Tavistock lies about 30 miles west of Exeter, town and city separated by the wild granite upland of the Dartmoor National Park. The abbey at Tavistock was founded in 974 by Ordulf, an Anglo-Saxon Ealdorman of Devon, and received its Royal Charter from King Ethelred II in 981.
Ordulf, reputedly a giant of enormous stature, has some connection with Exeter. A story recounted by William of Malmesbury in the 12th century states how Ordulf broke open the doors of the city's East Gate using just his foot.
Swelled by endowments of land and property across Devon and Cornwall, the abbey grew throughout the Middle Ages to become the wealthiest monastic foundation in the south-west of England. Medieval Exeter was the pre-eminent religious, cultural and economic centre of Devon and Cornwall. Priors and abbots from across the region had residences within the city for their own private use. These included the Abbots of Torre, Hartland, Dunkeswell, Buckfast and Newenham. The Abbots of Tavistock Abbey had property in the city at a very early date. The Domesday Book of 1086 records that the abbey possessed a house in Exeter obtained from lending money to a burgess, one of Exeter's citizens, and receiving the house as a sort of bond or pledge in return.
The image above shows the original entries from the Domesday Book relating to the monastery's Exeter property. "Terra Eccle de Tavestock" refers to the ecclesiastical lands owned by the abbey. Included in the list of lands owned by the abbey is the lower extract. It refers directly to Exeter ("In civitate Exonia") and the house ("una domu") of a burgess. The property generated 8d in customs to the king. Was this Saxo-Norman property the seed from which the opulent townhouse on South Street later flowered? It is impossible to say as its location is unknown but it remains an exciting possibility.
It is certain though that the Abbots of Tavistock did have a townhouse in Exeter and it was located on the corner of Bear Street and South Street. It formed part of a remarkable collection of properties from the Late Middle Ages which clustered around the south side of Exeter Cathedral left.
These included the Deanery, the Bishop's Palace, the Chantry and the Archdeacon of Exeter's House. On the other side of South Street, almost opposite the Abbot of Tavistock's residence, was the townhouse of the Prior of Plympton Priory, later the Black Lions Inn. It's worth remembering that, along with the cathedral itself, there were also over thirty chapels and churches, a Benedictine priory, a Dominican friary and numerous canons' houses, all contained within the 93 acres of the medieval walled city.
It's not known how frequently the abbots stayed at their Exeter townhouse or when it was first used as an inn. By the 16th century at least it was being rented out to citizens of the city. In 1535 "Le Bere Inn alias Bere" situated in "vico Australi" i.e. South Street, was leased by the last abbot, John Peryn, to Edward Bridgeman and his wife, Jane. This Edward Bridgeman was probably the Warden of Exebridge. Only a citizen of significant wealth could've afforded to take on the tenancy of the abbots' residence. Tavistock Abbey was engulfed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries and in 1539 the abbey was surrendered to the king.
The abbey buildings were demolished and its lands scattered, many of them falling into the hands of John Russell, the 1st Earl of Bedford and owner of Bedford House in Exeter. (The eldest son of the Duke of Bedford still holds the title of Marquess of Tavistock.) In 1546 William Abbot was sold the lease of "the Beare Inn at Exeter, late of the monastery of Tavestock" by Henry VIII for £20. (This was presumably the same William Abbot, Sergeant of the Wine Cellar at Hampton Court, who also received the buildings at Hartland Abbey in North Devon.) Abbot sold the premises just two years later to Griffin Ameridith and John Fortescue. In 1566 the city's former mayor, William Bucknam, endowed Grendon's Almshouses in Preston Street with the Bear Inn, and the site remained in the possession of the trustees of the Grendon charity until the 1880s.
Precise details of the abbots' townhouse remain elusive. The most intriguing source for the property's medieval appearance is Alexander Jenkins' description of 1806: "Great part of the old buildings, particularly the Chapel, was standing a few years since; they were built from freestone, of excellent Gothic workmanship, decorated with fretwork panels, mutilated inscriptions, and different sculptures were seen, and over the cornice even with the battlements was a cabossed statue of a Bear, holding a ragged staff between its paws". Another brief description from 1701 mentions that the coat of arms of Tavistock Abbey and its founder were to be seen in painted glass in the great window of the dining room along with the figure of a man standing on a bridge (a reference to the above-mentioned Edward Bridgeman who must've had that particular detail installed in the 1530s).
The crenellated building mentioned by Jenkins probably functioned as a gatehouse with a central passageway leading from South Street into an inner courtyard, around which might've been grouped the dining hall, chapel, private chambers and service rooms. The exact layout is unknown and it's impossible to say what alterations were made to the property once it entered lay ownership in the 16th century. It must've all been built on a lavish scale commensurate with the wealth of the abbey itself and should perhaps be regarded as one of Exeter's most significant medieval houses. The embattled front of the Bear Inn, undoubtedly an impressive sight in its own right, seems to feature on both the 1587 Braun and Hogenberg map of Exeter (based on a plan by John Hooker) and also on Hooker's own 16th century plan of South Street, both left.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the Bear Inn was a focus for Exeter's lucrative woollen cloth trade. The inn's close proximity to the Serge Market on South Street resulted in it becoming a centre of commerce in its own right. According to Hoskins, "thousands of pounds changed hands" at the inn on market days as dealers met within the extensive premises to trade with each other. The Serge Market had been moved to South Street by the late 1600s. When Daniel Defoe visited Exeter in 1727 he described the market as "well worth a Stranger's seeing" and believed it to be the "greatest in England" after the market in Leeds. He was also told that the market could generate up to £100,000 in transactions every week. The Bear Inn was also one of the places in the city where Charles II was proclaimed as King of England following the Restoration in 1660.
Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, the Bear Inn was an important centre for carrier services (the equivalent today would be something like the Royal Mail's Parcelforce, TNT or Fedex). The carrier service involved the transportation of goods rather than people and used enormous 'flying wagons' stacked high with various merchandise. By c1798, one of these carrier companies, headed by Robert Russell, was operating from the Bear Inn. In 1800, having taken out a lease on the premises, he set about rebuilding it. Jenkins reported in 1806 that "This venerable pile of buildings being in a ruinous state, was pulled down, and a dwelling house, offices, etc. erected on the site, by Mr. Robert Russell".
It's difficult to know the exact nature of Russell's alterations but it's clear that significant portions of the old Bear Inn survived the remodelling.
The image right shows the extent of Russell's premises as they appear on the 1876 Ordnance Survey map overlaid onto a modern aerial view of the same area. The premises have been highlighted to show three quite distinct elements. The building highlighted in purple still survives as No. 25 South Street. This was probably the newly-constructed "dwelling house" mentioned by Jenkins and was a product of the c1800 rebuilding. The house was used by Russell as his own private residence. The property is now known as The Presbytery and is associated with the Church of the Sacred Heart. The large area highlighted in red was also part of the early 19th century alterations, although it's possible that bits of the Bear Inn remained embedded within the later construction. These were the business's offices and warehouses. The entrance from South Street was through large arched openings leading into a spacious courtyard around which were grouped warehouses, a granary, stables, blacksmiths' and wheelers' workshops and a counting house. The openings in the front of the building allowed the wagons to enter the premises directly from the street.
The most interesting part of the premises is highlighted in yellow. According to the 1876 map, this long, narrow plot was the 'Abbot's Town House (Tavistock)'. It was certainly a large fragment of it, probably the north range which extended from South Street all the way along the south side of Bear Street as far as the boundary wall of the Chantry in Deanery Place. This was to become the house and/or offices of Russell's Exeter manager and business partner, Robert Thomas. I believe that the entirety of Russell's premises shown on the 1876 OS map retained at least the approximate footprint of the abbot's 15th century townhouse, possibly including the central courtyard. Comparison with cars and vans shown in the aerial photograph gives some indication of its enormous size.
The sketch of 1881 left, which I've crudely coloured, depicts the South Street facades which made up Russell's wagon offices and warehouse. It is the only known image of these structures in existence. The brick building to the far right, Russell's own house, is the still-surviving No. 25 South Street. Next to it are the four arched openings which led into the courtyard behind. This central part probably replaced the embattled gatehouse structure mentioned by Jenkins and depicted in the 16th century by Hooker and Hogenberg.
To the left, coloured yellow and standing on the corner of South Street and Bear Street, is the property labelled as the 'Abbot's Town House' on the 1876 map. It is quite clearly of an earlier date compared with the other buildings. It's difficult to be sure but the side wall at least, disappearing down Bear Street, was almost certainly made of thick stone walling. The single bay, three-storey facade under a hipped roof was probably timber-framed and post-dated the Reformation. According to Lega-Weekes, a forge stood further up Bear Lane at the rear of the Bear Inn where the horses that pulled Russell's wagons were shod. The photograph below right shows the site of the Abbot of Tavistock's townhouse today. Russell's residence at No. 25 South Street is to the right. The rest of the buildings shown in the 1881 sketch are on the site of the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart.
The Bear Inn continued in operation in some form as an inn even after Russell's alterations of c1800 which, according to Jenkins, saw the "venerable pile" demolished (although something of it clearly survived).
An announcement in the 'Exeter Flying Post' dated 03 December 1801 stated that John Holman had taken on the Bear Inn which "is lately fitted up neat and convenient". This version of the inn probably occupied just the building on the corner of Bear Street and South Street, the rest having disappeared under Russell's alterations. (Without a detailed plan of the 17th and 18th century buildings it's impossible to say if all of the abbot's townhouse was used as an inn or whether part of it had been divided to provide private accommodation and a self-contained house.)
Another announcement in the 'Exeter Flying Post' on 10 October 1805 stated that the inn was to be let, "with immediate possession given", and that seems to be the last we hear of the Bear Inn. The lease of the smaller, post-1800 version of the Bear Inn was probably purchased by Russell which is when it became the house of manager Robert Thomas. (Another Bear Inn emerged further up South Street in the 19th century. Also known as the College Kitchen, it was located in the medieval kitchen of the College of the Vicars Choral until it was unfortunately demolished in 1871.)
The detail from Hedgeland's model left shows the approximate extent of the Bear Inn, highlighted in red, prior to Russell's alterations. Unfortunately the form and layout of the individual buildings aren't modelled realistically and there is no sign of Jenkins' "battlements" which Hedgeland would surely have seen for himself.
Russell retired in 1816 but the business continued as a consortium until 1852 when the premises were used by the railway carriers, Messrs Haycock and Gillard. An 1878 directory for Devon shows that the three distinct parts of Russell's premises had been divided into three separate properties. The surviving part of the abbot's townhouse was listed as No. 23 South Street, the dwelling of Misses Louisa and Mary Tole, dressmakers. No. 24 South Street, with the open courtyard behind, was the premises of auctioneer Musgrave Bickford, whose surname can just be made out above the arches on the 1881 drawing. No. 25 South Street, formerly the house of Robert Russell himself, was occupied by Mrs Harriet Norris. All of these properties were still being leased from the Grendon charity over 300 years after the site had first come into the trustees' possession. In the early 1880s the site was purchased from the trustees for a new Roman Catholic church and all of the structures, including the remnants of the abbots' townhouse, were demolished. It was the end of a building which had one of the longest and richest histories of any property in Exeter. The foundation stone for the new church was laid in the Spring of 1883 and, following the completion of the church, the site has remained largely unchanged ever since.
The photograph right shows the view towards Bear Street and what would've been the side wall of the Bear Inn, now replaced with the north wall of the Sacred Heart church.
Why was it called the Bear Inn? It's not known whether the inn lent its name to Bear Street or whether the street, and its precinct gate, lent its name to the Bear Inn. There have been several theories though. Jenkins mentioned a sculpted bear holding a ragged staff that once adorned the battlements, an emblem usually associated with the Earls of Warwick. But this could've easily have been a consequence of the name rather than its origin, added to the front of the inn at any point between the 1400s and 1700s. Lega-Weekes suggested that there might've been a connection between Bear Street and an ancient lych way where coffins placed on biers once stood, although she dismissed the theory on etymological grounds. Michael Fodor traced the name to Bere, a peninsula between the estuaries of the rivers Tamar and Tavy close to the border between Devon and Cornwall. The Abbots of Tavistock "administered the silver mines there for Edward I", but the precise origin of the name remains uncertain.
When the foundations for the tower of the Roman Catholic church were being excavated in 1883 a remarkable find was made at a "considerable depth" below the ground. It was described by antiquarians at the time as "an ancient jug" in the form "of a grotesque animal" and was dated to the 12th century. Made of earthenware, it wasn't a jug at all but an ornamental roof tile or finial of a type once found all across the city. This medieval pottery beast is now in the local museum and a photograph of it appears at the top of this post and left. It would've perched on the apex of a gable looking out across South Street.
According to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, the animal "was made in one of the potteries which used the sands of streams running off Dartmoor, perhaps that at Bridgetown near Totnes." The museum describes the animal as a "creature" but I wonder if it's not supposed to be a bear. Robert Dymond claimed in 1880 that the Bear Inn had been rebuilt in 1481. Is it possible that the bear-like finial sat on the pre-1481 Bear Inn only to find its way into the ground when the property was reconstructed at the end of the 15th century? It would account for the "considerable depth" at which the tile had been found as well as its location close to the street. Could the pottery animal be the origin of the Bear Inn's name? The Chevalier Inn on Fore Street received its name from a similar ridge tile in the form of a knight on horseback. Either way, this pottery animal and a single window alleged to have come from the Bear Inn and inserted into the Roman Catholic church are the only surviving pieces of the Exeter townhouse of the Abbots of Tavistock.