Thursday, 21 October 2010
St Paul's Church, Paul Street
The fate of the medieval parish of St Paul provides an object lesson in how to destroy a centuries-old part of a historic city which had survived into the 20th century. A significant area of the parish, which contained many of Exeter's surviving timber-framed houses, was systematically demolished in the early decades of the 20th century. Much of the rest was pulled down in the 1970s for the construction of the Guildhall Shopping Centre.
St Paul's was one of the larger parishes in Exeter, and although the name of the church itself doesn't appear in records until 1222 it's likely that there was a church on this site since at least the time of the Conquest in 1066. Of particular interest was the fact that the St Paul to whom the church was dedicated appears to have been the Celtic saint St Pol, the 6th century bishop of Leon in Brittany, also called St Paul Aurelian, rather than St Paul the Apostle of Tarsus from the New Testament.
The map detail right shows the parish of St Paul in 1587, the church highlighted in red. The building is shown with a square tower surmounted by a short spire, or pyramidal roof, and with a cross, about halfway down Paul Street on the right at the junction of Paul Street with Goldsmith Street. The city wall is shown curving round towards Rougemont Castle to the left. As far as I know, this is the only existing depiction of the medieval church building. Three other parish churches are shown in the same image: St Pancras, St Kerrian and, at the bottom, the spire and tower of St Mary Arches.
Writing at the beginning of the 19th century, Jenkins states that this "ancient church was dark, mean and in a ruinous state". The medieval church was probably a 15th century version of a Norman building, itself a replacement of an even earlier Saxon structure. The dedication to St Paul in Paul Street was of such great antiquity that it's possible that the church was dedicated by St Paul Aurelian himself in the 6th century, a simple wooden building being the original church.
Anyway, that's all supposition. As Jenkins says, the medieval church was demolished at the end of the 17th century and a "handsome edifice, consisting of a nave and gallery" top © Devon County Council was built upon the same site. Work began on the replacement structure in 1680 and was completed with the construction of the tower in 1693. The finished church was the only Italianate parish church ever built in Exeter and was a startling contrast to the rough-stone red breccia 15th century parish churches which were once scattered throughout the city.
The late-17th century church is accurately depicted in Hedgeland's early 19th century wooden model of the city right, highlighted in red and still surrounded with the houses of its parish.
The church was built to a simple rectangular design, with entry via Goldsmith Street through an arched doorway under the western bell tower. Jenkins describes the tower as being "square and ornamented with a Dial, a handsome niche, and festoons of flowers; the Tower contains a clock and one bell, and on its summit is a small spire supporting a gilt weather-cock". The arches in the doorways was repeated in the high windows, the exterior walls rendered to leave only the quoins exposed at the corners. The single bell commemorated the restoration of the 'Templum Divi Pauli' in 1693 and had a coin of that year set into it.
According to Jenkins there was a small churchyard attached which was probably part of the footprint of the medieval church and which, in order to obtain the symmetry of its 17th century successor, was not used in the rebuilding of the 1680s. Beatrix Cresswell visited the church in 1908 and recorded seeing a "great many floor slabs and mural tablets" inside, the most impressive being the white marble monument "of angels, broken columns and decorations" dedicated to the memory Sir Edward Seaward, a former mayor of the city in 1691. There were dozens of other memorials with a massive black marble font standing under the tower.
As architecture it was not perhaps of enormous merit, but as visual evidence for historical continuity it was invaluable. The slum clearances in Paul Street in the first two decades of the 20th century saw many of the residents of the parish displaced to other areas. With most of its parishioners gone there was no need for the church itself and so the Bishop of Exeter ordered its total demolition in 1936. Hoskins described it as "a delightful little seventeenth century building that was wantonly destroyed".
The site of St Paul's Church today is smothered by the vast and monstrous bulk of the 1970s' Guildhall Shopping Centre.