THE CATHEDRAL CHURCH OF SAINT PETER IN EXETER
by David Snell.
This text is an extract from a booklet entitled 'Gargoyles and Gutters', that David has recentlly written.
It has been my incredible privilege to be the only volunteer guide at Exeter Cathedral authorised to take guided tours on the roof. My engineering background has helped secure this honour. There are not many tours each year so one of my duties, in addition to the safety and wellbeing of the visitors, is to keep a look out for possible problems - leaks, faulty lights, crumbling masonry, etc. and report it.
Exeter Cathedral is a place of worship - my place of worship. God inspired, it is the work of human hands and shows all the quirkiness and idiosyncrasies of the human condition. It has many unique features and, while portraying heaven on earth, it still has to function as a building and keep out the wind and the rain. It is the practical way in which the medieval designers dealt with the wind and the rain, rather than the spiritually uplifting, that forms the subject of this book.
The information I relate here has been handed down to me by a succession of Guides, Masons, Virgers and Chapter Clerks, many better informed than me, but some sadly no longer with us. It is passed on to you in good faith.
A Little History:
Before we can look at today’s Cathedral, we need to understand its development. Until 1050 the Bishop of Devon and Cornwall was based at Crediton. Leofric was not only Bishop of the diocese but was also the King’s chaplain. Crediton was a market town but Exeter, thanks to the Romans, was a well protected city with a fine stone wall and river access to the sea. It was not surprising, therefore, when Leofric asked his sovereign, King Edward the Confessor, if he could move his see to Exeter that the King and Queen came in person to instal him in a Saxon church that was adopted to become the first Cathedral. This building was only discovered in 1972 when the Victorian church of St Mary Major was demolished and the site excavated.
Only sixteen years after Leofric’s installation came the Norman invasion. The third Bishop of Exeter was a nephew of William the Conqueror. This gives us some idea of the importance of Exeter and its Cathedral in those days. This nephew, one William Warelwast, was responsible for the building of the Norman Cathedral. The work started around 1114 and included the two massive towers we see today. Those towers were completed around 1160 and had an internal wall. This arrangement of two towers at the crossing is unusual. The central tower of Winchester Cathedral collapsed in 1107, so they may have been wary of building another central tower. The two towers we have greatly enhance the strength of the building as they act as great buttresses. Warelwast’s Cathedral was only about two thirds of the length of what we see today and it finished, probably with a polygonal apse, at roughly where the bishop’s throne stands today.
If you go into the base of the North tower and look at our only remaining Norman window you can get an idea of how gloomy it must have been in those days. While the inner aperture of that window is large, with reveals at about 45°, the openings to the outside are very small. Whether that was for protection or because of the glazing cost we will probably never know. It is, therefore, understandable why, in about 1270, Bishop Bronescombe should desire the Cathedral to be rebuilt in the new Gothic style.
Transformation - The Bishops:
The work to transform the Cathedral into the Gothic took 99 years to complete and it is this work that most interests me. How did the medieval builders construct their new church while adapting it to fit the ground plan of the Norman work and fitting it in between the two towers that were just too huge to demolish?
Before we look at all that, it is worth a brief mention of the bishops that presided over the transformation period. Firstly Walter Bronescombe. When I was first trained as a guide, I was told that Bronescombe had seen Salisbury Cathedral in the new Gothic and wanted to build something even better. To become bishop, one was normally elected by the Dean and Chapter. The name of the ‘elect’ was sent to king and pope and if both were in agreement, the candidate was consecrated bishop. So it was for Bronescombe, but I discovered during my research, that when Bronescombe was elected bishop he was only in Deacon’s orders, he had not yet been ordained as a priest! Further investigation revealed that his family lands were at Branscombe, where you will find Beer Quarry Caves (worth a visit) where much of the stone came from to build the new Cathedral. Read into that what you will, but I believe there is more to this story than just seeing Salisbury Cathedral.
|1. Bishop Bronescombe's effigy|
in the Lady Chapel.
Bronescombe started with the building of the Lady Chapel to the East of the Norman Cathedral. He was buried there and you can still see his magnificent tomb effigy on the South side, complete with designer stubble!  His successor, Peter Quinil (1280-91), was also buried in the Lady Chapel under a huge slab in the centre of the floor. Quinil was followed by Thomas Bitton (1292-1307) who was buried near the present high altar. His remains were discovered when the marble floor was to be laid in the late 18th century. His chalice, patten and ring are kept in the Cathedral Library.
|2. The effigy of Bishop Stapeldon.|
Walter Stapeldon came next. He was not only bishop of Exeter but Lord High Treasurer of England under Edward II. Stapeldon contributed signifi-cantly to the building of the quire and in particular, the reredos of the high altar. Largely because of his associations with Edward II, Stapeldon was murdered in 1326.  He was succeeded by James Berkeley who only lived for barely four months after his consecration.
By this stage, pretty well everything in Europe is in turmoil. We are on the brink of the Hundred Years War. The Cathedral is only half transformed and the King is is prison (in Berkeley Castle) where he is ultimately murdered. There is no Dean and the Pope is in Avignon. It is the Pope, Pope John XXII, who decides that the next Bishop of Exeter will be the papal envoy from the English court - John de Grandisson. Grandisson was Bishop of Exeter from 1327 to 1369. The work of transformation was largely complete at his death and he had been Bishop of Exeter longer than any other, either before or since. He was buried in the tiny chapel almost hidden within the thickness of the image screen at the West front.
Transformation - The Accounts:
The work of transformation started, as I have said before, around 1270. In 1279 the Chapter started to keep proper accounts. Miraculously, the Cathedral archives contain an almost complete set of accounts running from 1279 to 1514. These are known as the Fabric Rolls, not because they are written on fabric (they aren’t, they were written on vellum), but because they are about the fabric of the Cathedral. No other building has such a complete set of accounts from medieval times. The original accounts were written in latin with roman numerals. Fortunately for me, the accounts from 1279 to 1353 were translated into English by the former archivist, Audrey Erskine, and it is largely thanks to her that I can relate to you some of the costs and procedures that may have otherwise been lost to us.
Transformation - Reasons:
There are three main reasons for the transformation to the Gothic design. Two are perhaps obvious, the third, less so. Firstly they wanted a lighter building with bigger windows letting in more of God’s light. Secondly, they probably wanted more room. The extension to the East provided many more Chapels for the saying of masses for the dead. The third reason was the desire to have cloisters adjacent to the South side of the Nave. One normally associates cloisters with a monastic building, but Exeter was not. It is the building of the cloisters that has lead to one of the strangest features of our Cathedral.
A Roof Tour
I will now take you on a tour of the roof. The Gothic rebuild happened from East to West but our tour will go largely from West to East. Like most roof tours, we will start near the door in the South West corner of the Nave. Before we go up, I usually explain that the aisle roof above our heads slopes inwards. This was done so that taller windows could be accommodated in the aisle and in the cloisters, because their roof sloped inwards as well. Although the cloisters have now gone, you can still see the scars on the buttresses where the roof was. The inward sloping roofs appear to be unique to Exeter Cathedral, and they only had the idea after they had already built one bay, so the roof over Bishop Brewer’s door, slopes outwards in the normal fashion.
|3. Door in the SW corner of the nave.|
We enter by the small door in the South West corner of the nave  and go up the worn stone steps. The first door we pass is black and tatty. Its hinges are hanging off. Behind it is a stone wall! In days gone by, it would have taken you out into the gutter of the reversed roof over the cloisters. The next door is a red one that takes you out over the image screen on the West front. This is where the fanfare was sounded by the Royal Marines for the Queen’s Jubilee visit on 2nd May 2002.
|4. The void of the South aisle roof.|
A little further up, still in the same part of the spiral, we arrive at two red doors. Through the first we gain access to the roof void over the aisle. It is low and gloomy but you can make out the gutters that take the rain water from the clerestory side of the roof through lead-lined wooden troughs in V formation to the outside.  Each pair of troughs join at the bottom of the V to go out through a hole in the wall to appear underneath each cloister buttress on the outside .
|.5. The South aisle from the outside.|
A small stairway in this space leads up to the triforium gallery (too dangerous to visit) and also out on to the reversed roof . The second of the two red doors has a window in it that gives a view of the wall that was needed to create the inward sloping roof. It looks as if it has arrow-loops in it, but these are just air vents. It is important that the void is well ventilated to prevent rot in the roof timbers.
|6. Reversed roof over the South aisle.|
Now we move on up through the portion of straight stairway that crosses the aisle and then into the portion of spiral stair that takes us up to the main roof void. At the top of this stair there are three doors. The one on the left goes out onto the uneven way above the Great West Window. The one on the right goes out to the high roof gutter on the South side and the one in the middle, the fire door, is the one we go through.
|7. Looking along the roof void.|
We are now entering the main roof void over the nave. The vault under our feet is the longest piece of uninterrupted Gothic vaulting in the world! While we regroup behind the window above the West front and regain our breath, we can use the time to take in the size and shape of this amazing volume. The central walkway is protected by a newish wooden handrail.  This was installed at the same time as the dry riser, to stop firemen falling down into the depressions if the void was filled with smoke.
|8. Drain in vault depression.|
The dry riser can be used in case of fire to pump great quantities of water. Such water would, of course, collect in the hollows above the tierceron vault, and so drains with protective guards were also installed.  It was the fires at York Minster and Windsor Castle that made the authorities look more closely at insurance and fire protection. Before these measures were put in place, it was possible to look down the length of the vault to the circular window at the East end. Now fire-proof walls with fire doors block the view.
|9. The crown post and braces.|
Over the centuries, the roof timbers have suffered from what is known as ‘racking’. That is, that they have toppled over towards the West, so that most are now 2 metres (6ft 7in) out of upright! We will see the effects of this later in the tour. The racking was caused by the removal of timbers for replacement in the 18th and 19th centuries. The design of the trusses, which can be seen in photo , shows a ‘crown’ post rising from the cross bar of an ‘A’ frame. Attached to the crown post are two braces at right angles to the cross bar. These were the only bracing that could have stopped the toppling once the purlins were removed and were inadequate.
|10. Steel and timber braces.|
At the back of photo  can be seen the timber diagonal bracing that was added in the 18th century and in the foreground is the steel bracing inserted in 1923, that has now halted further movement of the timbers.
The weight of the toppled timbers and their lead covering has been bearing on the West stone gable for hundreds of years and has pushed it out. It is currently about half a metre (19 inches) out of upright. Although the steel trusses had arrested the movement of the timbers, for a while the stone gable continued to go out on its own. This has now been halted by four steel discs fixed to the gable that hold it back onto the timbers. The plumb line in front of the window is fixed not to the timbers, but to the masonry of the gable, in order to detect any further movement in the gable.
|11. The corssing looking East.|
This part of the roof would have been the last to have been completed and would have been in place by 1340. Some dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) has been carried out, but all the end-grain timbers at the top of the wall are from the 18th century. The older, medieval timber is all in the upper parts of the roof and not easily accessible for dating. The oldest sample found so far dates to 1306 and was found at the crossing. 
From here we move on down to the crossing. About half way along we see a walk-way going off to our left. This goes out to the roof over the Minstrel Gallery, but we don’t go out there as it is unsafe. The parapet is very low.
At the crossing there is much to see and understand. Underneath the light patch in the floor , there is the huge crossing boss weighing about 3 tons. (A model of it in fibre-glass can be found in the Quire Aisles.) On the right, you can see the dry riser continuing through the length of the vault.
|12. The corssing looking North.|
If we turn and look left (to the North)  the dry riser, painted orange is apparent and behind it you can just make out the winch that is used to raise and lower one of the two chandeliers that hang in front of the pulpitum screen. The extent at which the roof timbers have toppled over can clearly be seen at the back. The little red door leads to the North tower, but we won’t be going that way just yet.
|13. The corssing looking South.|
Instead, we look in the opposite direction.  The winch on this side is easier to see and we will go through this door, taking care neither to grease our clothes on the winch, nor to bang our head on the low beam.
|14. The lead workshop.|
We are now in the lead workshop . This is over the portion of aisle that passes through the transept. Although there were lead mines in Devon in medieval times, we know from the Fabric Rolls that the lead was bought at St Botulph’s lead fair in Lincolnshire. From the roll for 1301/2 we read “Cost of lead etc. 3½½½ fothers of lead bought at St Botulph’s fair £9 6s 8d, at 53s 4d a fother. Carrying the same by sea 12s 10d. 100 fotmels of lead bought from the bishop’s warden.” I can’t imagine what the Bishop’s Warden was doing with lead! A fother weighs around 19¾cwt and there were 24 fotmels to the fother. The ashes of lead were brought back by sea, washed in the river¾½ Exe and smelted in the furnace. The molten lead was then poured out onto the floor to make sheet lead.
|15. Steps to the ringing chamber.|
The Norman towers were built as complete towers with an inside wall. The wall was thrown down probably between 1326 and 1328 to create a transept. We will now ascend the stairway  that leads from the lead workshop through an old Norman window into the bell ringing chamber .
|16. The bell ringing chamber.|
The South tower contains 14 bells, though no more than 12 are ever rung at a time. All have names. The oldest is called Birdall, after its founder, and was cast in 1616 at a foundry near where St Thomas’ Railway Station is today. The heaviest is Grandisson, which was recast in 1902 at 72½½cwt. All of these bells can turn full circle to be rung in the English fashion, rather than just being swung as in other parts of the world.
|17. The bells.|
These days we are not allowed to take visitors up to see the bells. This is a pity but Health and Safety rules! Grandisson is in the middle of photo , though you get no idea of its size. A thin line may be made out around the bell just above its mouth. At this point the bronze is about 6 inches (15cm) thick! Bell metal is usually 22% tin and 78% copper. The history of the bells is fascinating, but can be found in other publications so is not reproduced here.
The door up to the bells (two floors above) can be seen behind the fan in photo . The box to the right of that houses the connections for the Ellacombe chimes. In the 19th century, the Revd. Ellacombe of Clyst St George, came up with a system of wires and hammers whereby one man could chime all the bells. This is not as loud as turning the bells full circle but it means that one virger can chime the bells for a service from ground level. The connections in this box can be undone to let the hammers fall out of the way so that the bells may be swung and then re-connected once the ringing is complete.
A full peal of 5040 changes takes over 4 hours on these bells. There are only four full peal attempts a year. The bells are rung at 6am on Christmas Day and Easter Day.
|18. The North transept roof void..|
We leave the ringing chamber by retracing our steps, going back through the lead workshop to the crossing and going through the door in the middle of photo , taking care not to bang our heads on the low beams or oil our clothes on the winches as we go past. This takes us into the equivalent space of the lead workshop but on the North side. It is completely different to the lead workshop. The floor has not been filled in and it is possible to see where the blind arcading has been cut through when the wall was thrown down in the 14th century to create the transept.
|19. A redundant water tank.|
On the other side of the steps is a very large redundant water tank awaiting removal. A slightly smaller one was removed from the lead workshop some years ago. In the middle of this space is a fine set of wooden steps. It was not always so. When I first went into the North tower in the late 1970s, it was with some bell ringers. It is worth mentioning at this point that I suffer from vertigo. This does not impair my ability as a guide, it just means that I don’t take anyone anywhere I don’t feel comfortable. When I came to this place with the bell ringers, there were no steps and no door at the top. Instead, a builder’s plank went through the hole and a ladder was lashed to each end. This space was gloomy, but through the hole was in complete darkness. I was told to go up the ladder and walk out across the plank until I could feel the ladder at the other end then get round on to the ladder and go down. They had forgotten to tell me that you go down further than you go up, as you do on the South side. I was terrified and swore that I would never do it again, so you can imagine my joy when I saw these wonderful wooden steps!
|20. Trap doof tor the bell.|
Go carefully up the steps, making sure not to bang your head on yet another low beam and don’t let the fierce spring on the small fire door take you by surprise. This is the North tower. Its unpainted walls look so much more austere than the ringing chamber on the other side and the timbers seem to show up more. At the bottom of the steps you will see the trap door through which bells passed in years gone by.
|21. The redundant weights.|
There is only one bell in this tower now. The Peter Bell. It is two floors above us. Ascending the second set of steps, we come to the platform on which stand the clock striking mechanism. The clock downstairs has a small bell that sounds the quarter hours but the Peter Bell is only struck on the hour. A fine wire rises from the main clock downstairs, through the wooden ceiling to start the mechanism in front of us. This mechanism used to be worked by weights that had to be wound by hand three times a week. The weights can just be made out in the gloom of the pit beside the striking mechanism .
|22. The striking mechanism.|
Today, an electric motor provides the power via an oversized bicycle chain. This striking mechanism dates to the 1880s.  The one it replaced stands at the foot of the North tower and may be seen in photo . In photo  it can be seen that the last time the clock struck, it struck 10, by the position of the claw in the top slot in the disc. The distance between the notches in the brass disc govern how many time the bell is struck. The disc rotates anti-clockwise. Once the striking is over the claw drops back into the next slot on the disc. However, it must not be allowed to stop the mechanism dead as the residual momentum would destroy the mechanism so an air brake is provided at the back. This is formed by two great paddles, one of which is just visible at the back of photo . The paddles are on a ratchet so that as the residual momentum is played out, the ratchet makes a sort of machine-gun sound. In order to strike the Peter bell two floors above, a steel rod attached to the mechanism pulls on a steel cable that works the hammer just under the North tower roof.
|23. Door to the North stairway.|
From here we go through the round topped door into the North tower stairway.  There are several possibilities depending on the weather and the duration of the tour. If the weather is wet we go down to ground level and end the tour, leaving through the door you can see in photo .
|24. The old striking mechanism and|
the door to the North tower stair.
On a fine day we can go on up to the roof. Previously one was able to go into the space halfway up and then on up to see the Peter bell. These days we are not allowed to do it. I am glad because not only was I afraid that a visitor may step back off the platform and go out through the louvres but also, the last time I came down the stairs, I came down on my back because they were slippery. However, this is a very special tour and I can sneak you in to have a peep.
|25. The Peter bell.|
Peter (not Great Peter) now sits in a wooden cage and is struck by two hammers. It presumably was once swung as it has a headstock and gudgeons. The hammer you can see in photo  is the one the virgers use to ring the curfew. This is the rope that goes down through the North tower to ground level. The hammer the striking mechanism uses is round the back. The bell is huge. We don’t know exactly what is weighs but estimates range from 4 to 6 tons. It was last recast in 1676 and bears the inscription: PLEBS PATRIAE PLAVDIT DVM PETRVM PLENIVS AVDIT EX DONO PETRI COVRTENAY EPISCOPI EXON ANNO DOM 1484 RENOVAT EX IMPENSIS DECANI ET CAPITVLI ANNO DOMINI 1676 PER THO PVRDVE.
|26. Peter's mouth.|
When Bishop Peter Courtenay had the bell recast in 1484, the tower was raised by one metre in height to get the bell higher up. That is why the turret decoration on this tower is Tudor, while that of the South tower is original Norman.
|27. The crossing looking South.|
Now we go on up and out on to the roof of the North tower. Hold on to your hat!
The views from the North tower are stunning. It is possible to walk right around the tower and on the South side you can look down on the crossing and see how the movement of the timbers has dragged the crossing out of shape.  It should go straight across.
Here is just a small selection of views. There is no substitute for the real thing. On a really fine day you can see all the way to the Blackdown Hills.
|28. The Royal Clarence Hotel.||29. The Devon and Exeter Institution.|
|30. The new Deanery.||31 The Bishop's Palace.|
Most tours end here and go down the stairway in the North tower and come out of the door shown in photo . As this is a very special tour, we will continue Eastwards. We go back to the crossing and turn left to walk along the remainder of the high vault.
|32. The East gable window.|
At the extreme East end, we come to the round window in the gable.  Beneath us is the Great East Window which contains our finest collection of medieval glass, though it is one of the newer windows in the Cathedral, as it was rebuilt in 1390 in the perpendicular style. Behind this window and the High Altar runs the ambulatory or retrochoir. This has an almost flat roof just below the bottom of the Great East Window.
|33. The retrochoir roof.|
The access to it is down some particularly nasty steps to the turret stairway and then all the way down to the bottom.  Most people are unaware that the Lady Chapel has a West window because they don’t look up as they leave the chapel. It is really quite large.
|34. Niches in St John's Chapel.|
As this light well is completely hemmed in by side chapels, you may wonder, as I did, where the rain water goes. It can’t go straight down so it runs off to the right by the Lady Chapel window and then through a gully that runs through the Chapel of St John the Evangelist! If you look up towards the West in that chapel  you will see two niches with spot lights in them. The niches were not made for spot lights. They are the access to clean the gully beneath them!
The lead on the retrochoir roof has recently been relaid thanks to a grant from English Heritage. The hatch cover in the middle is now covered with copper. It was previously covered with lead.
|35. Great East Window view.|
There is a small panel in the bottom of the Great East Window which may be opened. It gives the most breathtaking view through the cathedral.  The panel itself is the royal coat of arms from 1406 to 1603, and was previously in the Chapter House. 
|36. The royal coat of arms.|
Once everyone has had a look through the opening and taken their photographs, we will close it up and replace the metal grille that protects the glass. We go back up the stairway but only to the first door this time. Coming out through this door, we find ourselves on the roof of the South Quire Aisle. Until the central heating was replaced a few years ago with funding from the ‘Friends’, one had to dodge under a central heating pipe that went past this door. The birds must have been grateful for the heating pipes on the outside!
|37. The Lady Chapel Roof.|
Although it is possible to go back along the aisle roof and out over the chapel of St James, that was bombed in the war, we will continue Eastwards up the little steps on to the Lady Chapel roof. Once we have had a good look around, being careful to only walk on the flat parts of the lead, not on the folds, we will make our way to the few steps on the North side that will take us down to the red turret door visible in photo .
|38. Turret door in St John's Cahpel.|
Through the door and down the stairs, we pass a steep stairway going up. This is very dark and goes up into the low roof void - not much to see in there. This stairway seems wider and lighter than most. It must also have been one of the first of the Gothic stairways to have been built. It eventually brings us out into the chapel of St John the Evangelist which is to the North of the Lady Chapel.
That concludes our tour. I hope you have enjoyed it. I have. I always do. I have been doing roof tours for years, sometimes two a day for Heritage Open Days, but it is still a thrill every time I go up. I am still learning and hopefully always will.
I took most of the photographs in this book, but some were taken by Bob Payne [17,21,22,27,32,35,36] and Keith Barker [25,26], who have kindly given permission for me to use them, because they are better than the ones I took.
© Copyright David Snell, September 2007
Return to the Guides Page