Saturday, 23 October 2010

St Mary Major, Cathedral Yard

This site of St Mary Major, shown left c1850, must count as one of the most fantastically historical places in the entire city. Before its removal in the 1970s, there had been a church of some form at this exact location for more than 1300 years, over three centuries older than the foundation of the Cathedral itself.

The story begins with the fall of the Roman Empire and the Roman withdrawal from the British Isles in the early 5th century. Very little is known about the immediate post-Roman period in Exeter, once a major Romano-British city. Given the city's strategic location, and the fact that it was walled around with massive Roman stone defences, it seems likely that a small community of Romano-British and Celts remained living at Exeter even after the Roman political and social infrastructure collapsed. It's easy to imagine people living amidst the crumbling city walls of Exeter, establishing their own way of life as the great Roman public buildings slowly collapsed around them and the weeds and the grass reclaimed the stone-paved streets and mosaic floors. Bits of the these old Roman buildings have sometimes turned up in later Anglo-Saxon structures e.g. part of the wall of the Anglo-Saxon church of St George in South Street.

What is certain is that sometime in the 7th century, after the Saxons had arrived in Devon and settled at Exeter, an early Christian monastery was founded in the city. There are very persuasive historical and archaeological reasons for believing that the monastery's minster stood on the site of what would later become the parish church of St Mary Major. It was at this monastery that St Boniface, the patron saint of Germany and the first archbishop of Mainz, was educated c680 AD. The monastery was refounded in c930 AD by the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan. The monastery buildings were rebuilt in 1018 by King Canute after they were destroyed by the Danish king, Sweyn Forkbeard, during an exceptionally destructive raid in 1003.

And then something extraordinary happened to Exeter just five decades later in 1050: Edward the Confessor granted a request from Bishop Leofric above right to move the episcopal seat from Crediton to the larger, more secure settlement of Exeter. In one stroke Exeter became a cathedral city. Leofric was enthroned as the first Bishop of Exeter in the Saxon minster of St Mary and St Peter in the presence of Edward the Confessor himself. The minster building became Exeter's first cathedral, a status it held through the Norman Conquest of 1066 until the construction of a new Romanesque cathedral began in 1112 on a site slightly east of the minster.

Archaeological excavations in the 1970s uncovered the remains of a large Saxon building on the same alignment as St Mary Major near the West front of the present-day cathedral. Pre-Saxon burials discovered during the excavations indicated that there was a cemetery, and possibly a church, here even before the 7th century. If true it would make the site of St Mary Major the oldest Christian site in Exeter. Even more remarkable is the fact that the Saxon minster was constructed on top of a 2nd century Roman basilica, which was itself constructed on top of a Roman legionary bath house which was built a thousand years before the present cathedral was even started.

With the completion of the new cathedral in c1220 the ancient minster was reduced both in size and status and became known simply as the parish church of St Mary Major. And that is how it remained for another 800 years. The church, despite being downgraded from its cathedral status in the 12th century, had one of the largest medieval parishes in Exeter. Only the parish of St Sidwell to the east of the city and lying outside the city walls was larger.

The image left is based on the medieval parish boundary of St Mary Major and combines a modern aerial view of the area with a street plan from 1905. It shows just what a large part of Exeter's city centre was covered by the parish.

The boundary extended from the church in the north, across South Street and down to the city wall at West Street, encompassing nearly all of the ancient West Quarter. The West Quarter was once the home to many of Exeter's richest medieval and Tudor citizens and a large number of their properties survived until they were demolished for slum clearances in the early 20th century. In fact most of the buildings which existed in the parish in 1900 have since been destroyed.

The highlighted sites on the image show only those properties which fell within the parish boundary of St Mary Major. The buildings highlighted in purple are the only ones that still survive which pre-date 1905. The sites highlighted in red show areas that have been demolished since 1905. Bomb damage during the Exeter Blitz of 1942 destroyed the highlighted areas in South Street, Sun Street and Guinea Street but the most of the other destruction took place as a consequence of slum clearances, post-war redevelopment and the construction of the inner bypass in the 1960s and 1970s.

The image right is a detail from Hedgeland's great wooden model of Exeter showing the city as it appeared in 1769. St Mary Major is highlighted in red. The west front of the cathedral is to the left. Also visible is the turreted Broad Gate, the ceremonial entrance into the cathedral precinct from the High Street.

The church had several names, including St Mary Moor and St Mary Michel, the latter derived perhaps from the Saxon word 'mickle' meaning 'great'; but it was generally known as St Mary Major, either a reflection on the size of its parish or a comment on what was a large medieval building. The name also helped to distinguish the church from St Mary Steps and St Mary Arches. The church had clearly been added to and altered over the centuries, but its most distinctive feature was its enormous western tower, described by Jenkins in 1806 as a "singular construction" which had the appearance of a "keep of an ancient castle". Yet another name the church went by was St Mary of the Tower. Jenkins, along with others, seems to think that this tower was part of the Saxon minster. The rounded staircases on the exterior of the tower walls were a feature of Saxon church towers. If the tower wasn't pre-Conquest then it dated from soon afterwards, and was almost certainly built before the new cathedral was begun c1114.

Jenkins reported that internally the church consisted only of a nave, without side aisles or supporting columns. The nave seems to have dated from the reign of Edward III as Bishop Grandisson rededicated the high altar in 1336. According to Jenkins the chancel at the East end was accessed via a "lofty Gothic arch", the chancel being "of a more ancient date than the body of the church".

The chancel was also accessible from outside through an entrance in the north wall. (A rare photograph of the medieval chancel can be seen here.) Until the middle of the 19th century the south and west walls of the church were almost completely obscured by the College of the Vicars Choral at Kalendarhay. In 1768 a survey was undertaken that showed the tower in a state of some dilapidation, "in danger of falling" and "greatly overhanging the base". To remedy this potentially disastrous development, 35ft of the upper courses were removed and a cupola built to hold the bell. The unusual image above left is from Rocque's 1744 map of Exeter and shows the full height of the tower prior to its reduction. The tower was originally topped by a spire and a weather vane, both of which had to be repaired in 1567 following a violent storm. This weather vane caused all sorts of problems for a famous Royal visitor to the city.

In October 1501 the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, the first but not the last of the wives of Henry VIII, spent the night in the nearby Deanery on her way from Plymouth to meet her first husband, Henry's brother, Prince Arthur. The weather was foul and a great storm raged over the city, and as the wind blew the weather vane whistled and squealed as it spun upon the spire of St Mary Major. Unable to sleep, the future Queen ordered the weather vane to be removed and a servant was sent up the steeple in the middle of the storm to take it down. It was replaced after she'd left but apparently the spire met its end in 1580 when yet another storm sent it crashing to the ground.

By the mid-19th century the church was in need of repair. The exterior stone walls, covered with plaster, needed frequent coats of whitewash and much work was required on the roof. In 1865 it was decided to demolish the church completely and replace it with a new one. To quote Beatrix Cresswell, "the complete rebuilding of this church in 1865-1867 [was] one of the many regrettable well-intentioned mistakes from which our parish churches suffered during the last century under the name of 'improvement', a word which covers a multitude of sins."

Almost everything was demolished, the 900-year-old tower, the chancel, the windows, the spiral staircases, the windows, the roof, the floor. It was one of the most important historic buildings in Exeter's 2000 year history and it was swept away without any regard to its great antiquity at all.

The foundation stone of the new building was laid on Monday 05 March 1866. The new church was situated slightly further west than its medieval predecessor so as to improve the view of the Cathedral.

As far as I know only two pieces of decoration survive from the medieval church: a small piece of carved stone representing the martyrdom of St Lawrence upon a gridiron which had been in the set into the outer wall near the east porch and part of the exceptionally fine medieval rood screen, part of which was removed to St Mary Steps and part of which remained in the rebuilt church of St Mary Major above right. Everything else was destroyed. The Victorian replacement above left never seems to have been popular and was regarded as worthy but dull almost from the moment it was built. Someone said that the replacement church was only 'Major' as an architectural disaster.

At the laying of the foundation stone in 1865 the mayor announced that the new church would be "a permanent ornament to the city". In fact it barely lasted a century. In 1971 it was itself demolished and the 1400-year history of St Mary Major came to a close. (The remaining two bays of the medieval screen were relocated to the parish church at Offwell.) Today the only sign that there was ever a church on the site is the cross that once sat upon the steeple of the Victorian replacement, set into a grassy area in the Cathedral Yard below. The late-19th century statue of Leofric, holding a model of the Romanesque cathedral in his right hand, sits high up on the facade of No. 53 High Street.



Anonymous said...

I was baptised in the Victorian St Mary Major Church on 18th May 1958. It seems very sad that so much history has disappeared from the centre of Exeter. Exeter City Council have a lot to answer for. Let us hope that they don't destroy any more of it.

wolfpaw said...

Thank you for your comment! One of the great myths about Exeter that I hope my blog can help dispel is the one about the city being 'destroyed by the Germans'. I've met many people who think that the way Exeter looks today is a direct consequence of 1942. Obviously a lot of damage was done to the city during the worst of the Baedeker raids, but the decision not to recontruct important and salvageable buildings was entirely the decision of the local authority, as was the decision to demolish much that remained (e.g. huge areas of Sidwell Street on both sides survived intact until the late 1950s), as was the decision to run the inner bypass through the historically important area outside the South Gate, as was the decision to destroy the Exe Bridge and huge chunks of Cowick Street and Alphington Street, as was the decision to demolish most of the Higher Market and the area taken up by the loathsome Guildhall Shopping Centre. Over the last four decades the City Council has authorised the demolition of many hundreds of buildings in and around the centre of the city, irrespective of the losses incurred during World War Two. And that's not even including the massive slum clearances of the 1930s. All cities evolve through a process of demolition but the sheer scale of the destruction in Exeter over the course of the 20th century is staggering.

Starcross News said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Starcross News said...

Thankyou for this beautiful account. On the Starcross History blog, I've just published the only known photo of St Mary Major in the last half of the 19th century.
I hope you don't mind that I've linked to your informative blog on

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