A team of archaeologists excavating in the 900-year-old Exeter Cathedral have discovered a burial crypt containing stone-lined tombs. One of the burial occupants is a medieval VIP: William the Conqueror’s nephew, Bishop William Warelwast, who was found resting at the heart of the sacred site.
Situated in Devon, England, Exeter Cathedral stands among the masterpieces of European medieval architecture. Founded in 1114 AD, this mega-structure of Christian worship took over 70 years to complete. Standing on a classic Gothic design, and constructed with a local red sandstone facade and a spectacular two-towered west front, a range of splendid stained-glass windows and finely carved sculptures are covered with soaring vaulted ceilings.
A report in Devon Live explains that hidden in “a sunken area” beyond the Norman period high altar, a team of archaeologists found a crypt that was back-filled in the 14th century. Within one of the burials the team unearthed the remains of a 13th-century Bishop of Exeter, William Brewer. In another they unearthed the body of the 12th-century Bishop William Warelwast, nephew of William the Conqueror who invaded England in 1066 AD.
Archaeological excavations within the Quire at Exeter Cathedral. ( Exeter Cathedral )
Fighting the Evils of Moisture at Exeter Cathedral
The archaeological excavations are taking place in the Quire as part of the cathedral’s 2020s Development Project, supported by the Valencia Communities Fund via the Landfill Communities Fund . The restoration project, which focuses on the Quire area at the functional center of the holy building, aims to preserve the structure by replacing a 20th-century concrete floor with more traditional building materials.
Now that the crypt has been excavated, a new underfloor heating system and floor will be laid incorporating local Devon stone. It is thought that this will reduce damage caused by trapped moisture, as well as lowering the cathedrals’ carbon footprint by reducing energy requirements.
The excavations at Exeter Cathedral have uncovered a burial crypt containing stone-lined tombs. ( Exeter Cathedral )
A Discovery that Smashes Architectural Traditions
The archaeologists said their new discovery “changes the former belief” which maintained Exeter Cathedral was constructed without an inner crypt. Traditionally, architectural historians assumed that the cathedral lacked a crypt primarily due to its being built on sandy and marshy soil, making it unsuitable for this kind of structure.
The archaeologists also recovered fragments of medieval tiles , as well as further tiles from Victorian pavements that were designed by the 19th-century architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. Thus, the new floor design will be based on Scott’s work, because it was he who originally designed four tiled floors within Exeter Cathedral. Museum staff said Scott’s tile designs become increasingly more elaborate approaching the cathedral’s high altar.
Victorian tiles discovered at Exeter Cathedral. ( Exeter Cathedral )
A more piece of modern history was also retrieved, in the form of pieces from an edition of the Express & Echo newspaper, dated 28 March 1962, that were tucked under the cathedral’s canon treasurer’s seat. Staff at the cathedral said the paper was “most likely left behind during a previous building conservation project in the 1960s.”
Religious Giants Within the Exeter Cathedral Tombs
According to English Cathedrals , the first of the two bodies discovered in the crypt was that of William Brewer (Briwere) the 13th-century Bishop of Exeter, who was a prominent and influential figure in medieval England . Respected for his political acumen, Brewer’s close association with King Henry III enabled him to wield considerable power and influence, advocating for royal interests.
The second tomb belonged to William Warelwast , a distinguished 12th century Bishop, and a nephew of William the Conqueror . Known for his towering intellect and bold leadership qualities, Warelwast was the powerful Bishop of Exeter from 1107 AD until his death in 1137 AD. In this role he contributed significantly to the growth and development of the diocese. Warelwast also played a vital role in the construction and enhancement of Exeter Cathedral.
Having been a nephew of William the Conqueror, Warelwast’s familial ties to the Norman conquest and subsequent rulers of England contribute to his historical significance. His life and actions have provided valuable insights into the political, social and religious dynamics of medieval England. Now that his tomb has been found at the sacred center of Exeter Cathedral , more data about this period of English history will soon be revealed.
Top image: Interior of Exeter Cathedral in England, where the remains of Bishop William Warelwast, nephew of William the Conqueror, were discovered. Source: Seventy4 UK / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie