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Exeter Cathedral - Home of the Largest Bell in England

The noble outline of Exeter Cathedral strikes the eye from most of the approaches to the City. The best nearer view is obtained from the now demolished Broadgate, the principal entrance to the Close. From this point the visitor gains a fine impression of the magnificent West Front and, rising through the trees, in the beautiful "Green" is the massive square north tower, with the north-western side of the Cathedral.

But nowhere can the strong individual exterior be seen to greater advantage than from the garden of the Bishop's Palace, which lies to the south and south-east. Here there is a picturesque view of the Lady Chapel, the tracery of the windows, the flying buttresses supporting the quire and the south tower. The peal of twelve bells, now in the latter, is unrivalled both as regards weight and richness of tone. On a calm summer evening their melodious sounds can be heard for many miles echoing over the placid waters of the Exe and the broad estuary far away to the south. "Great Peter," brought by Bishop Courtenay from Llandaff towards the end of the 15th century, is said to be the largest bell in England.

From Minster to Cathedral

There has been a church in the general region of Exeter Cathedral since the early Saxon period. A monastery is oft quoted as having been established in the city in AD 670, though, in fact, the foundation date is unknown. There was certainly a flourishing community here by the 680s when the attached school was attended by the future St. Boniface, the German evangelist. The Abbot at the time was apparently one, Wulfhard, whose Saxon name confirms the monastery's position within English rather than Celtic territory, despite the early date. Its remains have been excavated before the west front of the present cathedral.

During the early 10th century, King Aethelstan of Wessex refounded the monastery, probably as a minster with a staff of clerics. He was a keen collector of saintly relics and gave a large number to his new foundation. The late Saxon period was a time of constant change for the City of Exeter and its minster church. In AD 968, King Edgar the Peaceable exchanged the clerks for monks but this monastic institution was destroyed by the Danes in 1003 and, when re-established by Canute, sixteen years later, it reverted once more to minster status.

Such ravages, no doubt, led to a massive decline in the wealth of Exeter Minster, yet the buildings remained solid. Thus, in 1050, Bishop Leofric of Crediton saw it as an ideal place to which he might transfer the centre of his Episcopal See. There was a general movement of Saxon Cathedrals into major towns, in line with the Continent, at this time; and the walls of Exeter were, furthermore, better protection than the fields of Crediton.

Leofric converted the minster church into his Cathedral and was personally installed there by King Edward the Confessor and his Queen. Twenty-four canons were instituted help in his Episcopal work and he spent many years rebuilding the monastery's land holdings. Upon his death, he left a large collection of books to the Cathedral Library, several of which survive inlcuding the famous Exeter Book of Anglo-Saxon Poetry.

Upon his death, he left a large collection of books to the Cathedral Library, several of which survive inlcuding the famous Exeter Book of Anglo-Saxon Poetry.

Leofric remained in office after the Norman Conquest but, unlike the new Norman Bishops, he was quite content with his Saxon Cathedral. His successor, though he hailed from across the Channel, was brought up in England and was similarly unmoved toward construction. However, by 1114, Bishop William Warelwast began work on a grand new edifice in the Romanesque architecture then in vogue. It took some nineteen years to complete just the quire but this, at least, meant that the clergy could move in and worship in their new cathedral.