Sunday, 17 March 2013

A Brief History of Palace Gate and its Buildings

A small fragment of pre-war central Exeter survives at Palace Gate left. Despite some unfortunate demolitions at the end of the 19th century and in the 1930s, it remains one of the more attractive parts of the city centre. Palace Gate, also called Palace Street, follows a steep incline from South Street up to the west front of Exeter Cathedral, taking in a small area known as Deanery Square or Deanery Place.

The area is full of interest, both historical and architectural. From c1200 Palace Gate was the home to some of Exeter's most prominent medieval churchmen. The Bishop, the Precentor, the Archdeacon of Exeter and the Dean all had large residences at Palace Gate and the impressive townhouse of the Abbots of Tavistock Abbey, later The Bear inn, backed onto it. Sir Walter Raleigh's parents lived in a house "adjoyning the Palace-gate" in the late 16th century and it was here that Raleigh's mother died in 1594. The funeral of his father took place at the nearby church of St Mary Major in 1581. According to a plan devised by Exeter Archaeology, the lower part of Palace Gate, from South Street to what is now the gatehouse to the Bishop's Palace, was in existence by the end of the 9th century.

Based on Hedgeland's great model of Exeter in 1769, detail above: 1 Archdeacon of Exeter's House, 2 Palace Gate, 3 Bishop's Palace Gatehouse, 4 Deanery Place, 5 The Chantry, 6 Bear Gate, 7 The Deanery, 8 Nos. 1 & 2 The Cloisters, 9 Site of St James's Church

The upper part of the street is a slightly later development and perhaps dates to the creation of the office of the Dean by Bishop Brewer in 1225. The Deanery in Palace Gate has certainly been on the same site since 1301 when a visitation described the house as "much improved". The upper part, from Deanery Square to the cathedral, could've developed its present twisting alignment as a result of the cloisters being built in the early 13th century (and rebuilt in the late 14th century), a construction that forced the street out into a curve before returning towards the cathedral.

Anyway, the best place to start is back at South Street. On the left-hand corner of South Street and Palace Gate stood the parish church of St James. It was in existence by c1190 although it had a relatively short lifespan. By 1386 the church had been demolished and the site was vacant, probably a result of the poverty of its parish. The parish was united with that of Holy Trinity, further down South Street towards the South Gate, and little more is heard of it. And then in 1878 Kennaway's wine merchants, located in Palace Gate, decide to extend their cellars.

The excavations were centred on a courtyard and "partly under a house lately in the occupation of Mr Northway". The finds that were unearthed were described in the 'Exeter Flying Post' as "quite a mine of archaeological treasures", including Roman coins, Samian pottery, bones of animals, bronze articles and "no less than eighteen human skeletons, more or less perfect". The bodies had been buried in a "very irregular manner, and no indications of coffins were to be found". It's very possible that the skeletons were indeed associated with the former parish church of St James.

Until 1956 the site of the church was occupied by a timber-framed building from c1650. Unfortunately, despite surviving the Exeter Blitz of 1942, the property was demolished by the City Council for road-widening and an ugly structure was built on the site, above left. Archaeological deposits must've been disturbed when the post-war building was constructed but I've no idea what was found or even if it was recorded. The opposite corner fared little better. It was badly damaged during the Blitz and the remains were cleared, the road widened and an inexcusably poor building arose from the ashes.

Fortunately things improve further up the street. No. 3 Palace Gate, next to the site of the old church, is the former premises of the above-mentioned Kennaway wine merchants. A Grade II listed building, it was established in 1743 and has an early 19th century stucco front. Next door are Nos. 5, 7 & 9 Palace Gate, three handsome Grade II listed red-brick Georgian townhouses from c1800 with string courses, modillion cornices and sash windows above right. There are also attractive coade stone decorations around the arched doorways with sculpted keystones, similar to those found in the surviving townhouses at Southernhay and Colleton Crescent. The interiors have been relatively little altered and still contain some late 18th century panelling and original staircases.

Outside No.9 Palace Gate is a short stone post engraved with the words "Palace Gate Removed 1812" left. A matching post once stood on the opposite side of the road but it has now disappeared. The post commemorates Palace Gate, one of a series of ancient gates that were built to restrict access into the cathedral precinct. The gatehouses were first installed as a security measure at the end of the 13th century following the murder of the cathedral's precentor, Walter Lechlade.

The Palace Gate spanned what was a much narrower street than it appears today and was designed to be wide enough to allow horses and carts to pass beneath it. The gate was refurbished in 1768 but was described as "mean", noteworthy only for its "antiquity" by Jenkins in 1806. The gate's location is depicted on Hedgeland's early 19th century model of Exeter. It was demolished for road-widening in 1812. Close to the gate was an ancient tavern known as the 'Peter Bell', named after the great 'Peter' bell that hangs in the north tower of the cathedral, originally given to the cathedral by Bishop Peter Courtenay in 1484. (Recast in 1676, the 'Peter' bell weighs about four tons.) The 'Peter Bell' inn was pulled down along with the gate.

Opposite the post marking the position of the Palace Gate are two more houses of interest: Nos. 14 and 16 Palace Gate. Both Grade II listed, they stand on the sites of medieval tenements and it's possible that medieval fabric remains within the party walls at basement and first floor level.

No. 16 was probably reconstructed and set back from the road when the Palace Gate was demolished as the gate was formerly attached to the front of the building. No. 14 also dates to the first decades of the 19th century. Slightly further up from Nos. 14 and 16 is the former Archdeacon of Exeter's House. Now Grade I listed, it is medieval in origin and contains "one of the finest 15th century roofs in southwest England" (English Heritage). Adjacent to Archdeacon's House is the 14th century gatehouse to The Bishop's Palace, also Grade I listed above.

A little further up still and on the left is the hulking brick mass of The Chantry left. The medieval buildings, formerly the residence of the cathedral's precentor in the High Middle Ages, were sadly demolished and rebuilt in the 1860s. On the right is a long stretch of Grade II listed medieval walling that forms part of the boundary of the Bishop's Palace grounds.

The street opens out here into Deanery Place which until the 19th century had a much more enclosed appearance than it does today. The demolition of The Chantry in the 1860s, the Bear Gate in 1813, the Bear Inn in the 1880s and a row of late medieval houses on the north side of Bear Street in the 1930s hasn't improved the appearance of the area at all. Opposite the former Chantry, now the Exeter Cathedral School, is Church House, a huge four storey block from c1800 constructed from reused rubble stone. It dominates the area almost as much as the nearby cathedral. The complex rear of the building dates to the mid 17th century when the cloisters were demolished and a serge market built in their place. Church House replaced an almost equally large building that is shown on Braun and Hogenberg's 1587 map of Exeter.

Nos. 1 and 2 Deanery Place are more attractive. Both Grade II listed, No. 2 Deanery Place dates to the end of the 18th century. Built of Heavitree stone it has a stucco facade. An ancient house attached to the left was called Selwood's Cottage until it was demolished in the early 20th century (probably in the 1930s). No. 1 Deanery Place is older than its neighbour. The 18th century facade disguises a late medieval building that possibly retains elements of The Deanery's gatehouse.

The Deanery itself, a Grade II* listed building. It was here that Catherine of Aragon was kept awake by a squeaky weathervane in October 1501 as she journeyed from Plymouth to meet her future husband, Prince Arthur. Unfortunately The Deanery is nearly hidden behind a high rubble wall. Opposite The Deanery, at the end of Palace Gate and the last surviving houses before the cathedral, are Nos. 1and 2 The Cloisters. These date to 1762 and are also Grade II* listed. A lot of recycled medieval stone work can be seen in the walls, especially at No. 2 above right. It's likely that the pale stone work came from the cathedral's late 14th century cloisters.

This brief survey of one small part of Exeter hopefully suggests something of the historical and architectural richness of the city before the onset of the 20th century. The other fragments of Exeter's historical centre e.g. the Cathedral Close, Southernhay, The Quay, The Mint and Queen Street, demonstrate why Exeter was once regarded as perhaps the most picturesque city in southern England.


1 comment:

p6steve said...

Hi, in your last photo of this particular chapter, Deanery place, on the very right hand side above the blue Peugeot, why does the row of houses partially obscure another building, possibly part of the cathedral cloisters behind it. It's as if the wall and part of the window just disappear into the building in front of it! I have a much better photo of you would like to see it.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...