Explore the Building

Discover some of Exeter Cathedral’s fascinating features.

West Front Image Screen

The West Front Image Screen of Exeter Cathedral is one of the great architectural features of Medieval England. The addition of the image screen around 1340 marked the completion the re‑building of the cathedral in the Gothic style. Work continued on the screen with the additional top tier completed about 1470.

Behind the screen, to the right of the Great West Door is the burial chapel of John Grandisson who died in 1369 after more than 40 years as Bishop of Exeter.

The screen is covered in a wealth of carving, dominated by three rows of statues in niches. At the bottom are angels appearing to support all the figures above. Most of the figures of the middle row represent Kings of Judah.

In the upper row, to right of centre, is a representation of God. On His right hand would have been a seated figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her image was destroyed in the Reformation and, later, mistakenly replaced by King Richard II. Also in the upper row are figures of the Apostles, the Evangelists and Old Testament Prophets.

Dozens of figures also peer out from the battlements above and the whole screen is decorated with plants and animals.

Originally, the image screen was entirely coloured and must have made a convincing vision of heaven.

Vaulting

 

The 14th century stone vault which forms the nave and quire ceiling is one of the glories of Exeter Cathedral. It is the longest continuous medieval stone vault in the world. As there is no central tower, the vault can run all the way from the west wall of the nave to the Great East Window at the far end of the quire, a distance of approximately 96m (315ft).

The radiating ribs look like an avenue of arching palm branches. This style of vaulting is known as ‘tierceron’.

Round bosses which act as keystones lock the ribs of the vault in place. Great corbels support the lower ends of the graceful arches. The bosses and corbels of Exeter Cathedral form one of the most important collections of medieval stone carvings in the country.

Minstrel's Gallery

High up on the north side of the nave is a projecting balcony built in the middle of the 14th century. It is decorated with carved angels playing musical instruments and is known as the Minstrels’ Gallery. The original purpose of this gallery is not known, but it may have been used by musicians or singers.

The medieval instruments being played by the angels include bagpipes, harp, gittern, shawm and portative organ.

A room behind the balcony now houses a section of the cathedral organ which is used to great effect bringing additional sound directly into the centre of the nave.

A modern tradition takes place at Evensong on the afternoon of Christmas Day. During this service, choristers climb the spiral stairs to the upper chamber behind the gallery where they sing carols. Hidden from view, their voices soar out over the congregation below.

Close up images: Diane and Malcolm Walker

Great East Window

Above the pair of arches behind the high altar soars a splendid display of stained glass, the Great East Window. Much of this glass, including the nineteen figures, is medieval.

Nine of the figures date from 1304. Three of them are located at the top of the window. They still have their original faces and, from the lettering on their scrolls, are identified as Abraham, Moses and Isaiah. The six outer figures of the bottom row are also from 1304, but the faces of these saints are not original.

By 1390, the stonework of the original window had become unsafe. A new window was constructed in the perpendicular style and the tracery of this window remains today. Original glass was included with new glass when the new window was glazed in 1391.

The window also contains many coats of arms of bishops, royalty and prominent families, some of which date from 1391.

The medieval glass from this window was among the precious items removed from the Cathedral and stored safely during World War II. Almost all of the glass which remained in the Cathedral was damaged beyond repair during the bombing of Exeter in 1942.

Gallery Images: Diane and Malcolm Walker

Astronomical Clock

Dating from 1484, the large dial of the Exeter Astronomical Clock is a working model of the solar system as it was then understood. The sun and moon circle around the earth at the centre of the dial.

The outermost black disc, decorated with fleur-de-lys, represents the sun. It goes round the dial once every 24 hours, pointing outwards to the time of day. The tail of the fleur-de-lys points to the day in the lunar month on the inner ring. The ball inside the lunar month ring represents the moon with half its surface black and half silver. It rotates on its axis to show the correct phase of the moon.

The fixed golden ball in the centre of the dial represents the earth.

A small bell located behind the clock dial chimes the quarters. On the hour, this is followed by the deep sound of the striking of the huge Peter Bell which hangs high up in the tower above.

The text PEREUNT ET IMPUTANTUR below the main dial translates as ‘The hours pass and are reckoned to our account’.

In the 18th century the small upper dial was added with a single hand to indicate the minutes.

Scott’s Sledging Flag

This flag, which bears the motto ‘Ready, aye ready’ beneath a stag’s head, was used by Scott and his team during the British National Antarctic ‘Discovery’ Expedition of 1901-04.

Sledging flags such as this tended to be brought out for celebrations such as the landing at the South Pole or at Christmas. Indeed, this flag can be seen flying over the expedition party at photographs taken of their Christmas day celebrations in 1902.

It has been here since Scott’s family gave it to the Cathedral in the 1920s. At a meeting of the Dean & Chapter on Saturday 24th July 1920, it is recorded that “They accepted with gratitude an offer by Miss Scott through the Dean to present to the Cathedral the Sledging Flag used by her brother the late Captain W. [sic] F. Scott during his expedition to the South Pole”. At first hanging freely, it was after a period of time mounted in the present glass case in order to protect it.

There is a tablet on the wall which reads:

“Above this tablet hangs the sledge flag carried in his first expedition by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, RN, CVO, of Outlands, Devonport, leader of the National Ant-Arctic Expeditions of 1900-4, 1910-13, who with four companions perished from hunger and cold after reaching the South Pole in 1912 and is here commemorated as being not the least illustrious of those men of Devon who brought fame to their country and rendered service to the world. Their name liveth for evermore.”

Norman Towers

Either side of the Cathedral, about half way along the north and south sides, there are two square towers. They were built between 1114 and 1133 as part of the Norman cathedral.

During the construction of the present cathedral, these towers were incorporated in the new building as transepts. This was a daring feat of engineering. A large portion of the south wall of the old north tower was removed and a massive supporting arch inserted. The same work was carried out on the north wall of the south tower. Several lower floors were removed from the towers and wooden ceilings inserted more than 20m (68ft) above the transept floors. This work was completed by 1326.

High up in the north tower is the ancient Peter Bell, which can be heard striking every hour, controlled by the clock mechanism below.

The upper levels of the south tower contain the ringing chamber and the bell chamber. The 14 bells housed here form the second heaviest peal in the world.

Exterior images of the North and South Towers: Diane and Malcolm Walker

Martyr's Pulpit

The pulpit in the Nave was erected in memory of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson who was ordained in Exeter Cathedral.

In 1855 Patteson left Britain for New Zealand and the Pacific islands of Melanesia. He devoted the rest of his life to the peoples of Melanesia, learnt more than 20 of their languages, and became their first Bishop. Sadly, he was murdered on the island of Nukapu in the Solomon Islands in 1871. The central pulpit panel depicts three islanders placing Bishop Patteson’s body in a canoe to be returned to his ship.

Another pulpit panel shows St Boniface setting sail from Britain to begin his missionary work in Europe. Boniface was born at Crediton, near Exeter, towards the ends of the 8th century. He was murdered in 754 at Dokkum, in Friesland. Known as the ‘Apostle of the Germans’, his burial place and shrine is in Fulda Cathedral, in Germany.

A third panel depicts the beheading of St Alban, the first British Christian martyr, around 300AD during the Roman occupation of Britain.

The figures of three early Christian martyrs are also carved on this pulpit: St Stephen, St John the Baptist and St Paul.

The detailed carvings give the impression that this pulpit is made of wood when it is actually made of a very evenly grained sandstone. It was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 1870s.

The Chapter House

 

The Chapter House was originally built to provide a large and dignified administrative centre in which the medieval Dean and Chapter could meet at regular intervals to transact their most important business.

It was built by about 1227 and contains the grave of Serlo, the first Dean of Exeter (who was also the Archdeacon of Exeter) who died in 1231. This appointment brought Exeter in line with the popular administrative solution for secular cathedrals of the time with a Dean to preside, a Precentor for music, a Treasurer to guard the movable property (including the bells) and to make sure of lights and security, and a Chancellor to take responsibility for the 24 prebends (for livings). Others posts were usually held by the Archdeacons and even by the Bishop himself.

The ‘Canonici Prebendati’ met regularly on Saturdays and their decisions were recorded in Chapter Acts, many of which still survive in the Cathedral Archive. These acts show that the Chapter House was in continual use, except during the Interregnum of the Commonwealth period (1646-1660).

The building was burnt down at the beginning of the fifteenth century and rebuilt in about 1412. In 1820 it was shelved to accommodate the Library but this structure was removed before the end of the century. 

St James's Chapel

In the early hours of the morning of the 4th May 1942, Exeter suffered a severe bombing attack destroying large areas of the historic heart of the city. During this raid, the Cathedral received a direct hit on St James’s Chapel which was reduced to rubble.

After the end of World War II, the chapel was rebuilt. Its design is a reconstruction of the ancient chapel but with some 20th century details. The carvings include a portrait of George Down with his stonemason’s tools. He was the Master Mason when the chapel was rebuilt.  Nearby is the carved head of a rugby player commemorating a rugby match between Exeter Rugby Club and Oxford University. This match was played in 1951 to raise funds for the restoration of the post-war Cathedral.

In November 2017 a memorial was unveiled in this chapel commemorating Polish airmen who defended Exeter during the war. Serving under the command of the RAF, the Polish 307 Squadron were heavily outnumbered night-fighters. During the main night of the Exeter Blitz they prevented four enemy bombers from releasing their load of bombs on the city below, saving it from potential destruction and preventing greater loss of life. 21 members of 307 Squadron were killed whilst they were stationed at Exeter.

Bishop's Throne

The magnificent Bishop’s Throne is one of the greatest treasures of medieval woodwork in Europe. It was made in the early 14th century using local Devon oak and is 18m (59ft) tall. The cathedral records contain details about the felling of the trees and the preparation of the timber.

Small traces of original white and gold paint were found when the later layers of paint were removed in the 19th century.

Many bishops have sat in this ceremonial seat and on one occasion it was used by a future King of England. After landing in Brixham, Prince William of Orange entered Exeter on 9 November 1688. He came to the cathedral where he occupied the Bishop’s Throne while his declaration of peaceful intent was read. Less than two months later William and his wife Mary were declared joint rulers as King William III and Queen Mary II.

Fortunately the Bishop’s Throne was dismantled and removed from the cathedral during World War II. If this had not happened, the woodwork would have been seriously damaged by the bomb which fell on the Cathedral, just a few feet away from the site of the throne.

The Exeter Rondels

In July 1989 the Exeter Rondels were unveiled at Exeter Cathedral. Combining the artistry of a leading expert in embroidery design (Marjorie Dyer), linked to the needlework skills of over seventy volunteers from the Cathedral’s own Company of Tapisers, the Exeter Rondels took many years and thousands of hours to complete.

The Exeter Rondels take the form of a series of embroidered cushions, over seventy metres in length, lining the sides of the nave in Exeter Cathedral. Greater in length than the famous tapestry at Bayeux, the Exeter Rondels are a magnificent achievement, stunning in the brilliance of their design and conception.

The Exeter Rondels form a chronological story of national, local and church history. Visitors walking through the nave will follow the main events of the past, told through the words and pictures interwoven on the Rondels. Every monarch is recorded along with the Deans and Bishops of Exeter (up until 1989) together with their dates. Battles, coronations and great events of British history are all revealed through a richly-coloured tapestry of over 14 million individual stitches.