871/5/10 WEST STREET
29-JAN-53 (Northeast side)
CHURCH OF ST MARY STEPS
15th-century fabric. 1868-72 restored by Edward Ashworth. 1966 chancel reordered by Lawrence King.
MATERIALS: Red Heavitree stone in large blocks; limestone dressings. NW red-brick vestry of brick. Slate roofs.
PLAN: Nave, chancel, SW tower, S aisle and chapel, NW vestry.
EXTERIOR: The church is very compact which reflects its constricted site just within the walls of medieval Exeter. The E wall of the building is angled in relation to the body of the building, so the church is longer on the N side than the S. The site also rises sharply to the N, hence the high-set appearance of the S aisle to balance the level with the chancel. The main façade, to the S, presents the S aisle and its adjacent tower to the street. The aisle has three three-light Perpendicular windows with panel tracery and which appear to have been renewed at the 19th-century restoration. Beneath the SE window is a plain round-headed doorway and a three-light mullioned window to a room, once a porter's lodge, below the SE chapel. The aisle, like the tower, is embattled. The unbuttressed tower is tall and of two-storeys and its base forms the entrance porch to the church. It has a round-arch doorway at its foot with a gentle, continuous wave moulding. Above it is a two-light window. Then, over this comes a clock of 1619 in a square frame: the dial with the sun and five stars rotates with the sun pointing to the hour. The minute had has the moon at one end. The figures round the dial probably represent Apollo and Diana, the god and goddess of the day and night, and Ceres and Minerva, the goddesses of agriculture and industry (Moreton). Above the clock, at the base of the second stage, is a niche with a cusped, ogee canopy and pinnacles and buttresses at the sides. In the centre are three figures, the central one seated: these are quarter jacks and date from 1620-21. The figures are all armed - the central figure wears a breastplate and helmet and the flanking figures carry pikes. They are known as Matthew the Miller and his sons, after a notably punctual miller of Cricklepit. The belfry windows are relatively small and are of two lights. A stair-turret in the SW comer of the tower is indicated by three small windows. The chancel has a three-light E window with 19th-century cusped intersecting tracery. Immediately N of it is a blocked, round-headed doorway. The NW vestry is a cheap, brick utilitarian structure perhaps added in the late 19th or early 20th century.
INTERIOR: The interior is plastered and whitened. It is entered up ten steps from the street through the base of the tower. The W end of the nave flanks the tower; there is then one wide arch, four-centred, capital-less arch from the nave to the aisle, then a further, similar arch from the chancel to the S chapel. The ceilings over the nave and aisle/chapel are segmental in section and are divided into panels by moulded ribs. The nave and chancel bosses are of the 15th century whereas those in the S aisle are from the 19th-century restoration.
PRINCIPAL FIXTURES: The oldest item in the church is the circular, slightly tapering Norman font which has four bands of varied ornament including a wavy trail, a band of blind arches and one of chevrons: the font cover was carved by the famous Exeter firm of Harry Hems. The most prominent feature is the screen. That part between the aisle and S chapel is work of the 15th century but was only acquired in 1866 at the restoration. It came from the medieval church of St Mary Major which used to stand near the W end of the cathedral but was demolished for a replacement. The part between the nave and the chancel follows its design and is the work of the architect Edward Ashworth and the carver Harry Hems. The dado of the screen is decorated with figures in the typical late medieval Devon style. The 19th-century altar in the chancel has an alabaster top while its frontal is tripartite with carvings of the Virgin and Child flanked by adoring angels. The bench seating is attractive with square, traceried ends in the nave. The pulpit, of wine-glass type is of stone, has a traceried polygonal top and no doubts dates from the 19th-century restoration, The stained glass in the E window of the S chapel records a date of death of 1861. That in the E window of the chancel replaces glass lost in the war and is the work of John Hayward, 1966, and depicts Christ in Majesty.
HISTORY: The church is mentioned in 1199. Then it consisted of a nave and chancel. The present building appears to date from the 15th century when the aisle, chapel and tower were probably added. It was located opposite the west gate to the walled city and takes its name from the medieval street, then known as Stepcote Hill, immediately to the E. The room below the chancel formerly served as a porter's lodge. Like other populous and prosperous towns and cities in medieval England, the formation of small parishes and the gifts of generous benefactors meant the scatter of many churches over old Exeter. St Mary Steps is one of the survivors. Like the other surviving examples it underwent a restoration in the later 19th century, in this case in 1866-72 under the local architect Edward Ashworth (1814-96). Ashworth was articled to Robert Cornish of Exeter and was later a pupil of the London architect Charles Fowler. He emigrated to New Zealand in 1842 and practised in Auckland until January 1844. He returned to his home country in 1846 and set up in Exeter where he established a reputation for himself as a church architect. The main 20th-century contribution was the reordering of the chancel (including reflooring) by Lawrence King in 1966.
Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner. The Buildings of England: Devon, 1989, p 392-3.
Michael Moreton, The Parish Church of St Mary Steps in the City and Diocese of Exeter, 1989 (reprinted 2007).
C. N. Pensford, `Time in Exeter' (1978) 31-34 on the notable clock.
REASONS FOR DESIGNATION:
The church of St Mary Steps, West Street, Exeter, is listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons:
* It is of considerable interest as a small late medieval church which retains its original fabric although this was restored in the mid-19th century.
* It is an example of one of Exeter's surviving medieval churches and is interesting in the way it completely fills its compact, irregular and steeply falling site. When considered with the other surviving medieval churches, it is a powerful reminder of major English towns and cities were supplied with numerous places of worship.
* It has several fixtures of interest which are visible signs of a long history stretching back some 800 years - a 12th-century font, 15th-century screen, 17th- and 18th-century clock and jacks, 19th-century restoration, and 20th-century reordering.
* It has considerable group value with nearby listed buildings.