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Exeter Cathedral's Treasures

Welcome to Exeter Cathedral’s gallery of treasures.

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The Exeter Book

The Exeter Book is a 10th-century anthology of poetry in Old English and is of major importance to Exeter Cathedral, the Cathedral Library and English literature itself.

Exeter Dean and Chapter Manuscript 3501, usually known as the Exeter Book, was written down by a single scribe – no doubt a monk –  in about 970. It is one of the oldest items in Exeter Cathedral Library and constitutes the library’s foundation volume. Its great importance lies in its contents and the language in which it is written, since Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) is the oldest form of English, which was starting to die out as early as the 12th century. The vast majority of medieval western manuscripts are written in Latin, so the fact that it is written in English makes it unusual in itself.

Exon Domesday

Exon Domesday contains unique information about politics, society, and the landscape of South-West Britain a thousand years ago. It is important simply as the first record of thousands of settlements. As the only surviving source for Great Domesday Book for anywhere in England, it also provides vital clues to help us understand the workings of that great campaign of pre-modern data collection.

Made possibly in a matter of months in 1086, exactly twenty years after the Norman Conquest, and almost certainly presented to William I in August of that year, Exon Domesday is a remarkable survival. Its geographical reach is much narrower than that of Great Domesday Book and, like Great Domesday Book, it is incomplete, but it records information not retained when Great Domesday Book was produced, e.g. tallies of livestock and labourers, lists, summaries, tax records, and other types of text.

The texts on its 532 parchment leaves describe only the five south-western counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire but even in its surviving incomplete form Exon is 149 folios longer than Great Domesday Book, which records thirty-one shires. The pages of Exon Domesday were smaller, but this basic comparison shows how detailed the original survey was and how much was edited out when Great Domesday was produced. Exon Domesday also preserves the work of two dozen scribes, most of them French-speaking to judge from their script and the manner in which they spell personal and place-names.

The 103 surviving booklets of Exon Domesday may have been brought to Exeter by an incoming Anglo-Norman bishop who had worked as a royal administrator, possibly William Warelwast (1107-37) or Osbern fitz Osbern (1072-1103).

The Foundation Charter

This is the original charter which records the foundation of Exeter Cathedral in 1050. It is a unique survival, for no other document recording the creation of a diocese and the enthronement of its first bishop at so early a date exists in England. It is preserved in the Cathedral Archives.

By this charter King Edward the Confessor ordained that the dioceses of Devon and Cornwall, at the time with their seats at Crediton in Devon and St German’s in Cornwall, should be joined into one diocese with its episcopal see at Exeter. The resulting diocese remained until the creation of the Diocese of Truro in 1876 once more separated Cornwall and Devon in ecclesiastical organisation.

The charter states that the new diocese was made with the approval of Pope Leo IX, on account of attacks by Danish pirates, and on the grounds that Exeter was easier to defend. The king also confirmed property and possessions for the support of the cathedral. Bishop Leofric, who had been bishop of Crediton since 1046, became the first bishop of the new Diocese of Exeter. At the enthronement ceremony, Leofric was led by King Edward and his queen, Edith, and physically enthroned in his new seat (cathedra) in the presence of many prominent ecclesiastics and laymen. This document was laid on the high altar.

The document is written on a skin of parchment, expressed in flowery and elaborate Latin, in the large bold minuscule script typical of the eleventh century. It is set out in the style of a Royal Anglo-Saxon diploma, and so never had a seal, instead relying on authentication by the inclusion of the names of those witnessing it. Amongst the witnesses are the archbishop, several bishops, and many nobles. These nobles included several of Queen Edith’s own family – the Godwins. Her father, Earl Godwin, was present, as were her brothers Sweyn, Tostig, and Harold, who was, briefly in 1066, the last Anglo Saxon king of England.

Medieval Wax 'Votive Offerings'

Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives contain a number of unique books, documents and objects. Among the latter are the remains of moulded ‘votive offerings’ made of hollow beeswax, which were hung around the tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacy (c. 1370-1455) by pilgrims seeking cures through the bishop’s saintly influence. One complete female figure (about 20 cm. high) survives intact. The other pieces are smaller fragments, many of which represent individual limbs, human and animal, according to the part of the body which was afflicted. (Lacy himself suffered from disease in his legs in later life.) There are 1,058 pieces in total, as well as some of the twisted and waxed threads used to hang them.

Lacy became Bishop of Exeter in 1420, having accompanied his friend Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt (1415). Pilgrimage to his tomb in Exeter Cathedral was one of the practices swept away by the reforming zeal of Dean Simon Heynes (d. 1552), and the tomb (still to be seen on the north side of the quire) was defaced. The wax images were rediscovered behind a stone canopy above it during repair work to the cathedral following the bomb damage in 1942. They are of great importance as there are no other survivals of this kind in Great Britain.

3D images have been made of nine of the largest and most complete figures using equipment at the University of Exeter’s Digital Humanities Laboratory. This will allow reproductions to be made, and the public to use the image to explore the marvellously detailed figures using digital technology.

Shakespeare's Second Folio

One of the many surprises in the Cathedral Library is the number of play texts held there, and one of the most notable is a copy of the Second Folio (large-format) printed edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Our copy is not in perfect condition but it has been lovingly repaired, and the portrait of the author on the title-page has been hand-coloured.

The First Folio was published in 1623 ‘according to the true originall copies’, and the Second, incorporating nearly 2,000 alterations, appeared in 1632. The principal publisher was Robert Allot and the printer Thomas Cotes. The five commendatory poems preceding Shakespeare’s text include one by Ben Jonson and the first published poem by John Milton. The book includes all the standard plays apart from Pericles, but it is not a masterpiece of printing – perhaps reflecting the fact that drama was regarded as an inferior literary form – and the page numbering is erratic. Nevertheless, these early publications were important in preserving Shakespeare’s work, and as Jonson says in the eulogy facing Shakespeare’s portrait, the reader should ‘look not on his picture, but his book’.