Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Notaries' House: No. 8, Cathedral Close

From both a historical and an architectural perspective, the Notaries' House above is an important building. Its history is fascinating and despite some unfortunate modifications its surviving architectural features are of a high quality. The property's story is complex and dates back at least to the first decades of the 15th century.

It stands on the site of what was once part of a group of buildings occupied by members of the cathedral's clergy and which were constructed between c1410 to c1430 around a narrow central courtyard. The west range consisted of a great hall with an exceptional hammer beam roof, known today as the Law Library. There was also an east range, now No. 9a Cathedral Close and a south range, now No. 9 Cathedral Close.

The north range is believed to have contained high status living rooms such as a solar and large bed chambers, and it was upon the site of this north range that the Notaries' House was built in the late-17th century. (Two of the other three medieval ranges from the early 15th century, the south range and the west range, all survive relatively intact. The east range was much-altered in the late-1600s but still contains significant medieval material.)

The aerial photograph right c1930 shows the extent of Nos. 8, 9 and 9a highlighted in red. In the context of the 15th century it would've been a property of enormous size. The Notaries' House lies in the centre of the plot, its main elevation facing north towards the backs of the townhouses of Bedford Circus. At the end of the long garden is a large outbuilding, also highlighted in red, and described on a 19th century plan as comprising "coachhouses with chamber over, stables and hay loft over, and courtlage". Running between Bedford Circus and the stable block is Egypt Lane, later known as Chapel Street. The building to the far right in the photograph, with a three-storey porch, was the Abbot's Lodge, destroyed by a high-explosive bomb in 1942.

Nos. 8, 9 and 9a remained as a single residence throughout most of the 16th and 17th centuries. Following the Reformation in the 1530s the cathedral's Dean and Chapter reduced the number of canons residing in the Cathedral Close, preferring instead to lease their large houses to wealthy members of Exeter's gentry. The extensive property was leased to the Bruton family from at least the end of the 1500s until the 1660s. William Bruton is recorded as having paid two shillings for each of his 14 hearths in the 1662/63 Hearth Tax. Clearly the group of buildings constituted a sizeable house.

In 1668 it was leased again to Christopher Bale, a member of the gentry who had married one of the Brutons and who was later to become both the city's mayor and and its MP. Bale divided the accommodation of the sprawling house, keeping at least part of the south range, the hall range and the north range together, and sub-let it as two separate properties. However, it's almost certain that Bale lived in the house at some point himself as the medieval hall contains both his coat of arms, shown above left, and those of his wife, Margaret Bruton, painted onto shields held by the carved angels that terminate the hammer beams.

The Notaries' House was born from disaster when a major fire broke out in the extensive medieval north range. According to an entry in the Dean and Chapter Act Book from 1692 the "most and the Chiefest part" of the property "was lately burnt down". Fortunately the thick walls of Heavitree stone prevented the fire from spreading to the adjoining ranges.

Bale's lease was extended at a reduced cost as a result of the fire but it was necessary to rebuild the fire-damaged north range. The result of this rebuild was the current Notaries' House, a late-17th century, brick-built mansion in the centre of Exeter and one of the most exceptional buildings of its kind remaining in the city. (A three-storey pavillion, just visible to the left in the photograph top, is now part of the Notaries' House but it was originally the northern end of the medieval east range and so will be discussed in a later post that covers 9a, Cathedral Close.)

Fortunately in 2007 the city council's own Exeter Archaeology Unit (now sadly disbanded as part of city council cost-cutting) carried out an extensive archaeological survey of the building, recording all of the surviving features from different periods. Some of the following information is taken from their detailed report. The Notaries' House was built to a simple plan: five storeys high, including a basement, and only one room deep with two rooms on each floor arranged around a central staircase. It was only intended to act as a wing, an add-on to the surviving medieval ranges at the front. The photograph at the top of this post shows the north-facing elevation of the Notaries' House. This was technically the rear of the property despite it having the visual appearance of the main street facade. The entrance was in fact through the Cathedral Close via an external passageway to the side of the medieval west range.

The aerial view left shows the south side of the Notaries' House almost completely obscured by the earlier medieval ranges against which it was constructed. The building that is attached to the centre of the south wall, projecting at a right-angle, is the medieval west range that contains the tremendous hammer beam roof.

The facade of the Notaries' House is highly deceptive as its current appearance belies the early date of construction. Frustratingly, all of the two-light mullioned windows were altered during a refurbishment in the early 19th century when the current sash windows were installed. Only the basement floor, now hidden below ground level, retains the original late-17th century windows. But much worse was the refacing of almost the entire facade in modern bricks sometime in the post-war period. The mass-produced bricks and the clumsy modern pointing do the building no favours, although at least the exceptionally attractive proportions of the late-Georgian refurbishment remain. (Some of the original brick work can still be seen at the corners of the north facade as well as on most of the south wall.) Stone banding at first and second floor levels divide the five bays horizonatally and beneath the original flared hip roof, into which is set three dormer windows, is a modillion cornice.

In front of the building is a brick-built cellar. This is believed to date to c1800, a century after the rest of the house was constructed. The building of the cellar would've raised the exterior ground level significantly and it's likely that a flight of steps originally led up into the house itself. The current portico, supported on pillars with Ionic capitals, was added in the early-19th century. The lovely fanlight of intertwined Gothic arches was installed at the same time.

Despite its current use as office space the house is stuffed with superb details from the late-17th and 18th centuries. Two internal doorways lead off the entrance hall above right into the ground floor rooms. Baroque doorcases with broken pediments and central pedestals from c1740 still remain within the doorways. These doorcases are rare survivals in Exeter, particularly rare for being of such high quality. The entrance hall also has dado panelling and an ornate box cornice, again from c1740.

The original staircase from c1690 left rises through the full height of the building, from the basement to the top floor, beautifully constructed with a moulded handrail and turned balusters and lit from the windows situated in the central bay of the north wall.

The list of other important surviving features is a long one: a magnificent grey marble fireplace in the dining room from c1740; plaster cornices in both of the downstairs rooms along with the recently rediscovered and significant remnants of bolection-moulded panelling from the late-17th century; large sections of original field panelling in the first-floor rooms as well as extensive cornicing; two more mid-18th century doorcases with broken pediments on the first-floor landing; an early 19th century fireplace, and so on. A blocked doorway on the second floor landing once opened onto a small viewing balcony that looked down into the adjoining medieval hall. (The barley sugar spindles of the balcony are still visible inside the hall). Even the basement has numerous interesting features, such as slate floors and the above-mentioned mullioned windows.

The photograph right is the view east from a small window on the third floor of the Notaries' House. It looks out over the medieval houses of the Archdeacons of Totnes and Barnstaple, over the still-standing 15th century gatehouse of the Abbot's Lodge (the gatehouse was destroyed in 1942 but superbly reconstructed afterwards) and towards the 18th century terraces of Southernhay West, just visible through the trees.

On the far right are the white walls of the former Chancellor's House, remodelled in the early 18th century and now the Exeter Cathedral School. It is all exceptionally lovely, a collection of buildings of such picturesque charm that they have few rivals in the whole of England.

Incidentally, it is called the Notaries' House because it was for a number of generations used by solicitors as their offices, but the site itself is believed to have been the location for part of the timber barracks of the Second Augustan Legion when the Romans built a fortress here in c55 AD. The above-mentioned stable block was damaged during the Blitz of 1942 and half of the garden disappeared under the post-war service road known as Chapel Street. The other half is a car park. The businesses now based in the house use Chapel Street as their address and the main access in and out of the property is now in Chapel Street, although the house is still technically listed as No. 8, Cathedral Close.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the Notaries' House has been converted into offices and retail space but then it's miraculous that it survived the war undamaged. Many of the modern additions necessary for its current use are a distraction but a huge number of historically interesting features do remain, along with much of the general fabric of the early building. Hopefully the building's Grade II* listed status will protect it for future generations. As the archaeological report concludes, "with its fine staircase, panelling, fireplaces and other fittings, the Notaries' House must rank as one of the best-preserved examples of grand town housing of this period in the city".


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