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St Mary Arches Church - Mary Arches Street

Page updated 12th March 2013

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Situated just off the top of Fore Street in what was a narrow alleyway and is now an important part of the one-way system, this little church has some important Norman features. It retains its Norman windows and the arches lining each side of the nave, separating it from the side aisles. Dating from the reign of Henry I, it still retains remnants of its Norman architecture, primarily in its distinctive Norman arches and arcade.

During the 14th to 16th centuries, it was used as a centre of worship by many merchants and Mayors of Exeter, and memorials and tombs of some are still evident. There are up to eight City Magistrates buried within the precincts of the church. St Mary Arches' was one of the four city churches to escape the closing, ordered by Commonwealth regime following the Civil War, of all of Exeter's churches.

In September 1739, John Wesley was offered the chance to preach from the church - however, the arrangement was hastily cancelled when his doctrine was judged to be 'dangerous' and 'might lead people into enthusiasm or despair' by Bishop Stephen Weston.

When the public conduit situated outside the College of the Vicars Choral in South Street was demolished in 1830, the four decorative stone balls on the top were relocated onto the four corners of the tower of St Mary Arches, where they remain to this day.

A couple of personalities

In 1918, a former St David's School pupil, and St Mary Arches' choir boy, Gunner William Ford was awarded the DCM for gallantry. Mr. Reginald J. Woodland, of Howell Road, passed the Association Examination of the Royal College of Organists at the age of 26. He had been appointed organist at the church at the age of 15. He acquired a high reputation, and had taken the church's choir to Wells Cathedral in 1931.

The church celebrated the 800th Anniversary of its founding in June 1930, three years before the Cathedral was founded.

Almost destroyed

The church escaped the actual bombing of 4th May 1942. However, while the sisters of St Wilfrid's Community held a communion service on the next day, a smouldering incendiary bomb erupted. The sisters had to dash into the church to save the processional cross and crucifix. The 15th-century wagon roof was badly damaged and much original furniture was lost.

By 1950, the church had been restored by S Dykes-Bower. On Sunday 8 May, the church was rededicated by The Rt Rev Surtees, Bishop of Crediton, with a large number of parishioners in attendance. The roof, was rebuilt as a barrel vault, using oak and red pine timbers from the US timber store at the Topsham Naval Store that had been held back to repair landing craft damaged during D-Day. The baulks of timber were 16ft long, 11 inches wide and 4 inches tick. One oft repeated, and incorrect, story goes that they used timber from a beached landing craft that took part in the D-day landings. The outside was not so well restored and imitation stone was used to make repairs.

The church is now the home of the colours of Devon's Home Guard, or 'Dad's Army' and those men who died defending Devon during the air-raids. See Home Guard Graves

Sources: Western Morning News (9 May 1950), 2000 Years in Exeter by W G Hoskins.

St Mary Arches Church, Mary Arches Street St Mary Arches Church before Mary Arches Street was widened.St Mary Arches Church, Mary Arches Street The Colours of the Devon Home Guard hang in St Mary Arches' Church.

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