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Gallery: Churches of Devon

by Peter Kessler, 22 December 2019

Exeter Part 2: Churches of Central Exeter

St Martin's Church, Cathedral Yard, Exeter, Devon

St Martin's Church is crammed into the north-eastern corner of Cathedral Close with an east-west lane on its northern flank (to the left here). The St Martin of the dedication was bishop of Tours in the fourth century. The church building's origins are classed as 'ancient', although much of the present building can be dated to the fifteenth century. Its furnishings have been claimed as reflecting the 'low churchmanship' of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

St Martin's Church, Cathedral Yard, Exeter, Devon

The site is so restricted that land had to be borrowed from the cathedral to build the tower using the familiar red volcanic stone. The church itself could only be extended eastwards by building at an angle. It was consecrated in 1065, a year before the Norman conquest of England, one of six chapels and churches within sight of the cathedral (see links). Some of its Anglo-Saxon feature survive, while it also escaped Victorian refurbishment and Second World War bombing.

Chapel of St Peter Minor, Cathedral Yard, Exeter, Devon

The small Chapel of St Peter Minor was located on the north side of Cathedral Yard, roughly twenty metres east of the chapel of SS Simon & Jude (below). Marked on a nineteenth century map of the city's parishes and parochial churches, this was one of the latter, one of two used by the Kalendar Brethren of the later Medieval College of the Vicars Choral (see links). It was disused before 1265 and demolished by 1285. Eagle House now occupies the site.

SS Simon & Jude Chapel, Cathedral Yard, Exeter, Devon

SS Simon & Jude Chapel lay on the eastern side of the path between the High Street and Cathedral Yard, roughly at the corner that is now (2019) occupied by Pizza Express. It is shown on a nineteenth century map of the city's parishes and parochial churches, and this building was one of the latter, a parochial chapel rather than a parish church. It is also mentioned in a mandate of Bishop Marshall (between the years 1194 and 1206). Demolition was probably in the 1800s.

The Church of St Mary Major, Cathedral Yard, Exeter, Devon

The Church of St Mary Major (First Site), sometimes St Mary the More, was located in what is now the tree line at the north-west corner of Cathedral Yard. This was immediately south of the war memorial, aligned with the north-west corner of the cathedral itself, (and shown lower centre in the medieval map here). It pre-dated the cathedral in the form of a monastery with church, founded in the 600s. St Boniface of Mainz was educated here in the 680s.

The Church of St Mary Major, Cathedral Yard, Exeter, Devon

The monastery was refounded about 930 by King Athelstan, and rebuilt in 1018 by Canute after being destroyed by Danes in 1003. In 1050 Edward the Confessor converted it into the first Minster of St Mary & St Peter. The Church of St Mary Minor may have been located alongside it and probably became united (combined, in building terms) in 1285. St Mary Steps (see links) is a less likely candidate (shown is a copper line engraving of the 1700s by J Walker).

The Church of St Mary Major, Cathedral Yard, Exeter, Devon

Work on the present cathedral behind it began in 1112. Now reduced in status (and size), the minster became the parish church of St Mary Major from about 1220. Its most distinctive feature was its enormous western tower which looked like a castle keep. After 1768 this was much reduced in height to avoid collapse. Increasing repairs were required in the 1800s and the ill-considered decision in 1865 was to demolish it in favour of a brand new building (the second site).

The Church of St Mary Major, Cathedral Yard, Exeter, Devon

The site of the Church of St Mary Major (Second Site) is today marked by the steeple cross which used to adorn its tower but which now stands in Cathedral Yard, several metres in front of the cathedral's main doors and perhaps less than twenty metres from the site of the original church buildings. This postcard shows it still standing (bottom left). The decision was taken in 1865 to destroy the old St Mary's (above) rather than undertake expensive restoration work.

The Church of St Mary Major, Cathedral Yard, Exeter, Devon

With that done and very little surviving to be incorporated into its Victorian replacement, the new site was located several metres further away from the cathedral's doors. Built in 1866-1867 it was seemingly regarded as worthy but dull (this postcard shows it slightly obscuring the view of the cathedral). With congregations tumbling, the church was demolished in 1971. Underneath were found the foundations of the original minster and a Roman bath house.

St Michael's Chapel, Exeter, Devon

St Michael's Chapel now lies within the Deanery on the western side of Cathedral Yard, behind the first site for St Mary Major (see above). Bishop Marshal's ordinance lists the chapel. When the residence for the first dean was built in or soon after 1225 the chapel stood beside it. Some time later the deanery was enlarged and the chapel was incorporated into the new building, effectively vanishing from external view and being used by the dean alone.

Five photos on this page by P L Kessler, and three from the History Files collection. Additional information from Discovering Exeter 7: Lost Churches, Exeter Civic Society, 1995, from The History of Exeter, George Oliver (of St Nicholas' Priory, Exeter), and from The City of Exeter in the County of Devon map, Historic Cities Research Project.

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