Exeter Cathedral: Looking Good for a 900-Year-Old

For all of its grandeur, Exeter Cathedral tries hard to remember its central mission as a community of God. And, for the most part, it succeeds. We were fortunate to walk in on a recent afternoon just as the hourly tour was starting. The docent was in great spirits and obviously was enthused about sharing this great Gothic cathedral with others.

I’ve been to many of the great (and likely not-so-great) cathedrals in the US and several countries of Western Europe, and Exeter Cathedral holds its own in terms of prominence, beauty and history.

Linebackers (not) Wanted

Started on the foundation of an earlier Norman church, two towers and about 10 feet of the nave walls remain from the earliest building. But atop those humble walls sits the longest continuous medieval stone vault in the world, about the size of an American football field.

Despite its age (started in 1114, with a rebuild in Decorated Gothic style in the 13th and 14th centuries), the cathedral seems much more open and airy than many other cathedrals I’ve visited. Part of the reason may be the bomb that hit the back of the church during World War II, which blew out most of the stained glass windows. Fortunately, the Great East Window was removed and stored in Cornwall during the war, so the 14th century glass remains. You can still see gouges in the columns that resulted from flying debris from the bomb blasts. One of the new windows depicts the bombing and its aftermath.

Parts of the cathedral also retain their original paint. Stone certainly is beautiful in its own right, but paint brings out a warmth that stone can’t match. The stone figures outside the cathedral were once brightly painted, but the docent said there are no plans to recreate those colors in the cathedral.

Whip it Good

We particularly enjoyed the astronomical clock that dates from 1484, when the earth was thought to be the center of the universe. The minute hand was added at the relatively late date of 1760.

Other relevant features of Exeter Cathedral include:

  • A 4,000 pipe organ that was recently refurbished. According to a history of the cathedral, the longest pipe is 36 feet tall.
  • The elephant misericord, one of 50 tie-up seats that ran along the walls of the cathedral so clergy could sit while appearing to remain standing. Seats are a relatively “modern” convenience. These misericords were carved in the 13th century.
  • Proof that idiots exist in every age can be seen in the extensive graffiti on the alabaster effigy of Bishop Edmund stafford, who died in 1419.
  • The 14th century Minstrels’ Gallery features 14 carved angels playing a dozen medieval instruments, including the bagpipes.
  • The windows above the Minstrels’ Gallery were for the dog whipper, who kept order in the nave, which was the social center for the town for centuries. In the illustration the docent showed, the dog whipper was going after a canine who had just peed on one of the columns.

Our nearly hour-long tour flew by, and we were left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Exeter Cathedral’s place in history and in the life of the Anglican church. During our visit, activity ceased within the cathedral as the duty chaplain called for silence and offered a prayer for those within the cathedral and for the larger world.

That simple act reminded everyone that while parts of the cathedral are more than 900 years old, the church remains vibrant today.

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