Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Imminent Sale of Exeter's Church Plate

Exeter has lost a number of its central medieval parish churches. St George's and St Kerrian's were demolished in the 19th century. Allhallows, St Paul's and St John's were all demolished in the first four decades of the 20th century. St Lawrence on the High Street was badly damaged during the Exeter Blitz of 1942 and subsequently demolished. St Mary Major's was demolished in the 1970s. The churches of St Petrock's, St Mary Steps, St Pancras's, St Olave's, St Stephen's, St Mary Arches's and St Martin's still survive.

All of these buildings, from their ancient foundations through their subsequent development, tell the story of Exeter's history over the last one thousand years. Over the centuries each church accrued collections of plate: chalices, salvers, flagons, communion cups and patens, made of either pewter or silver, often bequeathed by wealthy benefactors to be held by the church in perpetuity. When a church was demolished or destroyed that church's plate frequently found its way into another church where it became part of a new collection. Dwindling post-war congregations means that the churches of St Stephen's, St Petrock's, St Pancras', St Mary Arches and St Olave's now form a single entity known as the Parish of Central Exeter. The PoCE has control of nearly all of the church plate from the medieval parish churches, both from the churches that still survive and those that have disappeared.

The Parish of Central Exeter's collection consists of 116 individual pieces, some of which dates back to the 1570s. For many years much of the collection was displayed at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter right. The collection of plate is currently in a bank vault, allegedly in Glasgow. Mention must also be made of the St Stephen's project, a £1.5 million regeneration of one of Exeter's central churches, managed by the PoCE, which includes such 'necessities' as touch-screen interactive panels. In order to raise money for the project some of the collection is being sold at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood auctioneers in Exeter on 11 July

In February 2012 a spokesman for the Dean and Chapter told a local journalist that the PoCE had asked for permission to sell twelve of the pieces. Permission was granted but the true extent of the sale remains uncertain. Keith Walton, a church warden, told the local paper that "we assessed all of the items that are held and have only put forward those with the least significant historic interest for Exeter". John Allan, one of Exeter's most senior archaeologists, has written an article especially for the catalogue of the planned sale of the silver. In the article he states that, in some cases, all that survives of some of Exeter's oldest churches is their plate. So let's see exactly what is being sold at auction on 11 July.

The first item is a silver communion cup made c1575 by Exeter's most celebrated Elizabethan goldsmith, John Jones. (This item is shown at the top of this post.) Examples of his work are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The cover is engraved with a Tudor rose and was used as a paten. The cup held the consecrated wine and the bread was laid on the paten. It is inscribed: "Entrusted to the Church Wardens of St Petrock by The Parish of St Kerrian, May 1884". St Kerrian's church on North Street is first mentioned in 1194 but was demolished in 1878. This is almost certainly the communion cup and cover that was used in St Kerrian's church for three hundred years, possibly fashioned by John Jones out of a pre-existing medieval chalice. In the auction catalogue, John Allan states that this cup is probably the church's "most important surviving relic".

The second item is another Elizabethan silver communion cup with cover also by John Jones c1575 left. This cup is inscribed "St Paul's, Exon, 1758". Like St Kerrian's, the church of St Paul on Paul Street had ancient origins stretching far back into the city's past. The communion cup was once again perhaps reformed from a medieval chalice. The cup was in use before the church was rebuilt in the 1680s and it survived both the Commonwealth which followed the English Civil War and the demolition of the church in 1937. As in the case of St Kerrian's, this communion cup is the most important surviving remnant of the church along with its parish registers.

Other items relating to St Paul's church are in the planned sale. A pair of George II silver flagons made in London in 1758 and inscribed "St Paul's, Exon, 1758" are also to be sold along with two late 17th century silver patens, made in Exeter by John Dagge and inscribed "St Paul's, Exon, 1758". A silver paten from 1658 that was used in the bombed church of St Lawrence, inscribed "St Lawrence, 1690" is in the auction, shown bottom. Another piece associated with St Lawrence's is a silver flagon with a domed lid, made in London in 1735 and inscribed "The Gift of Mr Robt Dawe to the Church of St Lawrence in Exeter, A.D 1735". Yet another silver flagon, made in London in 1692 and inscribed "St Martin's in Exon" is also going along with two silver flagons made late in the reign of Charles I. They are inscribed with "St Stephen's" and the date 1664, commemorating the year that the church was rebuilt following severe damage during the Commonwealth. What John Allan calls "historically one of the most interesting items in the sale" is a silver flagon that was given to St John's church by Thomas Potter in 1694.

The idea that the two Elizabethan communion cups, particuarly, fall into the category of "least significant historic interest" is risible. They were at the very centre of the liturgy at St Kerrian's and at St Paul's for over sixteen generations and played an integral role in the religious experience of thousands of Exeter's citizens. You don't have to be religious or belong to any particular denomination to realise that these two items are of profound importance to Exeter's heritage. They are history incarnate and that they are now to be sold off is reprehensible. It is no different to the sale of the Elizabethan and Jacobean interiors at No. 229 High Street right in 1930 to William Randolph Hearst, an act which has been widely condemned ever since. It would be like the cathedral selling Leofric's 'Exeter Book' of Anglo-Saxon literature or the city council selling the civic regalia and the sword presented to the city by Henry VII. Both items, like the two communion cups and other pieces of church plate, are inextricably linked to the history of Exeter.

The Parish of Central Exeter may well be the legal owner of the two John Jones cups and the other items but by putting them up for sale it has proven itself to be an unfit custodian of the entire collection. Irrespective of the inclusion of the communion cups, the sale of even one part of the collection throws the future of the entire collection into doubt. Now it has been dipped into once then who is to say that other pieces won't be sold the next time that more money is needed. The PoCE's website refers to "the first auction" taking place on 11 July which implies that more auction sales are imminent. It's ironic that the PoCE used the phrase "St Stephen's church has been here for a thousand years and belongs to us all" as part of its fundraising campaign. A sense of collective ownership could equally be applied to elements of the church plate that is being sold.

A small story about the sale appeared in the Express & Echo in March 2012, which is when the untruth was told concerning the pieces of "least significant historic interest". It's only recently that the presence of the communion cups in the sale has become public knowledge. Clearly there's a real possibility that everything in the collection will eventually be dispersed. If the communion cups of St Paul's and St Kerrian's can be sold then anything can be sold. It is extremely disappointing that attitudes towards Exeter's heritage seem to have changed so little when so much has already been irretrievably lost.


Anonymous said...

What is the matter with those who control our historic artefacts? If they need the money or cannot keep them why not offer them to British Museum of V&A that would better than risking them going abroad . Anywhere as long as they stay in England!
Come to that Whats the matter with Exeter City Council that it doesn't prevent its history being lost ..but then its never cared about that - it would rather invest in glass fronted monstrosities to cater for our materialistic economy than save our heritage -

wolfpaw said...

Something similar happened in Devon late last year. The parish church at Instow sold its John Jones communion cup to fund repairs to the church tower. The cup was purchased by Barnstaple Museum after receiving grants from the V&A and the Art Fund.

I doubt it was a decision that was taken lightly but at Instow the medieval church has survived. At Exeter there is almost nothing left of St Paul's, St Kerrian's, St John's or St Lawrence's, etc. except for their church plate. In my opinion anyway, that increases the historical importance of the surviving pieces by some magnitude. The PoCE seems to have taken the opposite view.

Unknown said...

For the record, it is not true that Tuckers Hall has bought some of the silver. We are negotiating with the owner of one piece, a flagon, which was part of a bequest to St Johns by a Master of the Incorporation of Weavers, Fullers & Shearmen, Thomas Potter, a Fuller. If successful, we plan to display it at Tuckers Hall with information about Potter.

Mike Walker
Heritage Project Manager

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