Uncovering the origins of Exeter Cathedral

Recent excavations within the cloister of Exeter Cathedral have unearthed significant structures and artefacts spanning the Roman, medieval, and post-medieval periods, including traces of a legionary fortress.

The project has been carried out by AC Archaeology, led by Simon Hughes and Libby Armstrong. The earliest finds they uncovered reveal glimpses into Exeter’s military role almost 2,000 years ago. They include a street and timber buildings dating to AD 50-75 that are thought to be the remains of a barracks from the legionary fortress that underlies central Exeter including the cathedral site.

Later Roman discoveries include the wall of a townhouse, which was later reused as a foundation for the medieval cloister. The community who built the cathedral were clearly aware of earlier activity on the site, though we cannot know how they would have interpreted the Roman remains, and whether it was practical reasons or any perceived significance that led to the cathedral’s construction over the Roman settlement.

Moving into the post-Roman period, the team also discovered three burials aligned along the route of the Roman street. Thought to date to the 5th-6th century, their orientation beside the road meant that they lie at around 45° to the east–west alignment that might be expected of medieval burials. They were not alone: in the 1970s, excavations had uncovered three more post-Roman inhumations on the same alignment, suggesting that the newly discovered burials may be part of a wider tradition of 5th- and 6th-century interment at the site. The location of the burials was particularly unexpected as they were discovered away from the predicted position of the first church on the site, perhaps suggesting that they come from an earlier phase of occupation or different religious focus.

There were further surprises to come during the investigation, which revealed an earlier date for the cloisters than was previously attested. It was previously thought that the cathedral had been built in the 14th or 15th century; however, the discovery of 13th- and 14th-century burials indicate earlier origins for the building. The inhumations were of quite high-status individuals. This is reflected through the location of their burial in the medieval cloisters, as the majority of the town’s citizens were buried away from the cathedral in the Cathedral Green. The burials from the cloisters were interred with ledger stones too, which were afforded to individuals of higher status.

Illuminating discoveries were made regarding the post-medieval history of the site as well, notably the development of a large cloth market and town houses in the Commonwealth.

Various schemes for new buildings in the cathedral cloisters have been in the planning for more than 200 years. This current project has been around 30 years in the making, and is funded by grants from organisations including the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England. The excavation’s main purpose was to discover the layout of the original medieval cloister, which was lost during the Civil War; the cathedral is now building a replacement cloister walk, the design of which will be informed by the recent discovery of the original medieval foundations. The project’s funding will also support a new interpretation of the cathedral for visitors, alongside a future programme of activities and events.

Above all, the cathedral discoveries reflect the site’s enduring importance across the last 2,000 years. Cathedral Archaeologist John Allan emphasised the significance of both the archaeological findings and the heritage of the buildings that still stand around the site. He pointed out that cathedral visitors can stand in one place and experience architecture from periods reaching back in time to the Norman Conquest. He was also particularly keen to praise the dedicated work of site supervisor Libby Armstrong, project manager Simon Hughes, and AC Archaeology, who have produced such unexpected and fascinating results.

Text: Ceri Pennington with thanks to John Allan
Photo: AC Archaeology Ltd