Dual identities of some Exeter Cathedral carvings


I present evidence that Exeter Cathedral contains near-contemporary carvings of the Norman Kings and Queens of England, from William the Conqueror onwards. These are probably the last surviving accurate representations of them, and the article includes high-definition photos of each.


In his final days, as he lay ill in late 1065, King Edward the Confessor had a strange dream. William of Malmesbury, [WillMalm] writing in the early 1120s recounted it as follows:

.. he had a vision in which God cursed the English kingdom for its sinfulness. Edward asked when there would be a remission of God’s anger and received the reply that the troubles would continue until a green tree, which has been cut down, is restored to its trunk and begins once more to bear fruit. We now experience the truth of this prophecy, as England today is made the home of foreigners ..

By the 1160s, another chronicler, Ailred of Rievaulx, was more optimistic. In his account of rhe Confessor’s life [Ailred], the severed green top had been restored to its trunk by the marriage of Henry I to Matilda, who was descended from the English royal family, and had borne fruit in Henry II:

The tree signifies the kingdom of the English, adorned in glory, fertile in riches and delights .. He [Henry II], rising as the light of morning, is like a cornerstone joining the two peoples. Now certainly England has a king of the English race!

Looking at a sequence of corbel adornments in Exeter Cathedral, it is clear the stalks (despite being black rather than green, having been repainted in modern times) are intended to illustrate this dream and its happy conclusion:

Foliage adornments, in order of succession

Beneath each adornment is a carved head, and assuming the carved head under the final adornment with the flowers and reconstituted thicker trunk is of Henry II, it is a short leap to conclude that the preceding carvings are of the preceding Norman and Angevin sovereigns:

In this bird’s eye view, the “(t)” at the west end is an inconspicuous vertical bunch of dark stalks, a tree of sorts, tucked away in the roof space and rising up next to the west window. It’s was too dark to see clearly let alone photograph. But given its position, and the above interpretation, clearly this tree was meant to represent the English race, prospering and minding its own business before the Conquest!

Photos of every carving appear below throughout the post, and to start with here is one of carving (2n)

Carving (2n)

This illustrates the first of two apparent problems with our theory: If (2n) is a carving of William II (“Rufus”) then why is he wearing a mitre? It is something of an understatement to say he wasn’t very devout (apart from a short time when he was seriously ill!). But even if he had been, a mitre would be out of place above his carving.

The other problem is that carvings (4n) and (5n) (illustrated below) do not have the same type of foliage adornment as the others. Instead they are each surmounted by a “sentry box” enclosure (officially called a “niche”), each containing a patron saint of the cathedral, St Mary for (4n) and St Peter for (5n).

Scholarly books of the 19th and early 20th century, such as [Prideaux] (which is pretty much the standard work on the carvings of Exeter Cathedral), claim the identities are as follows:

Modern guide books, and (dare I say) cathedral guides and staff, are no help in deciding the matter because they apparently do not claim to know any identification. It seems even the second lot of identities, assumed by Prideaux and other authors in relatively modern times, have been largely forgotten.

So who is right? Well, amazingly, I think we both are! At various times and places, the carvings have represented both lots of these people, and in Exeter have now reverted to their original Norman identities.

Before expanding on this, here is a splendid Wikipedia photo of the cathedral, looking eastward along the nave. This image shows the corbels on either side in their overall setting:

Exeter Cathedral nave, at west door looking east towards altar

Like many medievil cathedrals, Exeter as we see it today was built (at least) twice. The first Norman cathedral at Exeter, built starting in the early 1100s, was largely replaced from the early 1300s by Bishop de Stapledon. The new cathedral was completed by Bishop de Grandisson in the second half of the 1300s.

(I mention de Stapledon in passing only because he deserves much of the credit for the new building, having provided most of the funds, and for founding Exeter College in Oxford!)

However, in the final phase of the work in the early 1350s, when the barrel roof and supporting arches were due to be installed, de Grandisson had a big problem: Following the Black Death of only a year or two earlier, skilled stone carvers (whether English or foreign) must have been impossible to find. So how would he acquire decent corbel carvings to complete the project?

Well as luck would have it, Westminster Abbey was also being rebuilt, over much the same timescale. Although this work was started in 1245 at the behest of Henry III (a big fan of Edward the Confessor), a frequent lack of funds, and the need to keep part of a working church at all times, meant the work, on the nave for example, extended well into the 1300s (and in fact way beyond – The two western towers were completed only in the 18th century!)

I once read that contemporary carvings of Norman and Angevin kings had been in the Confessor’s old Westminster Abbey, where after all they had been crowned. Irritatingly though, I can’t now find a citation for this. So the reader will have to take my word for it!

If the new layout for the Abbey had no place for these carvings, or larger replacements were planned, then de Grandisson could perhaps salvage and reuse them in Exeter, re-identified as a (then) contemporary lot of worthies who he was keen to impress. After all, the Black Prince visited Exeter a couple of times, as did other members of the Royal Family at that time.

Alteratively, even if the Abbey rebuilders would have preferred to keep and reuse the carvings, perhaps they were short of funds (again!) and de Grandisson with a sufficient payment was able to entice them into parting with the carvings.

But how could he plausibly “re-identify” them? I suggest it would not have been hard for even a young and inexperienced stone carver to apply a skim layer of plaster as necessary to each and repaint them, with a droopy moustache on the Black Prince for example.

Luckily, it appears that either de Grandisson chose not to allow parts of them to be chipped away, to improve their intended resemblances where necessary, or this was prohibited as a condition for their release from the Crown’s possession.

Whether or not he was also constrained to preserve their order, he evidently did and at the same time ingeniously managed to assign the alternate identities that would allow Edward III and his wife to occupy the most prestigious positions closest to the altar.

We now briefly consider each carving, comparing their features with contemporary descriptions and the few other surviving depictions, before ending with some short speculation on why and how de Grandisson’s alternate identities now seem to have reverted to the originals.

(1n) – William I / The Black Prince

Here are three photos I took of carving (1n)

Corbel carving (1n), looking north west
Corbel carving (1n), looking north east
Corbel carving (1n), looking north

and here, from [Ducarel], is an engraving of a wall painting (now sadly lost) of William I and his wife Matilda, formerly in St Stephen’s Abbey, Caen, in which the face of William shares the following features with the preceding images: straight nose, and a lantern jaw:

Engraved copy of wall painting of William I and wife Matilda in St Stephens Abbey, Caen

Despite the crudity of coin manufacture at the time, it seems to me there is even a hint of these common features in some of the best contemporary coins of William I, such as:

William I coin, with front facing image
William I coin, side facing

(2n) – William II / John de Grandisson

Here is another photo of (2n), which I took:

Corbel carving (2n)

Compare this with a wall carving of Bishop de Grandisson, from the church of Ottery St Mary, some ten miles east of Exeter (and which de Grandisson also had built):

Wall carving of Bishop de Grandisson in church at Ottery St Mary

Can this refined face (despite its beetling, bushy eyebrows) really be the same person as the surly looking bearded ruffian at (2n)? With an extra layer of plaster, there is no reason why not. Perhaps in the early 1900s, before the cathedral carvings were repainted, and were thus more indistinct, it would have been easier for authors such as Edith Prideaux (cited above) to accept the alternate identities.

In [WillMalm], William of of Malmesbury described William II’s physical appearance as follows:

He was well set; his complexion florid, his hair yellow; of open countenance; different-coloured eyes, varying with certain glittering specks ..

Overbearing from that ferocity of mind which was manifest in his countenance, .. he was, when in public assemblies, of supercilious look, darting his threatening eye on the bystander; and with assumed severity and ferocious voice, assailing such as conversed with him.

(3n) – Henry I / Katherine de Grandisson

Peter of Blois in his contemporary work [PeterBlois] starts his summary of Henry I’s accession in 1100 as follows:

William [Rufus] was succeeded on the throne by his brother Henry, a young man of extreme beauty, ..

William of Malmesury describes his appearance as follows:

He was of middle stature .. his hair was black, but scanty near the forehead; his eyes mildly bright, his chest brawny, his body fleshy ..

Besides the wrong hair colour again, the corbel carving seems consistent with a mild looking, chubby, pleasant face suggested by these descriptions.

Here is a photograph I took of corbel carving (3n):

My photo of corbel carving (3n)

and here another of the same corbel carving:

Close up of (3n)

One old guide book of Exeter Cathedral that I saw describes this carving as female, and it does indeed seem to have an almost feminine look. This was handy for Bishop de Grandisson, as it meant he could have the carving reindentified, with a minimum of change, as his own wife, positioned next to his spot at (2n)

(4n) – Empress Matilda / Queen Phillipa

Here is a photo I took of (4n) (with my mobile phone, so not of the impeccable quality of my trusty Canon camera!)

The Wikipedia article on Empress Matilda includes a fairly contemporary image of her. But whether or not the reader agrees that the two seem broadly comparable, the fact remains that the fourth position in the row is undeniably occupied by a female, consistent with the fact that Matilda was fourth in line after William I (although her reign was contested throughout by Stephen).

(5n) – Stephen / Edward III

Here is a photo of (5n) which I purchased from Alamy:

Corbel carving (5n)

This carving also matches Stephen’s position, west to east, in line of succession after the Conqueror. It shows an apparently amiable looking fellow, bearded (as Stephen was). It is also the only carving with even a hint of a smile, or at any rate a “smiley face”, which seems consistent with his reportedly friendly easy-going character.

The slightly dreamy expression and the beard were more strokes of luck for de Grandisson, because it meant that he could repurpose it, again with a minimum of change, as a carving of Edward III.

For comparison, here is an image of Edward III’s tomb effigy:

Edward III tomb effigy

(3s) – Henry II / Isabel Countess of Bedford (?)

On Stephen’s death in 1154, shortly after that of his son Eustace who he had hoped would succeed him, Empress Matilda’s son succeeded as Henry II, which brings us back to where we started, i.e. to the carving with the thick flower laden stalks:

Corbel carving (3s)

For comparison, here is Henry II’s tomb effigy, in which the most obviously comparable features are the oval face and the notably stocky neck:

Henry II tomb effigy

For his alternate identity of (3s), we can only assume that de Grandisson’s luck held yet again and the lady to which he reassigned the carving’s identity had a notably chubby neck!

How did the carving identities revert?

In our conjectural account of the carvings’ history so far, we had reached the stage where Bishop de Grandisson had acquired them in the 1350s (or shortly thereafter) and installed them in superficially “doctored” form to represent and honour members of the then current royal family.

But three hundred years later, in the 1650s, richly ornate and gilt carvings were no longer fashionable or even tolerated once Cromwell’s puritan Commonwealth took over.

I suspect that as roundhead troops approached Exeter, the Bishop or Dean urgently packed servants up ladders to scrub and scrape off the paint from the carvings and make them look as drab and inconspicuous as possible. But, to their surprise, the servants found a layer of soft plaster also came away with the paint!

(William II’s carving, (2n), shows signs of pitting, where perhaps the scrubbing was too enthusiastic, or extra effort was needed to remove remains of red paint representing his florid face under de Grandisson’s plaster and paint layer.)

By then nobody would have known and few would have even guessed, the old identities revealed in this way. In the unlikely event they did, they were sympathetic and kept quiet about them. Perhaps they were presented as Old Testament characters such as Saul, David, and Samuel, etc.

The carvings remained a drab grey and indistinct, and largely anonymous (besides de Grandisson’s identities, known only to a few scholars), for another 300 years until modern times when they were repainted once more, only a few years ago I gather. The young lady entrusted with this task did a splendid job and really brought them to life. But, understandably, not knowing the carvings’ original identities and symbolism, any more than these were known in the 1600s, she chose the wrong colours for the hair and beards of some and for the stalks in the adornments.

In parting, here is a photo I took of what I claim to be a simple carving of the tree in the Confessor’s dream, tucked away inconspicuously (towards the lower left of the image) by the west window, with William the Conqueror’s carving looming over it!


Firstly, I would like to thank author Mercedes Rochelle who encouraged me to write this post. She writes historical fiction and has a great blog site referenced at her home page

Several carving photos (the close-up “light” ones) were by a photographer I have been unable to trace. If he finds them here and emails me at jhnrmsdn@yahoo.co.uk then I will be pleased to acknowledge him.

The images of the de Grandisson boss and carving in Ottery St Mary church are from the website of Exeter University’s Department of Mediaevil studies


[Ailred] The Life of Saint Edward, King and Confessor; Aelred of Rievaulx; Jerome Bertram (trans); Guildford: St Edward’s Press (1990), reprinted at Southampton: Saint Austin Press (1997)

[Ducarel] Anglo-Norman antiquities considered, in a tour through part of Normandy, by Doctor Ducarel (1767)

[PeterBlois] Ingulf’s chronicle of the Abbey of Croyland with the continuation of Peter of Blois

[Prideaux] “Bosses and Corbels of Exeter Cathedral an Illustrated Study in Decorative and Symbolic Design”, by E K Prideaux & G R Shafto (1910)

[WillMalm] Chronicle of the Kings of England, by William of Malmesbury (1123)

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