on the north side of the Cathedral’s high altar.

 

After Stapledon’s death in 1326, the Norman church, except for its towers, was gutted.  The new building was in gothic style.  In the 1290s the choir was completed and then the nave and west front were finalised in 1328, twenty years before the Black Death.  The speed of building was impressive and this was a period of extraordinary and distinct building styles also to be seen at Salisbury, Wells, Bristol, and Ely with its distinctive shaped arches. 

 

Bishop Berkeley succeeded Stapledon but only lived for 18 months.  He was succeeded by Bishop John Grandisson from Savoy in Switzerland who survived the Black Death (1348) living until 1369. A great self-publicist, he was highly educated, had a taste for foreign things, particularly Italian, and commissioned works of art and tapestries.

Grandisson wrote on manuscripts (a joy to today’s historians!) and sketched a hand where the longer the finger became, the more he approved the manuscript (see drawn finger bottom left of the slide here!) 

 

He is the only bishop whose artworks survive.  Amongst many,  we saw pictures of  a pair of triptychs - Grandisson ivories, immensely beautiful. 

 

 

The small chapel in the West Front was commissioned by Grandisson for his burial.  The grave has been robbed but the robbers missed (right) an Italian-style ring (right) showing the Virgin and Child - discovered in the 1950s.

 

English  architecture  was very highly regarded in Europe then,  although Exeter was promoting Italian art.   This was probably reciprocal because Exeter is the nearest match for tracery on church windows in a church in Sienna.

 

Work on the Cathedral continued with all the supporting columns constructed of 16 shafts of Purbeck marble grouped together into a single column. The pattern for the vaulting was established at the same time and all this produced the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England. But records show a dispute over costs. The invoice (at £10 per column)  was felt to be an unfair overcharge because two at the far end weren’t a full circle.

Work on the Cathedral continued with all the supporting columns constructed of 16 shafts of Purbeck marble grouped together into a single column. The pattern for the vaulting was established at the same time and all this produced the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England (left). But records show a dispute over costs. The invoice (at £10 per column)  was felt to be an unfair overcharge because two at the far end weren’t a full circle.

Many of the bosses are quite extraordinary and beautiful.  Unfortunately, last century a few of them have been "improved" with modern paints (right).  Some in the audience felt that this was an improvement but most agreed that the bosses should be left as they were.

There were some very interesting bosses such as the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in 1170 (left). The four soldiers are smirking as they hack Becket to death. Sheer propaganda.

 

Becket’s companion (on the right of the boss) is shown holding a small altar.  Evidently, after the assassination a monk placed an altar on the spot for the convenience of pilgrims.  The little altar was not there at the time of death, however!

 

English window designs were considered to be the best, of very advanced design, dynamic and com-plex.  Thomas of Witney, responsible for so much elegant work in the Cathedral, designed windows with curved triangles in Exeter’s Lady Chapel (right), having produced similar windows in Wells Cathedral and Malmesbury Abbey.

When viewing the Minstrel’s Gallery from below only the carved and painted angels apparently playing musical instruments can be seen.   These are unique and date from around 1360 and on the left is a wonderful close-up of some of the beautifully carved stone figures. The real musicians would be tucked behind so that it would appear that the statues were playing celestial music!   

In 1242 William Joy, whose work in Ottery was considered the most up-to-date in Europe, came to Exeter after Witney’s death and produced some excellent highly mannered, richly carved work - even showing people conversing - and well suited to those extrovert times.   But this English decorated style ended in the 1340s with the Black Death wiping out half the population (including William Joy).

 

In due course a new style of fan vaulting was introduced in Gloucester showing the ribs carved out of great blocks of stone.  Previous fan vaulting comprised just the ribs which were then infilled.  The little vault in Exeter's West Front is built in this new style.

In the West Front, completed around 1340, is the massive and famous west window with, before it, the great image screen (added by Grandisson) containing statues of kings, prophets and angels. The 12 apostles survived the Reformation but the King and Virgin Mary were destroyed.  In the Mary gap they subsequently put King Richard II as the coat of arms on the base in the alcove appeared to be his.

 

The two lower tiers of sculptures are mostly from the mid-14th century. The upper tier was completed over a hundred years later.  John described the upper figures as different and not as good – a bit stiff and starchy.   However, he recommended looking high up in the South Porch to examine two figures with breathtakingly beautiful draperies.

 

The West Front has had nine different building periods and ten different periods of repair. But today it looks magnificent though thirty years ago it was filthy and crumbling. 

Crumbling because St Peter’s stone had been considered good for sore legs, so people used to chip off bits to make poultices.  But Bonfire Night  in 1860 was considered responsible for the filth with a fire so dangerous that the West Front walls were still too hot to touch the following morning!

 

John had takenour history lesson right up to the end of the last century and there were then so many questions from a fascinated audience.  But time was slipping by and reluctantly we had to let John go.

 

(Compiled with help from Sue Jackson and Paul Adams)

 

NOTE: There were 48 slides accompanying the above talk and, instead of claiming copyright on them (as most people do), John has given us the lot, to do as we will with them.   You can see them by clicking on the second item "Photographs" at the top of the white-on-green banner on the left of this page.

  

 

 

All talks are on the second Wednesday of alternate months (February, April, June, August, October & December).                                          All meetings start at 7 pm and are held at JURYS INN, Western Way, Exeter EX1 2DB.                                                                  Free parking is available from 6pm in the Triangle Car Park at the rear of Jurys.                                                                                Walks/visits are usually on the second Wednesday of alternate months (January, March, May, July, September November). 

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