This church has diced with death so many times that it's remarkable that it even still exists. Much time and effort has gone into renovating it over the last few years by an umbrella group of local charities working under the name of the St Stephen's Project, and the building itself has Grade II* listed status.
It has admittedly been considerably altered and rebuilt since the Middle Ages and it is now perhaps underwhelming but its survival is a testament to determination in the face of often powerful opposition.
Unfortunately the church itself is now surrounded by insipid post-war rebuilding and redevelopment and totally lacks any visual context within a wider historical cityscape. Anyway, of Exeter's many medieval parish churches which once existed inside the walled city only six remain, and this is one of them.
The church dates back to before the Conquest and is mentioned in Domesday in 1086 at which point it was in the possession of William Warelwast, Bishop of Exeter and a nephew of William the Conqueror. Along with the gift of St Stephen's went several houses with high rents which together became known as St Stephen's Fee, a nice little earner for the incumbent bishop and one which Warelwast, at least, believed entitled him to a seat in Parliament. The Saxon church was rebuilt soon after the Conquest, perhaps as early as the 1080s at the same time as the new Norman cathedral was being constructed, and for centuries it was believed that nothing survived of the Norman St Stephen's.
The church was possibly rebuilt again in the 15th century, along with many of Exeter's other parish churches, but after the execution of Charles I and the period of the Interregnum the number of parishes in the city was reduced to just four and St Stephen's, like many others, was auctioned off to the highest bidder. The church, "with cellar below", was sold for £250 to Toby Allen who used the cellar as a stable. The church fell into a severe state of ruin, the tower being partially demolished but, after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the church was reclaimed by the parish and work began on its reconstruction. Jenkins relates the contents of a Will signed by a George Potter Esq. on 04 March 1662 in which Potter bequeaths the then enormous sum of £500 "towards the new building of St Stephen's". Work appears to have been completed by 1664 and that is from when most of the present exterior dates.
The present building has an embattled tower and parapet typical of many of Exeter's parish churches. The tower has an exterior staircase surmounted by a little spire with a weathervane on top. The soft Heavitree breccia that was once used throughout the city has proved to be a problem in the preservation of nearly all the buildings which were constructed from it. At the medieval church of St Mary Arches the solution was to coat the entire facade with concrete.
At St Stephen's, as has been done at nearby St Martin's, the tower has instead been coated with a substance that protects the existing stonework. It's a pity that the salmon-pink colouring is so vivid. A similar problem affects the new render on the parapet which runs along the top of the north wall.
Jenkins visited the church in the early 19th century and described it as a "handsome Gothic building, consisting of a nave, one aisle, a chancel and a long gallery: it is light, roomy, well-seated and kept in good repair". He continues, "the chancel is erected on an arch, which crosses the adjoining lane, called St Stephen's Bow". At some point in its medieval past the church clearly needed to expand but was restricted by the presence of surrounding buildings. Therefore the easiest way to do so was by constructing out above the top of the "adjoining lane", little more than an alleyway known in the 19th century as Stephen Street. Stephen Street ran down the side of the church connecting the High Street with Catherine Street. The arch allowed the continued use of the narrow street while providing St Stephen's with extra floor space. Originally this small room was a side chapel dedicated to St John the Evangelist and was only used as a chancel after the Reformation. This feature, medieval in origin but much-restored after 1942, is still present today above left. An almost identical arch existed at St John's church in Fore Street. Known as St John's Bow it was demolished in 1863 (the rest of St John's followed suit in 1937).
In 1826 St Stephen's underwent a number of radical modifications, and it was during these works that a remarkable discovery was made. As workmen excavated near the eastern end they happened upon the crypt of the Norman church. Two round limestone columns were discovered in situ both just over five feet high, both with decorated capitals as well as some arches from a vaulted ceiling. The columns are Norman and of great historical importance as their survival makes them some of the oldest standing masonry in Exeter. Clearly the crypt was part of the "cellar" mentioned when the church was auctioned off in 1658 and which was then covered over again during the post-Restoration reconstruction. The image above right © Devon County Council shows a watercolour sketch that was done at the time of the crypt's rediscovery in 1826.
The crypt was resealed in the 1820s without further investigation. According to the St Stephen Project website, the crypt has been entered twice since then, once in 1932 and again in 1972. In 1932 it was reported that the crypt was full of coffins but in 1972 only one seems to have been left, dating from the 1600s. The crypt was resealed once again in 1972 but in August 2011 the crypt was once more partially excavated. Archaeologists working at the church uncovered the capitals of the two columns buried in back-filled rubble. There are only two known Saxon crypts in the whole of Devon. One is at Sidbury and the other is under the church of St Stephen on Exeter's High Street. There would've been approximately 20 such columns supporting the crypt's vaulted roof. It's not known what else might survive. Unfortunately fears that a full excavation might jeopardise the structure of the church has resulted in the early-12th century columns being reburied and there are no plans to reveal them again.
Unfortunately the modifications of the 1820s also removed almost all traces of any surviving antiquity still remaining above ground in the interior. Slender neo-Gothic pillars left were added along with some skylights and an octagonal font. The "long gallery" mentioned by Jenkins was removed in 1895. In 1894 the church was threatened with total demolition. A letter from Mr J Newnham, an architect, which appeared in Trewman's 'Exeter Flying Post' on 09 June that year was justifiably angry: "[St Stephen's] destruction would not only be vandalism but sacrilege. It is a historic building. It is a picturesque feature in the High Street. The spot is hallowed ground, and has been occupied by a church for at least 700 years. We have no right to destroy it". The letter continues: "That it is in a delapidated condition is no excuse for its wanton destruction" (although this has been the perennial excuse often used by the city council).
And then, warming to his theme, Newnham launches into an attack on demolition in Exeter generally: "The havoc wrought among the ancient buildings of Exeter during the last century or so has been appalling. We have lost our city and close gates. The treasury has gone, so has the old Grammar school [St John's Hospital School]. The churches of St George and St Kerrian have been destroyed. St John's Bow has ceased to exist. Much of the Castle and College of the Vicars Choral has been swept away...yet Exonians love to call historic Exeter 'that ancient and loyal city!' We have lost so much that we cannot afford to lose any more." If Newnham thought that the 19th century had been destructive then I can only imagine what he would've made of the impact of the 20th century on Exeter's historical cityscape. Anyway, the church was reprieved.
Somehow the church managed to escape complete destruction during the devastating air raid of 04 May 1942. The building itself was moderately damaged. A fire in the tower caused the three bells to fall to the floor, the roof was damaged, the stain-glass windows were all blown out and St Stephen's Bow was completely gutted. But it escaped comparatively lightly as the New Inn, which stood to the immediate left of the church was totally destroyed as was part of Colson's department store to the right. The photograph above right © Express & Echo shows firefighters amongst the smouldering ruins of the High Street with St Stephen's highlighted in red. One of the canted bay windows of No. 229 is just visible to the far left.
St Stephen's was one of the tiny handful of Exeter's historic buildings repaired after 1942. 30 years later, with congregations diminishing, all the Victorian fittings were removed to allow for a more flexible use of the space. Amongst the surviving items of historical interest are some of the wall memorials. There's a memorial to the above-mentioned George Potter who died on 26 November 1662 and who was buried in the church his money had helped to reconstruct. Of particular interest is another wall monument left from the late-17th century commemorating James Rodd of Bedford House. James Rodd was married to the daughter of John Bampfylde of Poltimore House, also the owner of Bampfylde House in Exeter, and therefore provides a link between what were two of the finest Tudor houses the city ever had: Bedford House and Bampfylde House.