Exeter Cathedral

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In this post I present detailed evidence to support my contention that, surprisingly, the corbel carvings in the nave of Exeter Cathedral have represented, at various times and different places over the centuries, two lots of people.

I believe they were originally of Norman and Angevin monarchs and were in Old Westminster Abbey, but were salvaged from there when this started being demolished in 1245 prior to its rebuild over the following twenty or so years by Henry III. Presumably they then languished in some depot or in the Tower of London for some years while people wondered what to do with them, or more likely almost forgot about them.

In the early 1350s the then Bishop of Exeter, John de Grandisson, needed a set of carvings to complete the nave and the splendid barrel roof of the rebuilt cathedral. To save money and, very likely because no stone carver of sufficient skill was available following the Black Death, which had ravaged the Kingdom only a couple of years earlier, he decided it would be easier to reuse existing carvings by adding suitable extra layers of plaster and paint. The revamped carvings would represent Edward III and members of his family, including the Black Prince, and the bishop himself and his wife.

I suggest that de Grandisson learned of the Norman carvings put aside and was able to acquire them. In positioning them, he ingeniously managed to preserve the order of succession of their original Norman identities, from West to East along the nave, perhaps out of respect for who he knew they had been, while achieving a felicitous arrangement of their new identities, given the choice he had to make of who would best correspond to who from their physical similarities.

Three hundred years later, in the 1650s, when richly ornate and gilt carvings were no longer fashionable or even tolerated, de Grandisson’s surface alterations were scrubbed and scraped away, leaving the original Norman identities. By then few would have guessed who these were, or in the unlikely event they did were (luckily) symathetic and kept quiet about the new identities uncovered, because carvings of monarchs would not have been welcome in Cromwell’s republic! Perhaps they were presented as Old Testament characters such as Saul, David, and Samuel, etc.

The carvings remained a drab grey and indistinct, and anonymous, until modern times when they were repainted once more, only a few years ago I gather. The lady entrusted with this task did a splendid job and really brought them to life. But, not knowing the carvings’ identities, she understandably chose the wrong colours for the hair and beards of some.

My evidence mostly relates to their present (and thus original) appearance, based on comparisons with contemporary descriptions of the monarchs I claim they represent, and the few surviving representations of them, which are mostly copies of originals. The evidence for their intermediate identities, between c 1350 and 1650, is ably provided in [Ottery]. So I have little to add to that.

Tying the two together is solely my conjecture, although I hope a well-disposed reader will agree in the end that it is plausible, and that in fact it would be hard to find any other explanation that accounts for all the features, including a couple of strange anomalies, of their present disposition.

A corollary of this, if true, is that for once the mighty Wikipedia is wrong! Its article on William the Conqueror states that “No authentic portrait of William has been found”. However, as I hope to convince the reader, an accurate carving of him, very likely the last that still exists, looms over the western door of the cathedral as large as life!

The many observations and close arguments needed to accumulate enough convincing evidence for this proposal have made the post longer than impatient readers might consider ideal. But if so then they can always just skim through it and look at the pictures!


Exeter is a medium sized town on the River Exe in Devon. It was founded by the Romans as a fort at the Western edge of their area of occupation. They called it Isca, a short form of “pisces aqua” (or the Celtic equivalent, which sounded similar) meaning “fish water”, from the fish teaming in the river.

(I suspect the Romans deliberataly left Devon and Cornwall unconquered, mainly because this would leave a native-controlled toehold they could pass through, by agreement with the chief of the local Dumnonii tribe, to reoccupy the rest of the country if a Roman governor “went native” and declared independence from Rome!)

In 1050 a local bishop, Leofric, moved his seat (“base”) from a nearby small town called Crediton to Exeter, which was much larger and had a sturdy Saxon wall for security. The existing abbey church there became his cathedral, and by now having a cathedral Exeter was promoted from a town to a city.

After the conquest, Leofric was succeeded upon his death in 1075 by the first Norman bishop, Osbern Fitz Osbern, who was a relative of King William. FitzOsbern in turn was succeeded in 1107 by William Warelwast, who started building a grand new cathedral in the Norman style.

(Curiously, both Fitz Osbern and Warelwast went blind in their final years, and possibly this was caused in some way by the unhealthy damp ground around the cathedral in those days. I believe a large underground stream runs beneath the cathedral today!)

The Cathedral

In the 1300s the cathedral was extended on every side of the main Norman towers, while leaving the latter mostly unchanged. Among the changes was a barrel roof, which is the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England. The building work was complete by around 1400.

The cathedral contains many marvels, such a large medievil clock and a 60 foot tall elaborate wooden bishop’s chair held together entirely with joints and no nails. Outside the west front are several rows of stone carvings of saints and suchlike. Most are sadly somewhat eroded, having lacked for several centuries their original protective paint, but many are still vivid and striking.

The interior stone work also incorporates hundreds of carvings, including decorated bosses and corbels. A boss is a ceiling “plug” which closes the joint where converging arches meet, either as a structural necessity or simply for decoration.

A corbel is similar to a boss but closes arches converging downward onto a pillar or base. The word “corbel” derives from “crow”, because the arches joining it on either side resemble the outspread curved wings of a crow.

Most of the corbels in the nave comprise carved heads at the base, surmounted by decorative foliage which extends some way above the heads and follows the contours of the pair of arches.

Here is a picture of the interior, taken at the west end and looking up the nave towards the choir and beyond that the altar at the east end. It shows the barrel roof, roof bosses, and corbels on either side.

Exeter Cathedral nave, at west door looking east towards altar

The corbels

Over the years, a dozen or more books have been published on all aspects of Exeter cathedral. These range from weighty tomes, written in the early 20th century, to more recent mostly shorter books.

The earlier books include far more historical detail but only a few black and white photos, all of abominable quality. The more recent books, as expected, complement this with less scholarly detail but usually far better colour photos.

In the early 2000s a project [AvHenry] was undertaken to photograph all the cathedral carvings, including the corbels, and release this data in a structured form on the Web. But most of the images are black and white and of very poor quality. Sadly the main project coordinator, Avril Henry, died some years ago.

This project shows what a survey of the carvings could be like. But a new one would require far higher resolution color images, several per carving from different angles, and (these days) OBJ files of detailed 3D scans which could be used to produce 3D prints.

But with the exception of [Ottery], all the books I have seen are curiously reticent on the subject of the nave corbel carvings. Hardly any have attempted to identify them, and some do not even mention them.

One book ventured to guess that the heads may have symbolised abstract spirits such as the Lord of Summer and similar. Although pagan images such as the Green Man are found in many old churches, these kind of images would be out of place in such prominent positions inside a cathedral. Also, one only has to look at the faces to see that they were based on real people, whoever they were.

The ignorance or reticence of the other books seems to be shared by cathedral staff. On one visit to the cathedral, I asked a passing canon (resident cleric) who the corbel heads were. He replied (slightly irritably) that they had been there for seven hundred years and no one had any idea who, if anyone, they were!

Without more ado, I will propose my belief of their present identities, and a summary of the evidence I claim supports it. This evidence is mainly:

  • Order of the people identified, whose sequence reinforces ..
  • Comparison of the faces with contemporary descriptions and other surviving images of the respective people

Then I summarise the de Grandisson intermediate identities inferred in [Ottery]. Finally I play devil’s advocate by discussing various ways some possible objections to my proposal can be rebutted.

Avril Henry’s online survey [AvHenry] mentioned above uses identifying letters and numbers from [Prideaux] to refer to each carving. So the identification system of this work is a sort of de facto standard.

But as I don’t have a copy of this book to hand, in either physical or ebook form, and we are concerned only with a few nave corbels, it seems adequate here to use a simple number sequence for the (n)orth and (s)outh pillars on which the corbels sit, along the nave aisles from west to east.

The present carving identities

The following diagram shows these pillars, with my numbering and identification of the corbel carvings against each. (The “v” stands for “vine”, which is discussed in the section on foliage adornments towards the end of the post.)

                |    William I    William II    Henry I     Matilda    Stephen
                |(v)   (1n)          (2n)        (3n)        (4n)        (5n)
    WEST END    |               NAVE
                |      (1s)          (2s)        (3s)        (4s)        (5s)
                |                               Henry II

The sequence of Norman and Angevin sovereigns, in order of their reigns, exactly matches successive pillars, from west to east, with an odd-looking cross-over to Henry II.

If the current identities were as installed then Henry II might be expected to have followed Matilda and Stephen, because positions closer to the altar were more prestigious and sacred.

Recall though that at the time the carvings were installed the positioning contraints related primarily to the figures’ alternative identities (discussed below) who de Grandisson chose, and among those (5n) and (4n) were Edward III and his wife respectively and (3s) a female who may have been one of their daughters.

Curiously, the positioning of (3s) also happens to be fitting for their current identities, although it is doubtful de Grandisson would have considered that very significant among all the other then more contemporary constraints he had to juggle:

Following the death of Henry I, a civil war called the Anarchy raged for nearly 20 years from 1135 to 1153 between Empress Matilda and Stephen. Only upon Stephen’s death, after which Henry II succeeded him, was lasting peace restored. The Wikipedia article on Henry II states that he “presented himself as the legitimate heir to Henry I”. So his carving directly opposite and thus closest to that of Henry I, with those of Matilda and Stephen being a sort of offshoot, also happens to reflect that.

Having discussed the first strand of evidence for the carvings current identity, namely their overall order, we will now detail other contemporary descriptions and images of each face in turn. But for the most part, sadly, only copies of original images have survived.

William I (1n)

Besides the corbel carving (1n), which I claim is his, and very likely the most accurate (see photos below), I am aware of only four surviving representations of William I’s face, in increasing order of likely accuracy:

  • Contemporary coins (hardly accurate at all, but a few may be suggestive)
  • Bayeux tapestry (maybe slightly more accurate than coins, but not much)
  • 17th century copy of earlier wooden face mask in Tower of London
  • Engraved copy of now lost painting of him and family on chapel wall in Abbey of St Stephen, Caen

Contemporary coins

On most coins of the time the portraits are hopelessly crude and obviously cannot be used sensibly for any feature comparison. But on some of the best there may be hints of specific facial features. For example, the following of William I seem to hint at prominent cheek bones and protruding or “lantern” lower jaw, and (in the second) a wide mouth and straight nose:

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

These images may also reflect attempts to represent menacing cold eyes. But if a cynic claimed that was no more than an artifact of the primitive way the eyes were shaped on the dye stamp then I would not argue very strenously!

Bayeux Tapestry

Wonderful as it is, the Bayeux tapestry cannot be said to represent accurately the faces of people on it. There is a limit to how accurate a cartoon-like face can be, especially when sewn, and because the tapestry has been darned and patched over the centuries there can be no certainty that a face has not changed shape from the original.

I hoped that squinting at the several appearances of William on the tapestry might give a vague idea on average of his general features, such as the width of his face or whether he had a moustache. Trying this though, nothing seemed obvious; but for what it may be worth, I include a couple of what look like the best images of him.

In the first, William receives news of Earl Harold’s shipwreck on the French coast (some years before Hastings) and his capture by William’s vassal Guy de Ponthieu.

Messenger brings news to Duke William of Earl Harold’s shipwreck

The second is the moment in the Battle of Hastings when a feigned retreat (to entice the Saxon shield wall into breaking ranks to chase them) was going horribly wrong and turning into a real retreat as rumour spread of William’s death, and he had to raise his helmet to show them he was still alive. “Where are you all fleeing?” he bellowed in so many words, “Until we win, there’s nowhere in this land for you to flee to!”

Duke William during the Battle of Hastings

The most carefully stitched, and readily recognisable, character in several scenes is William’s half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux. It is generally believed that Odo commissioned the tapestry and, doubtless intentionally, he often almost stole the show! See the fascinating book [Odo].

Wooden carving in Tower of London

The Tower of London houses a copy of earlier wooden mask of William I. This copy was produced in the 1680s from an original that was by then in very poor shape and (to my knowledge) no longer exists. The facial features are likely a fairly accurate reflection of the original, but the same certainly cannot be said of the head shape.

It seems new copies of several masks of former sovereigns were produced for a public exhibition planned by King James II somewhat similar to a waxworks display. His aim was a foolish and outdated desire to extol the merits of absolute monarchy and try to restore it. He had evidently learned nothing from the then recent grim fate of Charles I, who had also tried to maintain the divine right of kings past its sell by date!

In those days people had firm ideas about what constituted an aristocratic head shape, and that was a narrow head. So, given the propaganda aims of the exhibition, if William’s original mask had an embarrassingly broad and robust face shape and lantern jaws, like a peasant’s by the refined standards of the day, then they would have thought nothing of making those of the copy much narrower and flatter, with a suitably delicate small jaw! Also, in fairness, the original may have eroded and shrunk, or lost outlying parts, to a point where the overall head shape was no longer obvious.

17th century copy of contemporary wooden carving of William I

The superficial features of this face include: prominently arched eyebrows, a straight nose, full mouth, and cold supercilious eyes. But (predictably!) the head shape is narrow, with no prominent cheekbones nor a lantern jaw nor even jowls. This is not the face of the corpulent person William I became in his final years, possibly letting himself go somewhat and comfort eating following the death of his wife Matilda in 1083, three years before William’s death.

Wall painting in St Stephen’s Abbey, Caen

In the 18th century an English traveller called Andrew Ducarel toured Normandy and later wrote a book [Ducarel] about his experiences and the sites he had seen.

As he pointed out, English travellers to France at the time would almost invariably gallop directly from Calais to Paris and southwards beyond. But hardly any bothered making a detour to Normandy, which was then considered a rustic backwater.

Among many fascinating details and illustrations, the book includes (at around page 62) a fine engraved copy of a wall painting of William I and his family. This painting had been in a chapel of St Stephen’s Abbey Caen (founded by William I). But tragically, the chapel itself, along with the painting, had been demolished in the year 1700.

The following image, part of the St Stephens engraving, shows William I and his wife Matilda. The main features one observes in William’s face, more so than in the other faces, are: a full mouth, and what looks like a prominent lower jaw (even allowing for the short beard).

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

Because this engraving must have been made prior to 1700, in the late 1600s, the engraver may also have suffered to some degree from the then fashionable malady of narrow-headitis mentioned in the previous section. But the heads do not look too narrow, and may well thus be an accurate reproduction of the shapes in the originals.

For comparison, here is what the patient reader must have been waiting for! Three photos I took of corbel carving (1n):

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

William II (2n)

In [WillMalm], written in 1125, 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.

Besides his harsh punishments of malefactors, especially poachers in the Royal Forests (castrated and blinded), William II had in many ways some quite modern attitudes and is probably the most appealing, or at any rate least unappealing, of the grim sovereigns of his time.

So, because the reader may find it interesting, we’ll make a brief detour to discuss his character further. After all, this is a blog article and not an academic paper, from which some impertinent referee would no doubt demand I remove all the extraneous rubbish!

He had a bad press because many of his traits, which seem innocuous to us, were considered by contemporary historians, who were all clerics or monks, and in more recent times by prudish Victorian historians, as the worst possible faults!

He never married nor had any recorded illegitimate offspring, and this has led many historians to believe he was gay. No contemporary historian ever stated or hinted at that, but there are accounts of long-haired effeminate young men mooching around his royal palaces and accompanying the royal court on its travels, although it is not clear if the chroniclers considered the men themselves effeminate or just their hairstyle. Given William’s rumbustious soldierly character though, one suspects that if he was gay then his preferred partners were more likely Saxon “rough trade”!

He was also fairly lax in religious observance and respect for churchmen, and would joke with them about considering converting to Judaism or Islam. His aim may have been to try and goad them into voluntary exile, or at the very least to making a long and dangerous journey to Rome and back to complain in person to the Pope.

To his delight, no doubt, this actually worked with an outraged Anselm, Archibishop of Canterbury, who fled to France. In the archbishop’s absence, the king could gleefully claim the income from his vast church estates. For this reason he left several bishoprics vacant for years, causing yet more anguish and financial hardship for churchmen.

When petitioned by a rich Jewish merchant whose son had recently converted to Christianity, William offered for a fee to try and persuade the young man to convert back to Judaism. To us this shows a commendable lack of the anti-semitism that was widespread in those days; but to contemporary churchmen it must have seemed the absolute limit of unthinkably monstrous impiety!

After some time speaking with the man however, no doubt with a mixture of persuasive cajoling and fearsome threats, he had to concede defeat, as the tiresome fellow (the King must have thought) was just too devout and unshakeable in his new faith. William agreed to charge the merchant only half the original agreed price, on the grounds that he had at least made a considerable effort in trying.

Unlike his avaricious father and his equally miserly brother Henry, William II was also generous and magnanimous with money and favours. William of Malmesbury [WillMalm] relates another amusing episode:

One morning, while putting on his new boots, he asked his chamberlain what they cost; and when he replied, “Three shillings”, in a rage he cried out “You son of a whore! How long has the king worn boots of so paltry a price? Go, and bring me a pair worth a mark of silver”. He went, and bringing him a much cheaper pair, told him, falsely, that they cost as much as he had ordered. “Aye”, said the king, “these are far more suitable for royalty!”

Here is an image of William II from the engraved copy of the family portrait wall painting formerly at St Stephen’s Abbey, as mentioned in the previous section:

A young prince William (later William II) from St Stephens Abbey, Caen

He lacks a beard in this picture, presumably because he was only in his young teens when the portrait was painted. Note that his younger brother Henry does not appear in the family portrait. This was probably because he was still only a young child (having been born in c 1068), and children, even of noble birth, counted for little in those days.

For comparison, a photograph I took of what I claim to be his corbel carving (2n) seems to have the same belligerent, and quite menacing look:

My photo of corbel carving (2n)

A web search a couple of years ago turned up high-quality images of three of the corbel carvings, and luckily I saved copies of these. But, given web pages’ apparent half life of no more than 18 months on average, they inevitably no longer seem to exist on the Web!

I remember the photographer was practically a one-man army, having taken literally hundreds of thousands of excellent quality images in churches and cathedrals throughout Britain. I can’t now trace him, but if I encounter his work again, or he ever finds his work in the present post, I will happily acknowledge him.

Carving (2n) again, this time by a photographer who can line up his shot straight!

Note that in the carving William II’s hair and beard colour are wrong, and he lacks the ruddy complexion that led to his nickname “Rufus” (meaning “red”). Also, significantly, his face texture shows signs of wear and pitting. These are other aspects of our elaborate detective story we will discuss later.

Also note that in the foliage adornment above his face he is wearing a bishop’s mitre. This would be a baffling and perhaps insurmountable problem for his identification as William II without the intermediate identity to fall back on, in his case of Bishop de Grandisson himself.

It is ironic, and perhaps poetic justice, that having slighted and disdained churchmen throughout his reign, probably the last surviving realistic carving of William II shows him wearing not a crown but a mitre. William would have been furious!

Henry I (3n)

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. But the king himself, although popular in his time and called the Lion of Justice, was by modern standards far from pleasant.

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

My photo of corbel carving (3n)

and here is one of the same corbel carving by the mystery photographer mentioned in the previous section:

Mystery photographer’s close up of (3n)

Henry I’s main character fault, perhaps caused by having been the youngest brother and possibly bullied and teased as a child by his older brothers, seems to have been an excessive sensitivity to slights, perceived or imagined, and brutal retribution for these.

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 as luck would have it right next to him at (2n)!

Empress Matilda (4n)

The Wikipedia article on Empress Matilda includes the following contemporary image of her:

Contemporary painting of Empress Matilda

and here is a photograph I took of the corbel carving (4n), which I claim is currently of her:

The similarities seem to include a wide face and, perhaps, a hint of slightly protuberant eyes. But because, to my knowledge, there are no other surviving contemporary descriptions or representations of her physical appearance, there is no way of comparing accurately known features with those of the corbel carving.

Annoyingly, a few years ago I am sure I saw on the Web an image of a contemporary drawing of Matilda doodled by a scribe in the margins of a parchment, and she did indeed seem have an imperious stare with somewhat goggly eyes. But, not surprisingly, this image has since disappeared into the Web black hole, probably never to be seen again, and I cannot therefore present it as further evidence. But I can console myself with the thought that it may have been a different Matilda, because every other woman back then seemed to be called Matilda!

However, despite uncertainty over her appearance, 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).

(I took the above (4n) photo with my mobile phone, and have so far been prevented by the Covid epidemic from returning, as planned, to take a better quality photo with my trusty Canon camera. That explains its blurry poor quality, although I think its general appearance is clear.)

Stephen (5n)

After years of civil war, it was agreed that Stephen would rule England and Matilda would rule Normandy. Although Stephen was brave and energetic, his affable, mild-mannered nature prevented him from providing firm leadership.

I purchased from Alamy the following photo of the fifth corbel in the row, (5n). (The lighting and positioning of the photo seems similar to that of the high-quality images by the mystery photographer, and so may also have originated with him.)

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, 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.

Stephen’s times are engagingly depicted in the mini-series Pillars of the Earth. This is about the building of another cathedral, in the fictitious town of Kingsbridge, and is based on the marvellous novel of the same name by Ken Follet. Follet has written two sequences, the first called World without End, from which another mini-series of the same name was made, and A Column of Fire, which takes the saga to the present day.

Henry II (3s)

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.

The third of the three high-quality corbel photos taken by the mystery photographer mentioned in the section on William II is of (3s). This shows an obviously youthful figure, with a round chubby face and thick neck:

Corbel carving (3s)

He has an uneven upper lip, due to a small missing chip out of the stone. Examining this closely, I would swear there are three closely grouped bullet holes. If so then the culprits may have been parliamentary troops using his carving for target practice in the 1650s. The range from the ground would not have been great, but even so would the flintlocks of those days have been accurate enough for such a close grouping and not caused more damage if they had hit?

Or perhaps the damage was caused by errant choirboys with a catapult, or shrapnel from a World War 2 German bomb which struck the nave. Luckily that bomb caused little damage there, although another bomb destroyed a medievil side chapel of the cathedral. But it is idle to speculate further on this minor detail, as it is probably irrelevant to our task.

Comparing this face against Henry II’s tomb effigy in the Abbey of Fontevraud, and allowing for a large age difference, one sees the same oval face and conspicuously thick neck:

Henry II tomb effigy

The lips are thinner on the effigy, but that could be because the corbel lips were painted (in modern times) slightly too wide. Or it may have been simply that lips tend to narrow with age and loss of collagen, especially I imagine for someone as beset by troubles and vexations as Henry II was in his final years!

How specific the features on each image are to the same individual I leave the reader to judge; but I think one can justly claim that the corbel carving and effigy are at least not inconsistent with them being of the same person.

Out of respect for the carvings’ original identities, or possibly at Edward III’s request as a condition of releasing the carvings from the Crown’s possession, de Grandisson must have drawn the line at removing material by chipping away at them, and confined his alterations to adding layers of plaster and paint. Attempting to trim them would probably also have been riskier for the likely inexperienced young stone mason who was all he could find to hire so soon after the Black Death had struck.

So 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 carvings identity had a notably chubby neck!

The alternate identities

According to [Ottery] (on around page 62), the corbel carvings as installed by de Grandisson were of Edward III and his wife, his eldest son, called the Black Prince, another female member of the royal family, and de Grandisson himself and his wife.

The Black Prince, so called because of the colour of his armour, visited Exeter in 1357 and 1371 and thus did have some connection with the city.

Quoting from this source, with my annotations in square brackets:

The corbels supporting the niches that contained St Mary and St Peter are, westernmost [my (4n)], Queen Phillipa, and easternmost [my (5n)], Edward III. ..

The corbel [my (3n)] carrying the shaft over the next pillar to the west is the head of Katherine de Grandisson [wife of Bishop de Grandisson]

on the next, her husband [my (2n)]..

over the last pillar [my (1n)] on the north side of the nave, the head of the Black Prince

On the south side of the nave, the corbel [my (3s)] over the pillar opposite to Katherine de Grandisson has a coronetted female head, (perhaps that of the Princess of Wales, or of Isabel, Countess of Bedford, eldest daughter of the King).

The niches he refers to are sentry box shaped enclosures containing effigies of saints (the patron saints of the cathedral) that surmount (4n) and (5n), unlike what I call the foliage adornments over the other carvings.

                |     Black       Bishop John     Katherine     Queen
                |     Prince     de Grandisson  de Grandisson  Phillipa   Edward III
                |(v)   (1n)           (2n)         (3n)         (4n)         (5n)
    WEST END    |               NAVE
                |      (1s)           (2s)         (3s)         (4s)         (5s)
                |                                 Isabel
                |                          Countess of Bedford ?!

His uncertainty over (3s) indicates that his identification was not based on certain knowledge then available to him, but was inferred in his own way indirectly.

Much of his evidence relies on what look like sound comparisons with carvings in a church at Ottery St Mary, a small Devon town some ten miles east of Exeter. This church evidently had some significance for Bishop de Grandisson. From what little I know of it, my impression is that its building, or at least added ornamentation, was a sort of dry run for that of the Cathedral; but I haven’t investigated the connection in detail.

Despite the fact that the author of [Ottery] would have seen the corbel carvings much as we do today, albeit unpainted in his time, there are noticeable discrepancies between them as they appear now and other accurate contemporary carvings of the individuals he identified.

But, at the risk of committing a circular argument or petitio principii, if we assume his identifications were at some time correct, this seems evidence in itself that the superficial appearance of the carvings has changed over the centuries, thus supporting my contention of their dual identities:

Edward III’s beard (5n)

Although the placements of Edward III and Queen Phillipa look plausible, being in the most prestigious positions as far as possible towards the altar, his beard doesn’t look nearly long enough, as his tomb effigy shows:

Edward III tomb effigy

Stephen’s shorter beard could easily have been extended, by judicious addition of plaster, but the effigy’s straight hair is another mismatch with that of the carving. However, curly hair may then have been a stone carver’s invariable convention, regardless of the person’s actual style of hair, if any. So perhaps we can let that go.

Bishop de Grandisson’s supposed carving (2n)

Can the surly looking bearded ruffian at (2n) really be the learned Bishop de Grandisson, despite the mitre above his head? With a layer of plaster to smooth over the face, and cover William II’s beard and florid complexion, he could!

Here is a roof boss of Bishop de Grandisson from the church at Ottery St Mary. He seems to have quite bushy, beetling eyebrows but no beard:

Roof boss carving of Bishop de Grandisson in church at Ottery St Mary

and here is a contemporary carving of him, looking as refined as one might expect, also from Ottery St Mary church and again with no beard:

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

The Black Prince’s moustache

The only contemporary likeness of the Black Prince I can find is his tomb effigy. Unfortunately, much of his face, including the entire lower half, is covered by a chain mail coif. But one feature stands out, literally, namely a long droopy moustache.

Tomb effigy of the Black Prince

But a moustache could easily have been added to William I’s carving, having added a plaster layer to change his face shape, if necessary, to better match that of the Black Prince.

The foliage adornments

The foliage adornments merit closer scrutiny, because it looks like de Grandisson intended the dark stalks that wind among the foliage to tell an interesting allegorical story. I think it must have been him, because he wouldn’t have let a subversive stonemason get away with such prominent symbolism.

I believe these stalks were meant to represent the Saxon leadership and generally Saxon society in England. Here are the four relevant adornments, extracted from the carving photos and arranged from left to right in order of the monarchs’ succession:

Foliage adornments, in order of succession

In William I’s foliage, (1n), there are two thick horizontal stalks at the base, with a couple of thinner ones crossing higher up. I suggest the first symbolises the defeat of Harold, after which the Saxons were prostrate, and the higher ones the surviving Saxon athelings (princes) and the few remaining Saxon landholders after the conquest.

In the second adornment (2n), the two stalks at the base have risen somewhat, reflecting William II’s less frosty relations with Saxons (although their higher positions are also somewhat determined by the mitre). He had recruited Saxons in large numbers into his army, referring to them affectionately as “My Saxons”, and they helped him defeat his brother Duke Robert of Normandy in 1089.

In the third, (3n) of Henry I the stalks, although less prominent and mostly slightly thinner than in the preceding adornments, seem to be proliferating almost behind the scenes with multiple offshoots, like fresh growth starting to stir in spring.

Finally, in Henry II’s foliage, (3s), the stalks have thickened and multiplied to predominate by area, and have even burst into flower. Notice also that the flowers all stem directly from the stalks and not the gold leaved foliage.

To me, they collectively tell a story of progressive Norman integration with Saxons, resulting by the late 1100s in a homogenous mixture of both, for most strata of society below the very top. Chroniclers of that time did indeed claim that Norman and Saxon could no longer easily be distinguished.

If this seems rather far fetched, there is one more twist: To the left of William the Conqueror’s corbel, high up towards the roof, climbing a murky corner almost next to the west window, there appears to be a tall spindly carving of what looks like an upright thick tangle of dark vines.

I could not examine it closely, and in fact could barely see it much less photograph it in the dim light of the roof vault. But if it is indeed that, and not my imagination working overtime on a bundle of electrical cables, then from both its composition and its position to the left of William I, it is clearly meant to represent Saxon society before the Conquest, and that confirms the symbolism sketched above.

Addition (2021-04-06): The following is an extract from [Clanchy]

The earliest biographer of Edward the Confessor, [William of Malmesbury] who wrote at the time of the Norman Conquest, described how when the king lay dying 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. The green tree was understood to symbolize the English nation, which had been cut down by the battle of Hastings.

The interest of the dream lay in the conditions it required for a restoration between the ancient trunk and the severed top. William of Malmesbury interpreted the dream to mean that the tree would never be restored: ‘We now experience’, he wrote in 1125, ‘the truth of this prophecy, as England today is made the home of foreigners and the domain of aliens’.

Nevertheless when Ailred of Rievaulx came to consider the same dream in his new life of Edward the Confessor (written in the 1160s), he found in it the symbolism of reconciliation and pride in being English: ‘The tree signifies the kingdom of the English, adorned in glory, fertile in riches and delights, excelling in the sublimity of royal dignity’. The 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 it had borne fruit in Henry II. ‘He, rising as the light of morning’, wrote Ailred, ‘is like a cornerstone joining the two peoples. Now certainly England has a king of the English race’.

So it seems my supposition was correct, and the “vines” in successive adornments play out Edward the Confessor’s dream. (If these ever need repainting, I suggest their new colour should be green, as they presumably were originally.)

Playing devil’s advocate

We now address various possible objections to my proposal, some that occurred to me and others by friends to whom I have mentioned the idea and shown the corbel photos.

Didn’t William the Conqueror have a moustache?

Firstly, the chubby faced gent with a moustache often wheeled out as an image of William I is an 18th Century imagining of his appearance by an engraver called George Vertue. So that in itself should not sway one’s judgement:

George Vertue’s imaginary depiction of William I

As an aside, I prefer the following splendid imaginary depiction of William I, from an engraving which appears among many others in [Rastell] published in 1530. Perhaps some of these engravings were the origin of the stylised images on the court cards of today’s conventional playing cards!

William of Malmesbury relates [WillMalm] that shortly before the Battle of Hastings:

He [King Harold] sent out some persons to reconnoitre the number and strength of the enemy: These, being taken within the Norman camp, William ordered to be led amongst the tents, and, after feasting them plentifully, to be sent back uninjured to their lord.

On their return, Harold inquired what news they brought: When, after relating at full, the noble confidence of the general, they gravely added, that almost all his army had the appearance of priests, as they had the whole face, with both lips, shaven. ..

The king smiled at the simplicity of the relators, observing, with a pleasant laugh, that they were not priests, but soldiers.

But a few Normans of the time did sport moustaches, such as William de Percy (founder of the Percy family of Northumberland). His nickname was “al guernon”, meaning in Norman French “the ‘tache”. From this nickname derives the forename Algernon.

Inside an armoured Norman knight’s helmet or wrapped round the wearer’s head was canvas padding in some form. So it may be that a moustache had a practical use as a porous conduit through which, in the heat and exertion of combat, sweat could drain more readily and be slurped away before it could accumulate to the knight’s detriment, for example round the base of his nose or even in his eyes.

Perhaps many Norman knights did not bother with much canvas padding, or made do with an inner water-porous layer of wool in place of a moustache. But wool expands and droops when wet, and possibly de Percy and any other knights who chose to have a moustache were sensitive or allergic to wool!

A few coins of William appear to show him with a moustache. But in those days minting coins was a privatised industry, performed in several locations all over the country. So coins with the moustache may have been produced in remote towns by minters who had never seen him, nor heard reliable descriptions of his appearance, but naturally assumed that like most adult men in England, other than monks and churchmen, the King must have a moustache.

William I coin showing him with a moustache

Also, in the early years following the conquest William was keen to find favour with the native Saxons and stress continuity from Edward the Confessor’s reign. He even tried to learn English, before their ongoing hostility and rebellions somewhat disillusioned him. So it may be that while in England he temporarily grew a moustache to accord with Saxon custom and thus hopefully mollify the native population.

Given Norman custom on face fur though, namely its absence as a rule, it is doubtful he would have considered a moustache an integral part of his persona nor had one frequently or for very long. So in summary, the lack of a moustache on carving (1n) is no argument against my claimed identification.

But perhaps I could have spared the reader most of the above ramblings by simply pointing out that none of the images of William I on the Bayeux Tapestry show him with a moustache!

Why are these corbel guys not already known?

Whoever they were, the corbel individuals must have been fairly important to warrant such prominent positions in the cathedral. So it is reasonable to ask why their identities are not already known and in the guide books.

I trust this objection is settled adequately by our tangled tale of how their original identities were effectively concealed by the new identities and appearances Bishop de Grandisson created for them when they were first installed in Exeter in the 1350s, and the three century interval that elapsed before the original identities were uncovered (I surmise) in the 1640s, plus the incentive to conceal the latter in the unlikely event they were guessed or realised.

Face reconstructions from skulls

Regardless of any specific desire to settle the corbel carvings identities, it might well be asked why the skulls of early sovereigns, such as Norman and Angevins, cannot be retrieved and face reconstructions created from their skulls, as was done with Richard III. But, unfortunately, nearly all remains of Norman monarchs have been either lost or hopelessly jumbled:

French religious rioters in 1562 opened William the Conqueror’s tomb in the Abbey of Saint-Etienne at Caen in Normandy and scattered most of its contents. These rioters were Heugenots (Protestants) rioting after catholics acting in an official capacity had massacred and injured dozens of them. So their irate reaction to state persecution is understandable.

Later, during the French Revolution of the 1780s, peasants did the same and finished what the earlier vandals had started. It appears their game of football with his skull ended inconclusively with a “lost ball”, and today, apparently, only one thigh bone remains.

William II’s tomb in Winchester Cathedral was similarly ransacked, or disorderd somehow during rebuilding work (I am not sure which), and today what little that may still remain of him is mixed with the bones of more then twenty other individuals in mortuary chests there. However, a project is currently underway to try and sort and separate these with the aid of DNA analysis: 2019-05-19 The riddle of Winchester Cathedral’s skeletons .

A face reconstruction, shown below, was done on one unidentified skull carbon-dated to the correct date range. Because this was one of only two youths found, and the other was aged around only 10, I would bet good money it is Richard, one of William I’s sons who was killed in 1070 aged around 16 while hunting in the New Forest, by galloping face first into an overhanging tree branch, and was then buried in Winchester Cathedral:

So suitable DNA similarities with this youth could help identify William II’s skull if this is still among the others of suitable age and date range. An even stronger indication would be if only one similar match is found, because to my knowledge no other close male members of William I’s family were buried there.

Henry I was buried in Reading Abbey, which was destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The ruins are still there, and can be visited. So at least he is probably not under a car park as Richard III was found. But the exact location of his tomb is no longer known.

The loss of remains aside, I gather the Queen is not keen on the idea of DNA analysis being carried out on her royal ancestors, partly I imagine because this is undignified and smacks of desecration. Also, perhaps more significantly, it might turn up unwelcome surprises!

12th century carvings v 14th century rebuild

On the face of it, the fact that the barrel roof was not built until the 1350s is a conclusive objection to a claim that carvings which are an integral part of it can be from the 1100s, because the foliage above the carved heads definitely follows the present curved ceiling arches and thus could not have been present in the original Norman cathedral.

However, again, my proposal explains this if the carved heads were taken from elsewhere and reused at the time the roof was rebuilt.

A keen researcher, willing to root through old parchments in Exeter Cathedral library or in the records of Westminster Abbey (a task I have neither time nor skill to undertake), could perhaps confirm whether a stonemason was paid for the relevant corbel carvings as part of the cathedral rebuild. If not then, like “the dog that didn’t bark in the night”, that would tend to support my contention that these already existed from earlier times.

But note that the foliage adornments would have needed freshly carving. These carvings are exquisitely done, and to the uninitiated (such as myself) this achievement looks hideously difficult and complicated, more so even than carving faces, given the deep and convoluted 3D structures required. But it may be one of those skills that are actually fairly simple and routine with practice, and the carving of accurate life-like faces that is the more subtle and demanding task.


I doubt if the question of the nave corbel carvings’ identity will ever be settled beyond all doubt to everyone’s satisfaction. But having presented the evidence for my identifications (plural!), I now rest my case.


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

I have already acknowledged in the post the mystery photographer, but I repeat here my gratitude for his tireless labours. If only these were properly visible and organised on the Web. Perhaps they are, but if so I have not found them. Reverse image searches with TinEye turn up nothing that leads to the vast treasure trove of images he must by now have amassed!

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


As Dr Samuel Johnson said, “In writing a book, the author must turn over a whole library”, and it is surprising how many works, as follows, I have had to cite even for a post this short (relative to a book!). Where links are provided, to books out of copyright, these point to ebook versions.

[BayTap] Explore the Bayeux Tapestry online – A panorama with high-resolution images

[AvHenry] Exeter Cathedral keystones and carvings (online survey)

[Ottery] The Collegiate Church of Ottery St Mary, by J N Dalton (1917)

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

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

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

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

[Odo] The man behind the Bayeux Tapestry – Odo, William the Conqueror’s half-brother; T Rowley; History Press (2013)

[Rastell] The pastyme of people – The cronycles of dyuers realmys and most specyally of the realme of Englond, by John Rastell (1530)

[Clanchy] England and its rulers – 1066-1307; M T Clanchy; Wiley (4th ed, 2014)

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