Thursday 15 December 2011

Cathedral Walls & Gates: The Medieval Murder of Walter Lechlade

As the 13th century drew to a close in Exeter the violent death of a member of the cathedral's clergy resulted in the construction of a fortified wall studded with gatehouses around the entire cathedral precinct. This security wall created what was in effect a walled city within a walled city, a version of the city's own walls and gates in miniature and a physical expression of the separation between the civic authority of the mayor and the ecclesiastical authority of the medieval bishop.

The background to the murder was complex but at its heart lay a feud between the Dean of the cathedral, John Pycot and the Bishop of Exeter, Peter Quinil. In 1280 Pycot managed to convince a majority of the cathedral's Chapter to elect him to the office of Dean during Quinil's absence from the city for his own enthronement at Canterbury. However, because Pycot failed to obtain a unanimous vote from the Chapter, and probably for other reasons relating to what appear to have been worldly and avaricious character traits, Bishop Quinil overturned the Chapter's decision and declared that Pycot's election was invalid. But Pycot wasn't going to be removed from his office quite so easily.

The tensions between Bishop and Dean rumbled on into the summer of 1281 with each side in the dispute trying to use various legal arguments placed before the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dean Pycot even travelled to Rome to try and enlist the support of the Pope. In 1282 Quinil took the opportunity of elevating one of his supporters, Walter Lechlade, to the office of Precentor. Lechlade had been the vicar-choral at Wells Cathedral and was therefore suited to his role at Exeter as the lead chanter during the cathedral's services. Even more importantly, the position of Precentor came with that of President of the Chapter who could act as the head of the Chapter during Dean Pycot's year-long absence in Rome. Upon his return to Exeter Lechlade became the unwitting focus for Pycot's enmity.

Pycot was on close terms with Exeter's mayor, Alured de la Porta, and together they hatched a plot to remove the troublesome Lechlade permanently. On the night of 09 November 1283 Lechlade left his house at the Chantry to fulfil his duties at the midnight matins. (Demolished in 1870, the rebuilt Chantry is now the Exeter Cathedral School in Deanery Place.) Following the end of the matins, at about 1.30am, Lechlade left the cathedral and walked down Palace Gate right towards the Chantry. A group of assailants, who had entered the city through the South Gate, sprung out of the shadows and attacked Lechlade. In the words of Bishop Quinil, the attackers dragged Lechlade "here and thither in the mire until at dawn their horrible outrage was seen by many - his canonical robe soiled with blood and his brains issuing from two ghastly wounds." Lechlade lay dead and his attackers had fled back through the South Gate.

Bishop Quinil and his followers had a clear idea who was responsible for the assault on Lechlade but a protracted dispute raged for over eight months with no judicial outcome. Finally an appeal was made to Eleanor of Provence, the widow of Henry III and the mother of the reigning king, Edward I. Following her intervention, on 22 December 1285, Edward I, his wife Eleanor of Castile, and three of their daughters arrived in the city to celebrate Christmas and to preside over the trial of those accused of Lechlade's murder. The king and his family probably stayed in the castle at Rougemont with other members of the large retinue accommodated in various locations throughout the city.

The photograph left shows the Norman gatehouse of Rougemont Castle in the north-west corner of the city, including the now-blocked archway through which Edward I would've entered in 1285. The castle was constructed by William the Conqueror in 1068. The Grade I listed gatehouse remains as England's oldest stone-built Norman castle structure, predating the White Tower at the Tower of London by about a decade.

The trial began on Christmas Eve in the castle's great hall and ended on 28 December with numerous convictions for various offences. Among those found guilty were Dean Pycot, Mayor Porta, Richard Stonying, who was the porter of the South Gate, and Canon Reginald Ercevesk, found guilty of harbouring one of the murderers, a servant of Porta's called Hugo. (Canon Ercevesk is believed to have resided in the 13th century canonry in Catherine Street, parts of which survived until the Blitz of 1942.) Of those convicted, eleven claimed benefit of clergy and were handed over to the relevant ecclesiastical authorities for punishment. Three others were released on bail and five more were sentenced to death, including Mayor Porta and Richard Stonying, both of whom were hung, probably at Northernhay just beyond the walls of the castle. Dean Pycot underwent canonical purgation and was released after six months. He was replaced as Dean by Andrew de Kilkenny. Hugo, Porta's servant sheltered by Canon Ercevesk, is said to have got away and disappears into history without a further trace.

The photograph right shows a medieval king from the mid-14th century image screen on the West front of Exeter Cathedral. When first installed the statue would've been brightly painted.

Before Edward I left Exeter he had a meeting with Bishop Quinil and signed a Royal licence on 01 January 1286 allowing the cathedral authorities to construct a 12ft high security wall around the entire cathedral precinct, punctuated at intervals by a sequence of lockable gates and gatehouses. Other cathedral cities in England built similar walls and gates at the same time. Such walls already existed at Norwich and Winchester. The Bishop of Lincoln was granted a Royal licence by Edward I to build a wall around the cathedral in 1285. Lichfield followed in 1299, Salisbury in 1327, and other examples can still be seen at Chester, Canterbury, Worcester and Wells.

At Exeter the wall formed a very irregular rectangle, bounded on three sides by South Street, the High Street and Egypt Lane. The south-east portion of the circuit used the standing Roman wall, parts of which can still be seen in the gardens of the Bishop's Palace. The rest of the Close wall was probably a mixture of additional new masonry combined with pre-existing barriers. Properties which backed onto the Close had their rear entrances blocked up, a much cheaper alternative to building an entirely new, free-standing wall.

The photograph left shows part of the exterior of the Roman city wall which bounds the grounds of the Bishop's Palace and which formed a section of the late-13th century Close wall. Much of the fabric of the wall here, made from heavily-weathered purple volcanic trap, dates to c200AD.

What is believed to be part of the Close wall still exists in the cellars of Nos. 41 & 42 High Street although little or nothing remains of it above ground except for the much-repaired section of the city wall in the Bishop's Palace gardens. The antiquarian Ethel Lega-Weekes reported in 1915 that "in the cellars of nearly all the premises from Broadgate to St Martin's I have found remains of very massive walling, ranging from 6 to 15ft in thickness...neatly constructed, being faced with large ashlars in some parts and exhibiting in some places round-headed arches". It's possible that these were the remains of the Cathedral Close wall, although a similar piece of exposed walling at No. 2 Cathedral Yard has been shown to date to no earlier than the 16th century.

Seven gates were created in total: St Martin's Gate, St Catherine's Gate, St Petrock's Gate, Little Stile, Bear Gate, Palace Gate and the largest and most magnificent, Broad Gate top © RAMM. Broad Gate, St Martin's Gate and Palace Gate were all wide enough to accommodate horse-drawn carts. Bear Gate and St Catherine's Gate were wide enough to take a pack horse. The medieval church of St Petrock was used as a postern gate for pedestrians, a decision which seems to have resulted in the dramatic realignment of the High Street from the south of the church to its current position to the north. Little Stile was also a postern gate. All the gates were shut and locked at night, at 8pm in the winter and at 9pm in the summer before being opened again at dawn the following day. The gatekeeper lived in purpose-built accommodation above the Broad Gate itself.

In 1806 Alexander Jenkins wrote that "the Walls are now demolished, and houses built on their site; but the Gates are still remaining." Unfortunately, between 1812 and 1825 all of the gates were demolished too. St Petrock's church above right was already in existence by 1286 and still survives today. The church has been much enlarged and it's no longer possible to walk through from the High Street into the Cathedral Close. Jenkins also claimed that prior to the construction of the Close wall there was only a small wall separating the Close from the High Street which would've been easy to step over. This seems far-fetched to me.

After over 700 years it is now difficult to plot the course of the wall precisely. It was gradually subsumed into later buildings which have in turn been either modified or demolished, but the positions of the gates are all known and it's possible to make a vague guess at where the wall ran through the streets of Exeter. The positions of all of the gates are numbered in the aerial view left:

1 Broad Gate
2 St Martin's Gate
3 St Catherine's Gate
4 Palace Gate
5 Bear Gate
6 Little Stile
7 St Petrock's Gate

The site of Walter Lechlade's Chantry is highlighted in purple. A rough indication of the course of the wall is highlighted in red. In reality it was probably a lot more uneven as it darted in and out of various properties. It's worth remembering that at the time Lechlade was murdered the cathedral we know today barely existed. Work on its transformation from the Norman building to the present supreme example of Decorated Gothic architecture had only just begun on the Lady Chapel at the east end in 1283.

Commemorative plaques and stone posts record the locations of some of the gates, installed after all of the gates had been demolished. A few of these still retain iron rings from which, until 1928, a chain was hung by the Dean and Chapter once a-year as a symbolic reaffirmation of the church's claim over the cathedral precinct.


1 comment:

South Devon Players theatre & film company said...

We are currently working on a theatre show largely centred around the murder of Walter Lechlade (

Several of our members have found your article most interesting!

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