Skip to main content
21st November 2007 Edward Anderson

An illuminating evening in the Chapel

Exeter is one of the most beautiful of the Oxford colleges, and with the spire’s illumination on Sunday 18th November, its buildings have become just that bit more so. It was fitting then that Geoffrey Tyack, an expert on college’s history, came to give a short history of its buildings and particularly its chapels — all three of them!

As well as being one of the most beautiful colleges, Exeter is also one of the oldest, and as Tyack made clear with his fascinating slide show, a lot can happen architecturally in 700 years. From its early (and somewhat meagre) beginnings in the early 14th century, the college’s story has been one of great expansion, to the point where it has actually moved southward from the original site. Palmer’s Tower for example, the first gatehouse and the oldest part of the present college, once marked the entrance; now, it sits snugly between the Rector’s Lodgings and the rest of the front quad, and plays host to ICT technicians, not guards.

Following in the wake of the rest of the university, Exeter continued to grow through the early 1600s, adding a new hall (which still stands) and a new chapel (i.e., the second chapel). This chapel was almost as unique as the current one, having the unusual structure of two parallel naves; it was also slightly smaller as the Rector’s Lodgings would have occupied some space. In 1703, the Townsend family, responsible for much of the building in Oxford, built a new, classical gate tower, of a similar height and position to today’s gothic equivalent. The door to the college at this time would have held closer resemblance to the Sheldonian Theatre, Worcester College, and Queen’s.

The most interesting part of the talk was the history of the present chapel, designed by George Gilbert Scott in 1853. Tyack dispelled several of the myths surrounding this building, such as the widely held notion that it is an out‐and‐out copy of Paris’s Sainte‐Chapelle, and he showed images of its old woodwork, now harboured in part at the Oxford Museum and in part around the country, as well as prints of other proposed designs.

Tyack spoke enthusiastically and passionately on a subject potentially dry (unlike the weather!). In spite of the rain however, students turned out to watch the spire light up, and, having been initiated into the more arcane histories of the college, must have felt all the more proud to be here.

Share this article