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Fate of a whistler

27 March 2015

William Whyte enjoys stories from the past of Exeter's churches

The Churches of Medieval Exeter
Nicholas Orme
Impress Books £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

A FEW years after the Norman Conquest, the monks of Battle Abbey founded a priory in Exeter. Never large, it was, none the less, prestigious, acquiring important patrons, substantial landholdings - including a foothold in Ireland; and also amassing popular support, not least because of its charitable activities.

At the Reformation, however, the priory was suppressed; many of its buildings were pulled down, and much of its stone used to repair a bridge near by. Bought by an upwardly mobile Devonian, what was left soon became a comfortable family home. It is now a museum, devoted not to the history of the monastic community, but to the people who benefited from its dispersal.

The Priory of St Nicholas was just one of dozens of churches, chapels, and religious communities founded in medieval Exeter. Many have been lost. Others survived - though their subsequent history has left them similarly unrecognisable. To explore them is to resurrect another world: a world of monks and nuns; of chapels for lepers; and delightful, whimsical details such as the whistling weathercock on the spire of a church, which so irritated Catherine of Aragon that it was taken down in 1501. The rioting women who invaded St Nicholas's to defend it from the Reformers provide another, intriguing sidelight on its history.

Professor Nicholas Orme has been engaged in the process of historical resurrection for the whole of his career. This short study is, as a consequence, like the tip of an enormous iceberg of research. After a scholarly essay on the subject, it offers an invaluable gazetteer to every one of the religious sites of medieval Exeter. It contrasts developments in the city with those of the wider Church, and links Exeter to the world beyond. The book will be of value to anyone interested in Exeter, or church history more broadly.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, and Tutor of St John's College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

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