EXETER, Devon – Chapel of St Michael, Exeter St Thomas. 

Archaeological work, August 1887

George Fellowes Prynne was overseeing some work at Cowick Barton Mansion, a Tudor building in the St Thomas area of Exeter.  A discovery was made of the remains of a former settlement, including a chapel. George Fellowes Prynne, while overseeing repairs to the mansion, was called in to supervise the dig, as several items of interest and value were found, which had attracted the attention of a crowd, including a thief who stole a coin.  I have two sources of information about this archaeological discovery.  One is a book by Charles Worthy, Esq., who attributes the dedication of this chapel to St Michael, and the other is a newspaper article from the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of 11 August 1887, which attributes the chapel to St Andrew.  Extracts from both accounts follow.

In his book The History of the Suburbs of Exeter (Henry Gray, 1892) Charles Worthy, Esq., described the Parish of St Thomas, in which was the ancient chapel of St Michael.  Below this chapel, on ground sloping towards Exeter, was the old cemetery attached to the chapel –

…in which the inhabitants of the parish had been buried from “time immemorial” up to the dedication of the new church and churchyard in Pyryhay, in 1412.

The existence of this ancient cemetery was known about, but there were conflicting stories, as detailed in Mr. Worthy’s book, but then –

…all reasonable doubts were set at rest in 1887, when, at the top of this cemetery, the foundations of the old Chapel of St. Michael, on the hill – as chapels dedicated to this saint usually stood – were discovered and laid open.  On the ninth of August, 1887, some workmen were taking a drain from Cowick Barton House, across the field, when they lighted upon a stone coffin, the cover coped and ornamented with an early type of cross, known in heraldry as a cross recerceleé, extending the whole length of it.  Upon being opened it was found to contain a skeleton, the general form of which disappeared upon exposure to the air, leaving only a few bones.

The architect engaged in the operations which led to the discovery, and with whom I at once placed myself in communication, Mr. Fellowes Prynne, at once caused a careful examination to be made of the surrounding ground, when he found that his labourers had actually come upon the site of a small ancient ecclesiastical building, and that they had lighted upon a spot which must have been almost the centre of the sanctuary, the floor of which was discovered two feet two inches below the present surface.

The architect considers the date of the coffin to be of the second half of the thirteenth century…

Extracts from the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, on 11 August 1887 reported

the finding of a stone coffin at Cowick Barton, St. Thomas, and the further discoveries that have since been made have almost unquestionably brought to light the site of the old Priory Chapel of St. Andrew, belonging, it is believed, to the Benedictine order…

The excavations were continued under the personal superintendence of Mr. George H. Fellowes Prynne, architect, who is carrying out the alterations, and who is carefully preserving everything of interest which is turned up, and having all human remains carefully preserved with a view to their reinterment in some other place….