Friday, 16 December 2011

The Medieval College of the Vicars Choral at Kalendarhay, Cathedral Yard

The image left is one of the most remarkable surviving photographs ever taken in Exeter. As far as I am aware it is the only photographic record of what was the inner gatehouse at the complex of medieval buildings known as the College of the Vicars Choral. Dating to the late 1860s, it is an image of such rarity and interest that it's difficult to overstate its importance.

The long history of the College of the Vicars Choral stretches far back into Exeter's medieval past, possibly even pre-dating the Cathedral itself. Had the buildings survived intact the College would've ranked as being of national importance. Instead its fate now reads as a history in microcosm of the city as a whole: spectacular survival followed by disastrous piecemeal demolition leading ultimately to almost total destruction in the 20th century.

The story begins during the reign of Henry I with the Kalendar Brethren. The Kalendar Brethren was simply a guild consisting of members of the Cathedral's clergy and citizens of Exeter, both male and female. It was established c1140, although Nicholas Orme believed that the guild could've begun as early as c1030, around twenty years before the Cathedral was founded in 1050. It was a voluntary organisation with the members performing charitable work and holding religious services, a bit like a Rotary Club but with a religious dimension. The arcane-sounding name derived from the fact that the Brethren celebrated a Requiem mass on the first day of each month to remember members of the guild who had died. In the Roman calendar the first day of each month was known as the 'Kalend' (just as the 13th or 15th days were known as the 'Ides'). Between c1140 and c1340 members of the Kalendar Brethren included a dean, chancellor and a treasurer from the Cathedral as well as five bishops and seven city mayors.

The image right shows a modern aerial view of the site of the College. The war memorial in the Cathedral Yard is visible at the top. The West front of the Cathedral is just out of sight to the right. Laid over the aerial view is the same area from the 1905 street map of Exeter, by which time most of the College's buildings had been demolished. The numbers show the locations of the College's main buildings:

1 The Church of St Mary Major
2 The 'Oldham' Gatehouse
3 The Inner Gatehouse
4 The northern row of houses
5 The southern row of houses
6 The Dining Hall
7 The College Kitchen

The Kalendar Brethren used two chapels for their religious services. One was the small chapel of St Peter Minor, believed to have been located in the Cathedral Precinct near the site of what was later to become the Eagle House. The other was St Paul's, which stood on the corner of Paul Street and Goldsmith Street until its demolition in 1936. In around 1200 the Brethren swapped churches with the Cathedral canons. The canons used St Paul's and St Peter Minor and in return the Kalendar Brethren used the church of St Mary Major, located near the West front of the Cathedral and once the old Saxon minster. The Kalendar Brethren built a guildhall and almshouses close to St Mary Major and this site was to form the nucleus for the College of the Vicars Choral. The site became known as Kalendarhay at around the same time and just means 'the enclosure of the Kalendar Brethren' (the name is still used for this part of Exeter today).

The drawing left shows some of the medieval houses in the north row which remained c1890 (No. 4 on the map above). An identical row of houses was once on the opposite side of the street. Two Gothic windows in the dining hall of the Vicars Choral are visible at the far end of the street (No. 7 on the map above).

By the mid-14th century the Brethrens' Requiem masses were being conducted by the Vicars Choral, junior members of the clergy who sang at the Cathedral's many services. Prior to the 1370s the Vicars Choral were living in various houses scattered throughout the city. They often missed services and there are indications that they were fraternising with Exeter's citizens in a way which the Bishop of Exeter, Thomas Brantingham, founded unacceptable. He therefore decided in 1381 or 1382 to create a college at Kalenderhay where the 24 Vicars Choral could live together and eat together. The Kalendar Brethren were moved out and the Vicars Choral were moved in. In order to accommodate them Brantingham ordered the construction of what was in effect a miniature self-contained village built around a quadrangle. Permission for the new buildings was granted by the Dean, as long as they didn't interfere with either the great hall of the nearby Deanery or the windows of the Dean's private chapel. It's worth mentioning that a number of other colleges for the Vicars Choral were built at a similar time in several other cathedral cities across England e.g. at Wells, Lincoln, Hereford, Salisbury and York. (The Vicars' Close at Wells, strikingly similar in design and layout to the one at Exeter, has survived in its entirety. The buildings predated Exeter's own college by approximately two decades. It is now Grade I listed and reputed to be the oldest purely residential street with its original buildings in Europe.)

Entry into the quadrangle at Exeter was via a gatehouse (No. 3 on the map above). This gatehouse is shown in the photograph at the top of this post and in the drawing from c1827 right © Devon County Council. For centuries the chamber above the stone-vaulted passageway of the gatehouse acted as a muniment room, used to store the documents relating to the college. When the gatehouse was demolished in 1872 the documents were transferred to a large coffer in the college dining hall.

Beyond the gatehouse was a narrow street with a row of 12 two-storey houses on each side. These little houses originally consisted of one room on the ground floor with another room above. In the late-14th century the street was a cul-de-sac, blocked off at its far end by what was the College's dining room. To the right of the dining hall was a huge kitchen attached to which were a buttery and a pantry. All of the structures were built from purple volcanic trap sourced from various locations around Exeter. The construction work was almost complete by 1388 and Bishop Brantingham officially founded the 'Vicariorum Hospicio' on 04 November that year (although the fact that 18 new chimneys were added in 1401 suggests that work continued on the site for an extended period of time). But it seems that the Vicars Choral had no intention of behaving themselves.

One of the College rules was that the Vicars Choral were to desist in visiting the houses of the laity and eat together in the common hall provided. Another rule stated that any member of the College who "rashly lay violent hands" upon another within the College boundaries would be fined, but they persisted in breaking the rules of the foundation to such an extent that Brantingham threatened them with excommunication.

The College continued to be used into the 16th century. In 1586 a bitter quarrel between the Vicars Choral and the city authorities over some disputed land resulted in several of the vicars being imprisoned. The College possessed the deeds to a number of properties in Exeter, some of which were on the corner of St Martin's Lane and Catherine Street, an area known in the 16th and 17th centuries as Little Kalendarhay. But all the time the number of Vicars Choral was being reduced. By 1614 there were only four priest-vicars and ten lay-vicars. The College's silver plate was sold in 1644 for £30 7 shillings and 6 pence and the money lent to Charles I to support the Royalist cause during the English Civil War. In 1647, at the time of Cromwell's Commonwealth, the College was confiscated and the beautiful dining hall left © Devon County Council was turned into a wool hall. It was probably at this time that an entrance from South Street was forced between the dining hall and the kitchen through what was once the hall's screens passage. The College was returned to the Vicars Choral after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 but the collegiate days of the Middle Ages were over. The image below shows how the College might've looked c1850. 

The houses were let to private tenants. The College's vast 14th century kitchen (No. 7 on the map above) was converted into houses and by the late 18th century was an inn called The College Kitchen, later known as The Bear, which was accessed directly from South Street. Before the demolition of the Cathedral Close gatehouses it was possible to walk through the College Kitchen inn and into the Cathedral Precinct via a "doorway knocked through its six feet stone wall". The landlord kept the curfew in the Close by locking the "great oak door" every night at 10pm. The college's medieval kitchen was largely demolished in 1871. During the building work the kitchen's original ogee-arched fireplace was discovered. According to Lega-Weekes, writing in 1915, it was possible to see parts of the old kitchen in the cellars of the building which took its place but these remains were presumably destroyed when the area was blitzed in 1942.

One peculiarity was what appears to have been a second gatehouse. I've called it the 'Oldham Gatehouse' and it's listed as No. 2 on the map above. Alexander Jenkins left a description of this gatehouse in 1806: "The Gate-house of the College is a strong stone building, in the front of which are the arms of England and France, quarterly; and under them are the arms of Bishop Oldham, supported by Angels. Adjoining to this Gate-house is an ancient building in which the Registrar's office for the Archdeaconry of Exeter is held". This shouldn't be confused with the inner gatehouse which led into the quadrangle. Hugh Oldham was the Bishop of Exeter between 1505 and 1519.

Very little is really known about this gatehouse. Was it part of the original late-14th century College? Or was it a later 16th century addition which was only loosely connected to the College? Jenkins explicitly called it "the Gate-house of the College". James Crocker also described this gatehouse in 1886: "Over the other [gatehouse] stood a three-storied house, and immediately above the arch itself were the Arms of Bishop Oldham, who was a munificent contributor to the funds of the College. Above these were the Royal Arms, and on either side, there was a niche for a figure. This three-storied house was of a much later date than the buildings generally". Fortunately the gatehouse appears in several depictions of the church of St Mary Major prior to the church's demolition in 1865. One these is shown above right © Devon County Council, the gatehouse highlighted in red and standing to the left of the chancel of St Mary Major. The pointed arch of the gateway itself and the decorative details mentioned above are all visible. There are hints of stone mullioned windows on the first floor. I think the gatehouse was built c1519 and was part of a general overhaul of the College's buildings which took place at the same time. The three-storey house could've been built at any time between c1700 and c1800 but a date in the early-18th century seems most likely, the Tudor gatehouse peering out from beneath the later additions.

The photograph left shows Kalendarhay today. The vicars' houses would've been on either side of the narrow street. The inner gatehouse stood near the car in the mid-distance. The gate in the wall to the right can also be seen in the photograph at the top of this post.

The entire complex survived intact until 1850. In 1848 a report by the city's surveyor stated that the College was in a "very offensive and filthy state", although the Commissioners for Improvement doubted they had the power "to interfere there" being within the precinct of the Cathedral. Instead of restoration and refurbishment, the demolition began. In 1850 the 'Exeter Flying Post' reported that while "pulling down some old houses" at the College a number of archaeological finds were uncovered. These included a Roman copper coin from the 4th century, a copper weight from the 15th century, a silver whistle, tokens from Nuremburg, and a gold and enamel ring inscribed with the words "Remember the giver". Most of the houses in the south row were demolished at this time and much of the site became part of the Deanery's garden. Some of the houses on the north side were pulled down in 1865 when the church of St Mary Major was rebuilt. Lega-Weekes reported a recollection that "the south wall and west end [of the church] are entirely closed up by the ancient building of the Vicars' College and a house belonging to the Close, some of the leaning roofs of which rest on the church walls".

The image right shows how the College's inner gatehouse might've appeared today had it survived demolition.

The Oldham Gatehouse either came down at the same time or in 1872. It's difficult to imagine now, but until the 1870s the south side of the Cathedral Close was once filled with numerous houses as well as the church of St Mary Major.

During the restoration of the Cathedral in 1872 the Dean and Chapter decided that most of these houses were "unsightly" and "incongruous" and spoilt the view of the Cathedral from the south, so down they came. This was certainly when the College's inner gatehouse top was demolished. As mentioned above, the College's kitchen had already been almost completely demolished in 1871. By 1893 the rest of the houses on the north side had gone, to be replaced with what Harbottle Reed called "ugly brick workshops". By the beginning of the 20th century only the dining hall remained as the last surviving fragment of the College of the Vicars Choral.

The Hall of the Vicars Choral

The 19th century demolition of the College was a great loss to Exeter's historical architecture, but at least the dining hall above survived. It was probably the College's finest feature even when it was first built in the 1380s. As well as using it as their refectory, the Vicars Choral gathered in the hall to vote for a warden, two proctors and a collector to help oversee the running of the College. Above the entrance from Kalanderhay were inscribed the words: 'Aula Collegii Vicariorum de Choro'. It was a little treasure chest of medieval and post-medieval craftsmanship. The hall was spanned by a fine open-timbered arch-braced roof. There were three very fine late-14th century windows with Decorated Gothic tracery. A particularly beautiful feature of these windows was the way in which the decoration on the rere-arches reflected the tracery in the window itself. A screens passage divided the hall from the kitchen to the north and above the passage ran a minstrels' gallery.

The dining hall was refurbished c1519 by the Cathedral's treasurer, John Ryse. Ryse installed the magnificent carved stone fireplace decorated with the heraldic shields of Henry Marshall, John Grandisson, Thomas Brantingham, Edmund Lacy and Hugh Oldham, all of whom were Bishops of Exeter. Above the shields, in the centre of the lintel, was the coat of arms of the treasurer. At the top of each jamb on either side of the fireplace was a circle carved into the stone and intertwined with the letters 'T', 'J' and 'R' in Gothic script for 'Treasurer, John Ryse'. Ryse was also probably responsible for the installation of the lovely linen fold oak panelling which covered the walls. Further panelling was added in the 1620s along with a carved representation of the coat of arms of Charles I under which was the date 1629. Another feature was the large Tudor oak table, probably carved in Devon during the reign of Elizabeth I. Although the top was a Victorian replacement the table itself was regarded as being one of the finest of the period with highly elaborate and intricate bulbous legs and a very ornate freize around the top. After the Oldham Gatehouse was demolished the stone tablet bearing Bishop Oldham's coat of arms was placed above the South Street entrance into the hall. The Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society used the hall for their meetings throughout the 19th century as did the Exeter Choral Association and a number of other groups, including the city council if the Guildhall was being used for trials.

The Baedeker Raids of 1942 made a point of targeting England's most historic cities, and with buildings like the Cathedral, the Hall of the Vicars Choral, Bampfylde House and Bedford Circus, Exeter found itself in the firing line. The hall was almost completely destroyed on the night of 04 May 1942. The photograph above left © Express & Echo shows the ruins of South Street shortly after the air-raid, the remains of the hall highlighted in red.

The destruction of the hall was the coup de grĂ¢ce for the College of the Vicars Choral and completed a process of demolition which had begun nearly a century earlier. After the war the ruins were tidied up and preserved. Only one wall, the arched doorway from Kalendarhay through which the Vicars Choral entered their hall right, and the remains of two of the windows survive. A few fragments of John Ryse's early 16th century fireplace found their way into the Royal Albert Memorial Museum along with the battered remnants of the late-14th century water stoup. In his book 'Exeter Architecture', Hugh Meller wrote that "the remains of the college are now so pathetically meagre that they even fail to merit an explanatory plaque". The ruins of the 14th century hall below sit incongruously amongst the mediocre post-war rebuilding of what was once one of the city's main thoroughfares. Of the College's other buildings, of its gateways, kitchen or residential housing, not a single trace remains.



lookatstls said...

Our house in St Leonard's preserves one odd aspect of the Vicars Choral. The deeds state that we must pay the Vicars Choral half-a-crown each year as "compensation for the loss of amenity" when the land was sold. In the Cathedral Library, there are financial records showing that the Vicars Choral received rent up to the mid 1930s from land and properties in Wonford Road and Matford Road. According to our solicitors, our half-a-crown was the share of a total of two pounds annually from property in the area, but none of the neighbours that I have spoken to have seen such a clause.

wolfpaw said...

Interesting! I wonder when the land involved was first associated with the Vicars Choral? The College was endowed by many people who left them various bits of property and land. I can't remember off the top of my head, but I think the College was officially dissolved in the 1930s, long after the College buildings had gone.

Piers Dudgeon: said...

This is a fascinating post. I believe that not only the vicars choral but the boy choristers of Exeter Cathedral were domiciled in Kalenderhey until 1942 (the bombing) and to my certain knowledge there are buildings there still used for teaching them today. I can remember the workshops for the blind there in the 1950s, when I was a chorister. I think a plaque would definitely be justified.

wolfpaw said...

Piers - I think you're right. The website for the Cathedral School states that "the Evans building on Kalendarhay houses the rooms used by Years 5 and 6 as well as the Science Laboratory and the Geography room." These must be the post-war buildings on the left as you walk down towards South Street? At least the connection with the cathedral retains some sort of historical continuity!

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