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Bishop Leofric - first Bishop of Exeter

Page updated 21 July 2008

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As the first Bishop of Exeter, Leofric was a bishop of prominence, bridging the old Saxon ways with those of the Norman invaders. Born in 1016, Leofric was a Briton of Celtic Devonian origin. According to William of Malmsbury he was sent to Lotharingia to train for the church - this was an ancient part of the Continent that stretched from the Netherlands to north west France and into Germany. In 1039 he met the future King Edward the Confessor, and accompanied him back to England in 1041, where he served as a scribe to the Royal Court - "sometime lord chancellor of England." In 1047, Leofric was promoted to be Bishop of Devon and Cornwall, the seat of which was in Crediton.

In 1050, Bishop Leofric requested that the Bishopric based in Crediton be moved to Exeter for safety. At this time, the undefended country around Crediton was prone to attack by Northmen, and Exeter with its wall was an easier place to defend. The old Exeter monastery that was founded by King Athelstan in 928, had also been attacked by the Danes, notably in 1003 when the building was burnt down.

The Leofric Missal in the Bodlein Library records that "...with the king leading the bishop on his right hand and the most noble queen Edith on his left, they installed him in the episcopal throne in the aforesaid monastery in the presence of the chiefs and many men of rank of the English people... the honourable man Leofric was thus enthroned with great pomp and became the first bishop of Exeter."

Leofric came to a minster that was both run down and poor. There were few books of little value and 'one worthless priest's dress'. Over the years, Bishop Leofric added to the library and increased the minster's wealth, handing on to the next bishop, land, animals, church furniture, sacred vessels and 55 books. An Exeter manuscript records some of the books he donated to the church.

"Two complete mass books; 1 Collectarium; 2 Books of Epistles (Pistel Bec[330]); 2 complete Sang Bec; 1 Book of night sang; 1 Book unus liber, a Breviary or Tropery; 2 Psalters; 3 Psalters according to the Roman copies; 2 Antiphoners; A precious book of blessings; 3 others; 1 Book of Christ in English; 2 Summer Reading bec; 1 Winter ditto; Rules and Canons; 1 Martyrology; 1 Canons in Latin; 1 Confessional in English; 1 Book of Homilies and Hymns for Winter and Summer; 1 Boethius on the Consolation of Philosophy, in English (King Alfred's translation); 1 Great Book of Poetry in English; 1 Capitular; 1 Book of very ancient nocturnal sangs; 1 Pistel bec; 2 Ancient ræding bec; 1 for the use of the priest; also the following books in Latin, viz., 1 Pastoral of Gregory; 1 Dialogues of Gregory; 1 Book of the Four Prophets; 1 Boethius Consolation of Philosophy; 1 Book of the offices of Amalar; 1 Isagoge of Porphyry; 1 Passional; 1 book of Prosper; 1 book of Prudentius the Martyr; 1 Prudentius; 1 Prudentius (de Mrib.); 1 other book; 1 Ezechael the Prophet; 1 Isaiah the Prophet; 1 Song of Songs; 1 Isidore Etymology; 1 Isidore on the New and Old Testament; 1 Lives of the Apostles; 1 Works of Bede; 1 Bede on the Apocalypse; 1 Bede's Exposition on the Seven Canonical Epistles; 1 book of Isidore on the Miracles of Christ; 1 book of Orosius; 1 book of Machabees; 1 book of Persius; 1 Sedulus; 1 Avator; 1 book of Statius with a gloss."

Leofric was fond of Anglo Saxon poetry, and Exeter Cathedral holds the Exeter Book, considered one of the earliest works of poetry in England. It, and all the listed books above would have been painstakingly produced by scribes with quill pens.

The church expanded in Exeter, and the Bishop consecrated St Martin's Church in Cathedral Yard, in July 1065. In 1068, William I arrived at the Eastgate, to capture the walled town. Bishop Leofric interceded to allow a violent free takeover. William was content to allow Leofric to continue as Bishop until his death in 1072. He was buried in the crypt of his cathedral.

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