The role of the precentor at Exeter has been established since at least 1154 when John the Chaunter is recorded as being the first holder of the post. The title comes from the Latin 'praecantare', meaning 'to sing before', and it was the precentor's job to oversee music and liturgy associated with masses held in Exeter Cathedral.
By the end of the 13th century it had evolved into a very significant position and, along with the dean, treasurer and chancellor, was one of the four most senior roles associated with the cathedral's hierarchy. Each of these roles came with a significant property, and the Chantry in Deanery Place was the precentor's residence.The city's most ill-fated precentor was probably William Lechlade, murdered in 1283 as he was returning to the Chantry. His death, in which the dean himself was involved, led to the construction of a large wall dotted with gatehouses around the perimeter of the cathedral precinct. The Chantry stood on a plot of land within this enclosure, bounded by Bear Street to the north and Palace Gate to the south, its front range overlooking a small open area known as Deanery Place. Unfortunately the property was completely demolished in the 1860s and only a handful of images exist which depict the structure prior to its destruction.
The image top shows a detail from Hedgeland's model of Exeter overlaid onto a modern aerial view of Palace Gate. The long building at the top of the image with the red-tiled roof is the Deanery. The quadrangle of the now-demolished cathedral cloisters is to the right. The extent of the Chantry site as depicted by Hedgeland is highlighted in red, separated from the street by a wall. Alas, it seems that Hedgeland's modelling of the buildings is inaccurate in this instance.
An almost contemporary description by Alexander Jenkins in 1806 stated that the Chantry was "a very ancient and roomy house, entirely surrounded by other buildings, and no part of it is to be seen except the entrance, which has a modern frontispiece." Writing after the Chantry had been demolished, Lega-Weekes recorded in 1915 that "I am told that the old mansion of the Precentor was hidden from view by smaller houses, and was entered through a narrow passageway between them". Fortunately enough information about the building is known to say at least something about it. The image above right depicts the precentor's coat of arms: a blue saltire against a silver background with a gold fleur-de-lis in the centre. It was in use by 1496 and was possibly used prior to 1477.
Perhaps the earliest depiction of the Chantry can be found on Hooker's plan of South Street c1560. It shows the Chantry as a sprawling complex of boundary walls, buildings and courtyards entered through a gatehouse in Deanery Place. Beyond the gatehouse is a large three storey building with an embattled parapet left. Other than the gatehouse and the large embatttled structure, it's difficult to know exactly which of the buildings and courtyards shown by Hooker were associated with the Chantry but the plan does give some idea of the significant extent of the residence in the 16th century and its prominence in the overall cityscape.
The very early phases of the building's construction are a mystery but a 17th century document provides a good description of what was probably the Chantry's late medieval form. Like other residences which belonged to the Dean and Chapter, the Chantry was confiscated during the Commonweath which followed the execution of Charles I in 1649. A document surviving from the sale of the Chantry on 23 June 1655 contains the following invaluable information. In 1655 the complex of buildings measured 120ft (37m) from west to east and 92ft (28m) from north to south. In the centre was a courtyard 40ft (12m) square. The gatehouse had one room on the right and two rooms on the left with a further four chambers above. In the courtyard, to the left, were stables with a loft above and a woodhouse. On the right was a porch leading to a "faire hall". The accommodation consisted of at least one hall, two parlours, one kitchen, two butteries and nine chambers with two further chambers in a third storey. Slate roofs covered the buildings and behind the property was a large garden measuring 110ft (34m) by 72ft (22m).
The description almost certainly records the Chantry's medieval plan. It
was a courtyard house constructed around a central quadrangle with a
range of buildings on each side, not dissimilar to other examples that
once existed in the city.
These properties would've been amongst the most opulent domestic buildings in the city, far exceeding the houses of all but the very wealthiest of Exeter's merchants. It's unlikely that secular domestic buildings on the same scale existed within the city walls until after the Reformation and the construction of Bampfylde House and Bedford House in the 16th century. Based on the 1655 dimensions, the medieval Chantry covered an area only slightly smaller than the open ground within the former cloisters of the cathedral. Something of the courtyard arrangement at the Chantry can be seen in John Hooker's 16th century plan. Assuming that it had been remodelled in the 15th century the Chantry was almost certainly constructed from red Heavitree breccia. The exterior of the gatehouse range at least would've looked a little like some of the remaining canons' houses in the Cathedral Close e.g. No. 11 above (the former gatehouse to the Abbot's Lodge, No. 11 was completely rebuilt after almost total destruction in World War II).
Only one single image is known to exist showing anything of the interior of the Chantry prior to its demolition i.e. a photograph from c1868 of the much-modified John Coombe fireplace in the great hall. One other possible image is in the Westcountry Studies Library. Dated to c1840 it is a sketch by the Exeter artist, John Gendall. It is catalogued as 'The Old Hall of the Chantry, now the Law Library' left © Devon County Council. The magnificent medieval hall known as the Law Library is at No. 8 Cathedral Close and has a completely different roof structure to the one in the sketch so clearly it must show a different building. I've been told that the roof shown in the sketch isn't one which is still extant within the city but that the principal and intermediate roof trusses are characteristic of other high-status Exeter medieval roofs. I can find no record of the Chantry ever having been used as a Law Library but it's quite possible that this sketch does indeed show the "faire hall" of Exeter's medieval precentors.
The arch-braced principles with short curved ends and the very distinctive curving wind-braces shown in the sketch remind me of the
15th century timber roof in the guest hall at St Nicholas' Priory right, although the arrangement of the wind-braces is quite different at the priory. To the bottom left of the sketch can be seen a cross-section through the hall showing three doorways that led to the service rooms. Debris on the floor also suggests that the sketch was made at a time when the mystery room was undergoing either demolition or alteration. Either way, the guest hall at the priory gives another small insight into what the medieval Chantry was like.
Following the sale of the Chantry in 1655 it was possibly used as a hospital for soldiers incapacitated during the English Civil War. It was returned to the Dean and Chapter after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. It's difficult to know what state it was in by the end of the 17th century. The nearby Bishop's Palace was severely damaged during the Commonwealth when it was used as a sugar refinery. The only known 19th century illustration of the exterior of the Chantry, by George Townsend in 1867 below left © Devon County Council, shows that the building had undergone major alterations in the 18th or early 19th centuries. The fact that the Chantry was no longer visible from the street in 1806 suggests that some of its ranges and the land on which it stood had been subsumed into later housing.
Townsend's drawing depicts a large, square, three-storey extension with a porch, probably added in the 18th century. Attached to one side is a long, low building which is probably one of the surviving medieval ranges of the main residence, possibly that which contained the great hall. All of these structures are absent from Hedgeland's model. The south tower of the cathedral can be seen in the background to the right.
George Oliver lamented in 1860 that "the residence of the precentors has been so altered and modernised as almost to defy description". That may well have been the case but medieval elements from the earlier building must've remained embedded within the later alterations. It's highly likely that the "faire hall" mentioned in 1655 and possibly sketched by Gendall in the 1840s survived up until its destruction in the 1860s. An article in the 'Exeter Flying Post' from 1871 explicitly stated that the Chantry contained "a fine dining hall with an open roof...which had long since been converted into bedrooms". Clearly the hall had been divided horizontally at some point, as happened at the Deanery, with a first floor inserted but there's no reason to doubt that the medieval roof structure remained largely intact (as also happened at the Deanery).
Unfortunately the entire site was razed to the ground in the 1860s. The only surviving piece of the former Chantry today is the John Coombe fireplace, now in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. The site remained empty for some time before it was occupied by a new Chantry building.
Designed by Ewan Christian, architect for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners from 1851, the property was completed in 1870 and it's hard to imagine a more stolid example of Victorian architecture. The diaper brickwork and stone door and window surrounds are small recompense for the loss of the old building. The modern aerial view right shows the extent of the 1870 Chantry, highlighted in red. The boundary wall is highlighted in purple. It still retains the pronounced curve to the north-east that is recorded both by Hooker in the 16th century and Hedgeland in the early 19th century. The former gardens are now all concrete and car parks.
The lack of a visually impressive front facade is particularly bizarre as each side looks as nondescript as the others. The overall appearance isn't helped by the fire escapes or the wire fencing which sits on top of part of the boundary wall. The demolition of the Chantry was criticised in a letter to the 'Exeter Flying Post' in 1894, in which it was described as one of the "priceless relics of the past" destroyed by often unnecessary rebuilding. There have always been people in Exeter who have lamented the demolition of the city's historical buildings, or the sale of historical artifacts, but such opinions have only rarely altered the outcome. The Chantry is now a locally listed building but its boundary wall has Grade II listed status, the lower courses of purple volcanic trap and sandstone dating back at least to the 18th century. Apart from that, there's nothing of historical interest to be seen above ground. The Chantry is no longer the precentor's house but is used as part of the Exeter Cathedral School.