Saturday, 8 January 2011

St Lawrence's Church, High Street

Located in the High Street, the 15th century church of St Lawrence left was the only medieval parish church within the city walls that was destroyed as a direct consequence of World War Two.

A church was definitely in existence on the same site at the start of the 13th century, and it's possible that the foundation itself pre-dated the Norman Conquest of 1066.

George Oliver, in his History of the City of Exeter, cites a deed of c1202 showing that the church belonged to the abbot and convent of St Mary de Valle in Bayeux, France. During the reign of Henry III, in 1272, the French abbey surrendered its possession of St Lawrence and ownership of the church was granted to the Augustinian priory at Merton in Surrey. In the late-13th century the then Bishop of Exeter, Peter Quivel, requested that the church be given to the diocese of Exeter in exchange for an interest in St John's Hospital, a short way up the High Street towards the East Gate and on the opposite side of the road. This rather tortuous series of transfers and exchanges enabled the church of St Lawrence to fall within the ecclesiastical grasp of the Bishops of Exeter. Like many of the city's parish churches, the church of St Lawrence was sold-off during the Commonwealth but it was purchased for its parishioners on 21 September 1658 for £100 by a wealthy Exonian.

The church was rebuilt in the mid-15th century in a style typical of Exeter's parish churches, the walls and tower constructed from the red Heavitree breccia with decorative mouldings, windows and tracery in white limestone. The south wall was rebuilt in 1674 and the west wall in 1830, but apart from those renovations much of the church in 1942 dated to the 1400s.

The south wall, that faced onto the High Street, was pierced by three large 15th century Perpendicular windows. The large bell tower to the south-west originally held three bells but two of these were sold in 1780 to raise funds for repairs to the fabric of the church. By 1942 only one bell remained, a late medieval one cast by the Exeter bell-founder, Robert Norton. Jenkins was very dismissive of the tower, complaining that it was "a clumsy ill-proportioned building, much too large for its height". He also stated that it was finished at the top with only a "coping wall without battlements" which gave it "a very odd appearance". Later photographs of the church show that both the south wall and the tower were crenellated so at least the tower decoration must've been added later, perhaps during the renovations of the 1850s.

The image left shows a 1905 map of the city overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area.

Only those buildings that lay within the parish boundary of St Lawrence are highlighted. Buildings destroyed since 1905, the vast majority during the Exeter Blitz of 1942, are highlighted in red.

Surviving properties that pre-date 1905 and which once lay within the parish of St Lawrence are highlighted in purple. The site of the church itself is marked 'Ch' with the little graveyard clearly visible at the rear.

The most interesting aspect of the exterior was the south porch which allowed access into the church. In 1590 a new water fountain, or conduit, had been constructed in the High Street near to St Lawrence's (not to be confused with the medieval Great Conduit that stood at the Carfoix near the South Street/North Street crossroads). Built from pale Beer limestone, like so much of the Cathedral itself, the conduit was decorated with statues of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as well as Exeter's coat of arms. The conduit was demolished in 1694 and the materials were reused to construct the south porch of the church. Standing above the arched entrance of the porch, in a Gothic niche, was the statue of Elizabeth I.

The interior lay-out was simple, consisting of just a nave and a sanctuary (with a small niche that held the organ in the north wall at the eastern end). Dividing the nave and the sanctuary was the church's greatest treasure: an exceptionally fine screen with stalls, carved in oak, with ogee arches and ball-flower pinnacles which dated from the 1400s right © Devon County Council. The woodwork was part of the 14th century choir stalls at Exeter Cathedral which were removed during the mid-17th century. Jenkins doesn't mention it so it's not known exactly when the carving arrived at St Lawrence's.

Spanning the nave and sanctuary was a 15th-century barrel-vaulted roof complete with painted oak bosses "carved with faces, knots and foliage" (Cresswell). Where the ribs terminated at the walls there were carved angels holding shields. The massive hexagonal stone font was decorated with quartefoils with blind Gothic arches around the base. It was probably installed in the 1850s. A letter in The Ecclesiologist from 1842 suggested that prior to the installation of the stone font a glass jar, like a pot-pourri bowl, and kept in a recess in the west wall, was used for baptisms! There was also some Jacobean oak panelling near the altar that Cresswell dated to between 1621 and 1626 and which she believed originated from the Cathedral because of the inclusion of the coat of arms of Valentine Cary, Bishop of Exeter during the reign of Charles I. Also inside the church were a number of wall memorials and memorial slabs dating from the end of the 1600s to the 19th century.

The photograph above © Express & Echo shows the High Street following the Baedeker Raid of 04 May 1942. The crenellated tower of St Lawrence's can be seen about halfway up on the left, behind the neo-Classical facade of the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company building.

St Lawrence's was one of the few parish churches with its own cemetery. Until the 19th century most of the residents of the city who died were either buried in the Cathedral Close or, after 1636, at a new burial ground at Bartholomew Street West. The little churchyard at St Lawrence's was opened in 1692 having previously been a parishioner's garden. It was accessed from the High Street down a very narrow lane that ran underneath the house adjacent to the church's tower: "Just beside the tower is the narrowest possible slip which surprises the enterprising wanderer by leading him into a tiny courtyard where there are two little houses, their porches overgrown with white jessamine, and a fat friendly cat offers a welcome." So wrote Beatrix Cresswell in her 1927 book 'Rambes in Old Exeter'. She called the courtyard "a delicious corner of the old city, with the red wall and cusped windows of the old church at one side of it". It was all destroyed in 1942.

On 04 May 1942, along with many of Exeter's other historic buildings, the church of St Lawrence was severely damaged by a German bombing raid.

All the shops and houses both opposite and next to the church were destroyed. The church itself was completely gutted by fire with only the south wall and the tower left standing. Nothing at all survived of the interior, the medieval roof or the 15th century oak screen. The remains above left were cleared away as part of the post-war reconstruction. The approximate site of the church became part of the Commercial Union building with only a plaque on the wall to remind pedestrians of St Lawrence's existence.

An interesting footnote relates to the statue of Elizabeth I that once stood in the south porch. The porch itself survived the Blitz but was demolished along with the rest of the ruined church, at which point the statue found a new home in the Commercial Union building that arose on the site. It was displayed inside the building until the company moved to new premises in Barnfield Road in 1973. After the move the statue disappeared until it was traced by Peter Thomas, one of Exeter's most prominent historians, to the company's warehouse in Southampton. Following efforts made by Peter Thomas, the late-16th century statue was donated by Commercial Union to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter and can be seen today in the interpretation centre at the Underground Passages.



Anonymous said...

I read the article with interest. I have some silver items associated with the Church.

Who would be a good custodian for them?

wolfpaw said...

I would've once said the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, but given its lack of interst in the recent sale of the church plate by the Parish of Central Exeter I really can't recommend either the museum or the PoCE. You're probably the best custodian at the moment!

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