Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The 'Norman House' in Preston Street

Relatively little seems to have been known about this building. The house once stood on the corner of King Street and Preston Street in Exeter's West Quarter. By the end of the 19th century the whole area was one of Exeter's poorest districts but in the medieval period it was one of the richest, and the house in Preston Street must date to this period. It was built of stone, which automatically indicates that this was a high status building. The walls were constructed of the local Heavitree breccia into which were mixed blocks of purple volcanic trap. The house had been significantly altered over the centuries.

The image left © Devon County Council shows the property in 1915, prior to the building's restoration. An earlier pencil sketch c1830 shows that oriel windows typical of the late 16th or early 17th century had once been fitted below the two cocklofts in the roof, but even they must've been much later additions. Just visible above the lintel of the doorway in the photograph is a fragment of mid-12th century stone work. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter believes that the stone with the carved design was imported from Caen in Normandy. There were other Romanesque fragments incorporated into the building, including part of a Norman arched window and sections of a cornice with a distinctive lozenge design.

It was these fragments which led to the building being known as 'The Norman House', but there was much disagreement about the building's origins, a disagreement that was thrashed out in various antiquarian periodicals in the first two decades of the 20th century. The museum has suggested that the Norman fragments came from the nearby Benedictine Priory of St Nicholas. Many of Exeter's religious houses would've upgraded their buildings throughout the course of the late Middle Ages, discarding the Romanesque designs of the 11th and 12th centuries in favour of the more fashionable Early English or Decorated Gothic styles. Exeter Cathedral did exactly this over a period of 100 years, starting in the 1260s.

The remaining parts of the Priory are all constructed from the local red breccia but limestone, both from France and from nearby Salcombe, was used throughout Exeter for the most important medieval religious buildings. It's possible that the Romanesque fragments came from any one of them. My own bet would be that it comes from the Cathedral itself.

Fortunately a surviving photograph of the roof structure above © Devon County Council gives some clue as to how all these pieces fit together. The building had a a collar-braced roof from c1450 with moulding on the arches. Such roofs were once relatively widespread in 15th century Exeter. Despite the claims of some early-20th century antiquarians, it seems unlikely that the building dated to anything other than the 15th century. The most likely scenario is that it was constructed c1450, perhaps on the site of an earlier building and that it was built for a wealthy merchant or city official.

A cross-passage left ran through the building from north to south, with a 15th century arched doorway at one end and a 14th century doorway at the other (probably recycled from another structure). The collar-braced oak roof which survived until 1942 would've been built at the same time. A number of features, other than the roof, survived internally. One of the ground floor rooms contained a massive stone lintel over a fireplace and two of the rooms had plasterwork ceilings dating to the 16th century, decorated with Tudor roses and fleur-de-lys. There were also the remains of various partitions. At some point, either at the time of its construction or later, the Romanesque fragments were added for decoration.

E.K. Prideaux, who examined the building at the beginning of the 20th century suggested that it was possibly one of the chapels mentioned in the will of Peter de Palerna in 1222 and which had lain unidentified for the next eight centuries. Some of the 28 Exeter chapels mentioned by de Palerna remain unidentified today. And Derek Portman admits that, with the building now gone, the 'Norman House' invites "idle speculation", suggesting that it's possible that the building was only ever a single, very large dwelling with living quarters on one side of the cross-passage and offices on the other.

In 1915 the house was much photographed in what looks like a state of total dereliction and the city authorities must've decided to restore it back to its original state rather than just clearing it away, as happened with all the other dilapidated medieval houses in the area. Whatever the truth, the building survived until May 1942 when one of the gable ends was severely damaged by a high explosive bomb, completely demolishing the end wall right © Express & Echo.

I have no idea why the building wasn't salvaged. As can be seen, the damage, although extensive, was nowhere near enough to warrant total demolition, but this is exactly what happened. I find this sort of thing totally inexplicable. It happened to yet another large building in Chapel Street whose 15th century roof survived relatively undamaged until it too was destroyed in the post-war reconstruction. The site was cleared and today there is no sign that the house ever existed. The only part that remains is some fragments of the Romanesque stone work below which were retrieved and donated to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, where they can still be seen today.


1 comment:

lookatstls said...

When I moved to Exeter, I was given a copy of Ward Lock's Red Guide to Exeter and South-East Devon, dated 1928-29. I suspect that the date applies to the adverts, and that the guidebook pages were not updated very often. This had an entry about the "Norman House" and I was surprised that no recent guidebooks mentioned it. Even the Redcoat guides didn't speak about it as a lost building. Here is the text from that Red Guide.

The Norman House.
(Admission, 6d. Key with Mr. Webber, 145, ForeStreet, a furniture shop immedi¬ately opposite King Street.)
Leaving the Priory and turning out of the Mint a short distance down Fore Street to King Street, on the opposite side of the way, Exeter's newest show place, the Norman House can be inspected. This house, at the corner of King Street and Preston Street, was discovered a year or two ago during clearance work in the west quarter. Although the Norman moulding over the doorway was known, it was only when demolition had begun that the age of the building was recog¬nized. About the fifteenth century and later it was much altered, being made into two houses and floors added. It has been very thoroughly restored, all the additions and partitions being removed to make it as much as possible as it appeared in the twelfth century. It is a rectangular building of stone with two doorways, an open timber roof, a stone cornice carved with a chain or interlaced lozenge pattern, and a fireplace added later. Over the door by which it is entered is part of a Norman arch carved with the chevron and lozenge patterns, with underneath a plain fifteenth¬ century "Tudor" arch, and on the south side is another door arch of earlier date. A moulded plaster ceiling showing the Tudor rose and fleur-de-lis, which came from one of the down¬stairs rooms made during the alterations of the fifteenth or early sixteenth century, is on view. Modern windows in the Tudor style have been inserted.

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