St Stephen’s Church – a brief history
St Stephen’s Church is a Grade II* listed building situated in the very centre of Exeter. It is a modest building whose history and present use are more interesting than its outward appearance would suggest. Excavations show that it stands at the point where the Roman road to London passed through the north-east gate of the legionary fortress and adjacent civil settlement. When the decayed Roman town was re-founded by the order of King Alfred in the 880s this location was now mid-point of a broad market street; and its place almost opposite the medieval guildhall was to fit St Stephen’s for a significant role in the community. In 1086, at the time recorded in the Domesday Book, records show that the building belonged to the bishop of Exeter; and William the Conqueror’s nephew, William Warelwast, believed that it was his possession of the feudal benefice called St Stephen’s ‘fee’ that allowed him and his successors a seat in Parliament.
The only part of the building to survive from this period is the crypt, last revealed during restoration work in 1826 and since covered over. One notable medieval alteration was the addition of an east-end chapel housed in a bow raised over the public pathway. This was called the St John’s Chapel and was approached by a flight of steps through a narrow arch, now blocked. Externally to the south of the bow can be seen a former doorway, the purpose of which is unknown.
During the Commonwealth (1649-1660) the number of churches in Exeter was reduced and St Stephen’s was sold and the crypt used as a stable. The building above fell into disrepair and the tower was partly pulled down. The preservation of the disgraced Charles I’s 1640 coat-of-arms was presumably due to a parishioner hiding it during the Commonwealth period. In 1660 the parish was re-established and George Potter, a merchant and alderman of the city, financed the restoration of the building. Although experiencing an accidental fire during this restoration, the work was finished by 1664. Fashionable box-pews were provided ― their line marked by the panelled dado around the walls. And at the back was built an organ-loft or gallery (reached by stairs in the south-west corner) the sloping floor of which remains over the entrance.
Drawing of crypt entrance made in 1826
Two centuries later the tower again required repairs, and the building was mortgaged for £100 ― possibly a unique event in the history of any church! Now contemporary taste introduced neo-Gothic quatrefoil columns; and because houses then crowded up against the south side making the interior gloomy, quatrefoil skylights (now blocked but their form can be discerned in the ceiling) were inserted. The octagonal neo-Gothic font appears to date from this time. The organ was moved to the south east corner of the church and the removal of the gallery took place a century later. Significant changes have taken place in every century it seems – and the 21st century is likely to be no exception.
St Stephen’s after the 1942 blitz in Exeter city centre
In May 1942 Exeter suffered severely in a series of massive bombing raids. The ‘blitz’ reduced much of Exeter to rubble, but St Stephen’s survived ~ the only building to do so in this part of the city. However, it its stained-glass windows were blown out, a fire in the tower caused the bells to fall and break and the Bow roof was damaged. St Stephen’s was re-opened in 1943 and became the home of congregations from other nearby churches which had not survived the bombing.
In 1972 its heavy Victorian fittings were removed to allow more flexible use. The pews were removed and the Bow made into a meeting-room. A kitchen was introduced in the north–east corner which proved to be very important for the community organisations which were invited to share the building during weekdays. This tradition continues and has developed into a major sharing of the building through the hosting of community activities of various kinds
‘Blitz’ burned roof beams revealed in 2007
Firefighters saving St Stephen’s
at the time of the blitz
In 2003, it was accepted that the roof and tower of St Stephen’s needed major repair. Reports indicated that the war-time damage may have been more severe than first thought and this proved to be the case. Both the tower and the wall facing the High Street had become dangerous structures. The main roof beams were burned through (presumably as a result of a wartime incendiary bomb which had caused a very slow burn for months, if not years) and there was an unsupported gable at the east end which had defied gravity. How the building has stayed up since the 1940’s remains a mystery.