Monday 23 January 2012

The Chancellor's House: No. 15, Cathedral Close

Much like the Deanery on the opposite side of the Cathedral Precinct, the former Chancellor's House is squirrelled away behind a high wall left. It's a difficult building to see and it's not open to the public, but it has a very long history and some interesting features remain inside.

According to Lega-Weekes, the chancellorship at Exeter Cathedral was established in 1225 by Bishop Brewer and the first person to hold the title was Henry of Warwick (who died on 28 April 1227). During the late Middle Ages the chancellor's duties revolved around education and ranged from lecturing the other members of the clergy on divinity and Canon law to overseeing the running of the cathedral library.

Although it no longer fulfills that function, the Chancellor's House at Exeter has been on the same site since c1300. It's not known exactly when it was built but Allan and Dyer cite a possible date of between 1281 and 1321. It was constructed in what was then part of the grounds of the Bishop's Palace. As it stands today, the residence consists of two large adjoining ranges of accommodation, a west range and an east range.

The photograph right was taken from the top of the Cathedral's north tower and shows the half-timbered rear of the west range. The photograph top shows the brick facade of the east range. The two ranges are easily distinguishable by their separate hipped roofs. The wooden gate in the wall just visible near the bottom right corner is a reminder that the medieval bishop used a similar gate in a similar location as a shortcut to get from his palace to the north side of the Cathedral Precinct after the Chancellor's House had been constructed c1300. Like many of the other residences in the Cathedral Precinct, the Chancellor's House was probably significantly remodelled in the 15th century. Unfortunately relatively few details seem to be known about its medieval form. If it was anything like the Deanery, the Chantry or the Treasurer's House then it would've consisted of a complex of rooms occupying a large area.

Something of its late medieval layout can perhaps be gleaned from two sources: Hedgeland's early-19th century model of the city and John Coldridge's 1819 map. Both the map and the model show that up until the 1800s there existed another series of ranges at the rear of the surviving west range. These ranges formed a courtyard, a quadrangular arrangement which existed in a number of other high status ecclesiastical residences in Exeter.

The detail from Hedgeland's model left shows the extent of the Chancellor's House as it existed c1800. The two surviving ranges, quite accurately depicted, are highlighted in purple. The buildings which formed the courtyard at the back of the west range are highlighted in red. Allan and Dyer speculated that these courtyard buildings functioned as service rooms providing the Chancellor's House with its kitchen, woodhouse, stables, etc. A reference in 1856 dismissively mentions the property's "appendages of coach-houses, etc." Either way, all of the buildings highlighted in red were demolished between 1819 and 1876 leaving just the two ranges which can still be seen today.

The photograph right shows the north wall of the west range. Just visible near the flagstones is some moulded stone carved from purple volcanic trap. This is actually a 15th century window surround, still in its original position and now buried beneath the modern ground level. Prior to the 17th century the ground level of the Cathedral Close sloped away steeply at this point as it approached the city wall. Lega-Weekes believed that a large area of the eastern portion of the Close was raised up c1600, accounting for the buried window. Another buried window can be seen in the passageway leading to the Law Library behind No. 9 Cathedral Close on the opposite side of the street.

The west range of the former Chancellor's House still contains significant elements of the medieval property. Much of the walling has survived relatively intact, although the arrangement of the windows has been considerably altered. One consequence of the change in ground level means that what were once the medieval ground floor rooms are now in the basement of the current building. One of these rooms still contains remnants of a late medieval framed ceiling with moulded beams and fragments of bosses. Another room upstairs has the moulded jambs of a medieval fireplace. There are probably other features concealed beneath later alterations. Lega-Weekes repeated a legend that the Cathedral's magnificent silver retable, commissioned by Bishop Stapledon c1325, was concealed "somewhere in the masonry of this older part of the house" in order "to preserve it from the spoilers of the Cathedral" during the Reformation. (The retable was presumably discovered and melted down as it no longer exists.)

The photograph left shows the rear of the older west range from the Cathedral Close. The stone wall with the blue gate inset into it is possibly a remnant of one of the now-demolished courtyard ranges shown on Hedgeland's model.

The property was significantly modified by Chancellor Fursman in the mid-18th century. John Fursman was born at Lamerton in Devon in 1678 and became the Chancellor of the Cathedral in 1731, a post he occupied until his death in 1757. Work probably began c1740 and resulted in the house which survives today. The old west range was given its upper timber-framed storey, perhaps replacing the original medieval roof. The windows were altered and presumably much of the internal layout was changed too. Fursman's most significant addition was the east range. The facade of the east range is seven bays wide and made of chequerwork brick. The central three bays project slightly and are surmounted by a steep pediment. Inset into the pediment is an oeuil-de-boeuf window. Not visible from the Cathedral Close itself is a glazed verandah which runs across the face of the entire facade. Inset into the side wall is a hooded doorway, the pediment supported on console brackets. The east range contains a Georgian staircase as well as mid-18th century bolection-moulded panelling of Baltic fir. One mystery is that the side wall of the supposedly 18th century east range appears to be medieval in origin and could itself be a remodelling of an earlier range of which almost nothing remains.

In 2004 a fascinating discovery was made by two archaeologists, John Allan and Martin Dyer. Inset into what is the boundary wall between the Chancellor's House and the Cathedral Close is a large blocked four-centred arch dressed with pieces of moulded volcanic trap above which are the remains of a relieving arch of Heavitree breccia right. The boundary wall was being undermined by the root system of a nearby 100-year-old magnolia tree. Buttresses were built to which tie bars were added, pinning the wall to the buttresses.

During this work a detailed survey of the wall was undertaken and Allan and Dyer found the remains of scarring on the internal face of the wall and either side of the blocked arch. These scars indicate that the arch once led into a covered passageway, with a room on each side, and the presence of the relieving arch suggests that the gatehouse had more than one floor. It therefore appears that this arch is the remarkable long-forgotten remnant of a two-storey medieval gatehouse which gave access into the forecourt of the Chancellor's House. The bottom of the arch is now buried in the ground. It's possible that the medieval house was built around a double quadrangle, with courtyards both to the west and to the east and with the two surviving ranges in the centre.

The building has now been subdivided and it is part of the Exeter Cathedral School. It is a Grade II* listed building of great interest, although it wasn't always regarded with such respect. There were several calls for its demolition in the mid-19th century when it was seen as an impediment to uninterrupted views of the Lady Chapel. A letter sent to the 'Exeter Flying Post' in 1856 stated that the "ugly and unsightly house of Chancellor Harington's ought to come down" along with other "vile unsightly inconvenient houses" so that the Cathedral could be "freed from all incumbrance". In 1861 the British Archaeological Association wondered that "the Dean and Chapter should possess so little taste and public spirit as to allow the precincts of the Cathedral to be clogged with very unsightly buildings, such as the chancellor's house". The Treasurer's House had already come down in 1798, and many houses were demolished in the 1870s on the opposite side of the Cathedral, including much of the Vicars' College, but fortunately the Chancellor's House was spared. The building is shown in the photograph below with the blocked archway visible in the left foreground.


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