Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Bishop's Palace, Palace Gate

Constructed on a vast scale during the Middle Ages, by the end of the 15th century the Bishop's Palace at Exeter left would've been one of the most opulent medieval houses in the West of England. Unfortunately, so little of it has survived intact that it must now be regarded as one of the city's greatest lost buildings. 

Abandoned by its owners at the end of the 15th century, it was sold off during the Commonwealth in the mid 17th century, suffered again at the hands of improvers during the 18th century before being almost completely rebuilt by the Victorians in the 1840s and 1870s. 

Today’s much-reduced structure is essentially a product of the 19th century with a few older elements embedded within it, described by Hugh Meller as "sterile fragments of a once great medieval house". From the 11th century until the Reformation, the medieval bishops of Exeter had over twenty high-status domestic residences for their own personal use e.g. at Exeter, Ashburton, Chudleigh and Paignton, Yarcombe, Bishop's Nympton, Bishopsteignton, Bishop's Tawton and Bishop's Clyst. (The property at Bishop's Clyst, known today as Bishop's Court, is a Grade I listed building and contains large amounts of 13th century fabric from the medieval palace. Significant 13th century ruins also exist from the former palaces at Bishopsteignton and Paignton.) 

Not only was the residence at Exeter the largest and most substantial of these numerous properties but it was almost certainly the largest medieval domestic building ever constructed within the perimeter of Exeter’s city walls, dwarfing even such extensive properties as the Deanery, the Chantry and the Treasurer's House. (The largest private house ever built within the walls was probably the post-Reformation Bedford House fashioned out of the dissolved Dominican Friary by Lord John Russell in the mid 16th century.)

The detail from Braun and Hogenberg's map of Exeter right shows the Bishop's Palace in the late 16th century. The gatehouse at Palace Gate is visible as is the Great Courtyard beyond with the wall dividing the courtyard from the bishop's garden. Also shown are the palace's main block with the embattled south porch in the centre, the service rooms to the right of the porch and the great hall to the left.

According to Lega-Weekes there are references to the 'Bishop's Gate' as early as the 12th century and the first phase of the palace was constructed sometime between c1170 and c1240. There is some disagreement about the exact date but according to the Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum the Bishop’s Palace is “the only house still standing in Devon which dates from the Norman period”, although little of the medieval palace actually remains. This early phase of the palace included a great hall, a service wing, a solar for the bishop’s private use, and a chapel. At least by the 14th century the palace grounds were entered through a fortified gatehouse which, although much modified, still stands today at Palace Gate. Beyond the gatehouse was the Great Courtyard surrounded by stables and lodgings for the servants. To the left was a wall, on the other side of which was the bishop’s private gardens. The courtyard and wall are long gone and the palace now stands amongst lawns and shrubs, laid out by the early 18th century and largely unchanged today. It is perhaps the oldest garden in Devon.

The South Porch and Inner Doorway

One of the palace’s few remaining 13th century elements is the monumental inner doorway of the south porch, the main entrance into the palace itself. The inner doorway left dates to c1200 and features late transitional-style zigzag mouldings combined with stiff-leaf capitals on slender shafts either side of the entrance. This massive portal led directly into a wide cross-passage. Inside this passageway, to the right, were three more arched doorways. One doorway led into a buttery and another into a pantry. The middle doorway led into an enormous eastern service range containing a great kitchen with a brewhouse and a bakehouse. Across the other side of the cross-passage, to the left, a doorway led via a wooden screen into the colossal great hall.

The Great Hall

The 13th century great aisled hall of the Bishop's Palace was approximately 75ft long and 42ft wide. It was, I believe, the largest open domestic interior space ever built in medieval Exeter. The palace hall had three bays and two side aisles. These aisles were formed by two rows of wooden arcade posts, four posts in total, which helped to support the roof structure. One of these posts still survives in situ on the ground floor, although reduced in height. Carved from oak, its cross-section is in the form of a quatrefoil. Three more fragments of similar posts exist in the roof space where they were reused during 17th century alterations, one of which shows traces of stiff leaf carving. The survey of 1647 reported that the hall had “a high roof supported with four great pillars of squared timber”. In the context of other buildings in 13th century Devon this hall would’ve been gargantuan. 

The hall was perhaps modelled on slightly earlier examples at Leicester Castle and the Bishop’s Palace at Hereford. The photograph above right shows the eastern end wall of the palace today. The three arched openings at the bottom were probably the doorways that led from the cross-passage into the now-demolished service rooms. Unfortunately, apart from some of the fabric of the walls, and the footprint of the structure itself, little else of the medieval great hall now survives. Two large buttresses in the north wall of the hall range, built from purple volcanic trap. According to Pevsner and Cherry, the buttresses are perhaps 13th century in date and probably reflect the division of the hall into three bays with a window between each buttress.

The Chapel of St Faith

Another surviving feature of the palace is the bishop's chapel. This was on the upper floor of a two-storey building attached to the north-west corner of the great hall. The chapel was dedicated to St Mary by Bishop Brewer c1235 and, according to George Oliver, it was used “to celebrate perpetual obits of the deceased Bishops of Exeter”. 

The oldest surviving parts of the original chapel are the three tall lancet windows in the east wall, rare examples in Exeter of Early English Gothic architecture. The chapel has a timber wagon roof with small, carved bosses, probably installed as part of Bishop Grandisson’s 14th century improvements. The exterior walls have been refaced with Heavitree stone although the bulk of the walling is probably 13th century in date. The early bishops' private chamber, known as the “bishop’s camera”, was close to the chapel and was accessed from the great hall via a spiral staircase in one corner. 

The image above left shows the general layout of the Bishop's Palace as it existed c1250 overlaid onto an aerial view of the palace. Only the chapel and the footprint of the Great Hall still survive from the 13th century. The similar image right shows the enormous extent of the palace following the creation of the new episcopal apartments in the 14th century, outlined in purple. Nothing of these have survived above ground. The projected wall lines on both images are based on plans by John Chanter.

Edward II granted Bishop Peter Quinil a licence to crenellate the palace in 1290 and another licence was issued to Bishop Stapledon in 1322. Almost nothing of the great episcopal apartments of the medieval bishops now survives but by the end of the Middle Ages these private apartments had been massively enlarged. The great hall, the eastern service wing and the chapel retained their early 13th century form but a new two-storey range was built to the west, probably started by Bishop Grandisson c1330. The new west wing contained numerous rooms e.g. the old solar was expanded to form a new open hall for the bishop’s private use and a new parlour was created in the wing’s south-west corner. George Oliver certainly believed that Grandisson was responsible for the new west wing. In 1821 he wrote that "On some of the beams of what appears to have been a spacious hall, [Grandisson's] armorial bearings, and those of Montacutes, were lately discovered."

Something of the decorative splendour of the Grandisson’s improvements can be seen in four surviving oak bosses, three of which are in the Victoria and Albert Museum. These bosses, each about 50cm in diameter, formed part of a ceiling from Grandisson’s own sumptuous parlour in the new west wing. In 1848 the chamber was described as having an oak roof made up of ornamental crossbeams. The bosses would’ve been installed where one beam or rib butted up against another. It has been suggested, by Charles Tracy, that this ceiling was designed by the great medieval architect, Thomas of Witney, in collaboration with the cathedral’s master carpenter. 

One of these bosses, depicting a lioness, is shown above left © Victoria and Albert Museum. It would've originally been painted and gilded. Apart from these four bosses nothing now remains of the ceiling. (Thomas of Witney worked at Exeter Cathedral from c1313 until 1342 and, amongst other things, designed the vast wooden architectural canopy for Bishop Stapledon’s throne, described by Pevsner and Cherry as “the most exquisite piece of woodwork of its date in England and perhaps in Europe”.)

Another medieval bishop who left his mark on the palace was Peter Courtenay, described by Shakespeare in ‘Richard III’ as a “haughty prelate”. One of Courtenay’s additions still survives today in the form of a remarkable stone overmantel, detail right. Described as “exceedingly ostentatious” by Pevsner, it was installed between 1485 and 1486 in the bishop’s parlour in the west wing. This is probably the finest of a series of spectacular late medieval stone fireplaces that were created for various ecclesiastical residences in Exeter between c1450 and c1540 e.g. the John Coombe fireplace place formerly in the Chantry.

Despite experiencing various modifications and some general neglect throughout the16th century, the Bishop’s Palace retained its late medieval form until the middle of the 17th century. In 1647, following the English Civil War, the palace along with all the other property belonging to the Dean and Chapter was confiscated by the Exeter Corporation. In 1650 it was sold to the governors of St John’s Hospital (which stood near to the East Gate on the High Street) for £450 and in 1653 the palace was divided into tenements. Part of it was leased to someone named Ford who used some of the palace buildings as a sugar refinery. (Ford’s lease was for 31 years at £60 a year.) According to Bryan Mawer, the palace is the “oldest surviving sugar refining building in the UK”. During building works in 1821, “many vestiges of the sugar refinery were here discovered” (Oliver).

The engraving left shows the 14th century west wing in 1819. The bishop's parlour is almost adjacent to the Perpendicular window of the chapter house of the cathedral. Next to it, the wall supported by buttresses, is the bishop's private hall. Just visible to the far right is the west corner of what was the great hall, the ground floor remodelled with semi-circular windows. The photo below right shows the same view after the palace was rebuilt in the mid 19th century.

The palace was restored to the Dean and Chapter after the Restoration of 1660 but it had been severely damaged. The buildings were repaired by Bishop Seth Ward between 1662 and 1671 but it was either at this time or during the Commonwealth that the great hall was totally ruined. The timber piers were cut out and the huge open space was divided into four squat floors divided by a wall that ran through the centre of the hall. (These four floors were replaced in the 18th century with just two floors containing rooms with higher ceilings.) Other mid 17th century alterations included the replacing the hall’s medieval roof with the twin gables that can be seen today. But the worst was still to come.

The palace underwent further extensive modifications in the 18th century during the reign of Bishop Keppel. According to Jenkins, writing in 1806, Keppel “expended great sums on the Bishop’s Palace, which was very much out of repair, having been sadly neglected by his predecessors, and also made great additions to it”. Jenkins describes the palace as “though not a regular is a very extensive and commodious house; it has a neat chapel, and several elegant apartments, in one of which is an ancient and curious chimneypiece, embellished with carving in the gothic style” (this is the above-mentioned Courtenay fireplace, a copy of which is at Powderham Castle). 

Unfortunately Keppel had removed the fireplace from its original location in the medieval parlour of the west wing and placed it in one of the new rooms carved out of the hall range. Between 1762 and 1764 Bishop Keppel also converted the early 13th century service wing into chaplain’s apartments and many of the medieval windows were replaced with Georgian sashes.

According to Pevsner and Cherry, "the service rooms were converted into chaplain's apartments in 1762-1764 and demolished in 1812", reducing the size of the medieval palace by about one third. The three arched doorways that once led from the cross-passage into the service rooms became glazed exterior windows. (The removal of the former great kitchen and brewhouse explains why the south porch now appears strangely out of place, stuck on the corner of the former great hall.) 

Despite Pevsner and Cherry's claim, it seems that the service wing was demolished well before 1812. A 1709 map of the city, detail left, shows the Bishop's Palace with an already greatly truncated eastern range George Oliver described the palace in 1821 as “an irregular, mis-shapen, and patched-up building”, and when Henry Phillpotts became Bishop of Exeter in 1830 he preferred not to live in the palace. (The autocratic, deeply conservative Bishop Phillpotts was perhaps the most unpopular bishop ever to hold the post at Exeter. His continued opposition to the 1832 Reform Bill resulted in a mob attacking the palace, his effigy being burned in the city along with Guy Fawkes on November 5th of the same year.) But, according to Oliver, prior to Phillpotts’ arrival the palace had “been suffered to go so much out of repair, as scarcely to be habitable”. Phillpotts built himself a large villa at Bishopstowe near Torquay and spent a lot of his episcopate there. 

Disaster struck between 1846 and 1848 when much of the palace at Exeter was almost completely rebuilt by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The architect was Ewan Christian, who was later to rebuild the city’s medieval Chantry. The palace’s entire west wing, enlarged by Grandisson in the 14th century, was demolished and the medieval parlour and small open hall disappeared completely. Only the chapel was retained. A new, much smaller, neo-Tudor west wing was built in its place using some of the rubble (this is now holds the cathedral’s library and archives). A 14th century octagonal tower was pulled down and re-erected on the south-west corner of the new wing and the south wall of the former great hall was completely rebuilt. A superb three-storey, late medieval bay window, salvaged from the recently demolished house of Thomas Elyot at No. 73 High Street, was cut down, rearranged and inserted into the south wall.

The engraving above right from 1823 shows the South Porch prior to its modification in the 19th century. The lower half, built from purple volcanic trap, is probably 14th century. The upper half, with decorative shields surmounted by mitres, was added in the early 16th century probably by Bishop Oldham. Comparison with the image below illustrates the extent of the Victorian alterations.

The image left is an animated early stereoscopic view of the palace c1870 with the South Tower of the cathedral in the background.

Despite all of this rebuilding/demolition in 1870 the palace was described in the ‘Exeter Flying Post’ as "the gloomiest pile of old stone in the city” and “a very disagreeable Tudor prison”. William Butterfield made further ‘improvements’ to both the palace and its gatehouse in the 1870s for Bishop Temple who was, according to Pevsner and Cherry, “the first bishop to use the palace as a residence since the Middle Ages”. The south porch received an extra storey, complete with battlements and a new oriel window, and the chapel was ‘restored’ with Victorian wall paintings and stained glass. Fortunately the chapel’s medieval wagon roof was left intact but the damage had already been done. The chapel and the footprint of the great aisled hall, along with a small handful of other surviving features, are the only existing remnants of the medieval palace. Most of the historical fabric has been completely destroyed.

In his 1932 book about the palace’s history, John Chanter described it as “a most uncomfortable and badly planned house that man ever conceived”. Further alterations were made in 1952, including the relocation, yet again, of Peter Courtenay’s fireplace. Perhaps surprisingly, the Bishop's Palace is a Grade I listed building and even if it doesn't contain much historical architecture it remains a site of enormous historical interest. The palace grounds can be visited as part of the city’s Red Coat guided tours. The palace itself remains closed to the public.


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