Monday, 10 October 2011

The House of Elyot: No. 73, High Street

The medieval townhouse of Thomas Elyot must've been one of the finest private houses of its period in Exeter, and although it was demolished in 1845 its most notable feature can still be seen today.

The history of the site itself can be traced back in documents to 1284. According to Lega-Weekes, in the late 13th century the location of the Elyot House was a large tenement called Bokerel, one of three such tenements which ran from St Petrock's church to the corner of the High Street with South Street. (Until 1942 this section of land was occupied by Nos. 70 & 71, No. 72 and Nos. 73 & 74 on the High Street.) Prior to its demolition Thomas Elyot's House was at No. 73, High Street. Thomas Elyot was the collector of the customs at the ports of Exeter and Dartmouth during the reign of Henry VII. He was also a notary public and a registrar of the archdeaconry of Exeter in 1495. It is not known if he built the house himself or merely made some additions to a pre-existing property. It's possible that it once belonged to the Dean and Chapter and was purchased by Elyot at the end of the 15th century.

The house was built of stone between c1450 and c1500 and sat on a long, narrow plot of land, its main entrance accessed via the High Street with a 'back front' in Cathedral Yard. Inserted into this back front, overlooking the Cathedral itself, was a three-storey bay window which extended across almost the entire width of the building. The drawing from 1839 top shows the window within the context of the Elyot House. The property to the left of the window was No. 1, South Street. The property just visible to the right was the half-timbered back front of No. 72 which survived until it was demolished in the 1950s.

Both the scale and the quality of Elyot's window were remarkable. It was built from limestone in the Gothic style. Each floor contained a seven-light window separated by stone panels richly decorated with shields, quatrefoils and other Gothic motifs. Jenkins described the window in his 1806 history of the city: "At a small distance West of the Church [i.e. St Petrock's], is a stone front of very ancient architecture and excellent masonry, beautifully disposed in panels of Gothic fretwork, surmounted with stone battlements". George Oliver called it "the most elegant specimen of the florid style of architecture, for a dwelling house, within the city of Exeter". Either the house already existed when the window was inserted into its south wall c1500 or the window and house were both constructed at the same time.

The image right shows a 1905 street plan of the area overlaid onto a modern aerial photograph. The tenement plot of Elyot's House is highlighted in red. The Globe inn is highlighted in purple. The High Street runs roughly from east to west along the top before reaching the junction with North Street, South Street and Fore Street.

A licence dated 20 July 1500 and issued by the Dean and Chapter granted Thomas Elyot the right to place two stone corbels into the wall of his tenement which would project 2ft into the Cathedral Yard (then the cemetery of St Peter's cathedral). According to the licence these corbels were to be used specifically for the upholding and building of a window ("edificandum fenestram"). Lega-Weekes believed that this licence accurately dates the elaborate bay window to 1500 although there is no sign of the corbels in the drawing from 1839. Perhaps the licence referred to a second, oriel-type window. Either way, on 05 August 1504 Thomas Elyot gave the house to the parish of St Petrock in return for obituary services to be performed for his soul in the event of his death.

One other interesting feature of the 1839 drawing is that it doesn't show any doors leading into the Elyot House from Cathedral Yard although it must've once been possible to access the property from the rear. Jenkins recorded that "this fine specimen of ancient architecture, is now so obscured by buildings, that it cannot be seen to any advantage, except from the narrow back court of the Globe Tavern; though it is evident, it was originally open to the Churchyard." This is almost certainly true. Between 1573 and 1603 the cemetery which lay behind the Elyot House was converted into gardens and by the end of the 17th century part of these gardens was occupied by the Globe inn. In the 18th century the sprawling old Globe had totally obscured the view out of Elyot's medieval window. A narrow passageway once ran around the north side of the Globe inn from Cathedral Yard into South Street. Although partially blocked, the passageway remained until the destruction of the Globe in 1942. The passage, which Lega-Weekes called "a traditional right of way", might've been the entrance into the back court of the Elyot House which is mentioned in various deeds as the "introitus from South Street".

Few other details about the house survive. There are no floor plans or accurate measurements or a description of the interior. Thomas Elyot's house at No. 73, High Street was completely demolished in 1845 but even the Victorians couldn't bring themselves to destroy the Gothic bay window. It was purchased by the Bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts, and reinstalled in what was once the medieval great hall of the Bishop's Palace left.

Unfortunately it was also greatly modified. Elyot's window was three storeys high, the former great hall at the palace only two. The pieces of the window that survive intact today are the decorated panels which separated each floor, now rearranged to fit a two-storey building. Transoms were added to the window openings and the mullions were extended in height, but even in its mangled condition it evokes something of the prestige of both its original form and its original owner.

The property to the west of Elyot's house, No. 74 High Street, was demolished at the same time and a new building with neo-Classical details took their place as Nos. 73 & 74. The facade of No. 73 was rebuilt when the High Street was widened in 1905. Despite surviving the Blitz of 1942, this mid-19th century building with its facade from 1905 was demolished during post-war redevelopment in the 1950s. What was once the site of the medieval house is now taken up by a poor flat-roofed, brown-brick building from the 1960s. Thomas Elyot's elaborate window, now over five hundred years old, is still situated in the wall of the old great hall at the Bishop's Palace below (Courtesy of Cornell University Library).


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