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The Devon and Exeter Institution and its Medieval Resources

Last July Cheryl Cooper, who had just completed a History degree at Exeter, did a student internship (funded by the College of Humanities and the Widening Participation scheme) looking at resources for medieval research in the Devon and Exeter Institution.  She sums up her findings here.  Now that we’re gearing up for the new academic year it might particularly interest returning undergraduates and MA students who are thinking about possible dissertation topics.  For Exeter students and staff, Cheryl’s full report will shortly be put on the undergraduate and MA history dissertation ELE sites.


The DEI is one of Exeter’s hidden gems. A perfect paradise of calm and tranquillity for writers, historians and anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Tucked away in the historic centre of Exeter, the DEI, from the outside, looks like many of the quaint buildings in Exeter Cathedral quarter, boasting beautiful cathedral views but you would be remiss to believe that this is where the magnificence of the DEI ends. The real treasures of the DEI are located just behind the historic front doors. Founded in 1813 for ‘promoting the general diffusion of Science, Literature and the Arts, and for illustrating the natural and Civil History of the county of Devon and the History of the City of Exeter’, the DEI holds over thirty-thousand volumes and thousands of maps, prints and pamphlets and continues to be a ‘living library’ in which new acquisitions continue to be sourced. Students of Exeter University are automatically eligible for membership of the DEI for the duration of their degree, but unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) the DEI is a place that stays undiscovered for many students at Exeter. This may be partly due to the fact that many students, myself included, were/are unaware they are members of this hidden gem. As well as boasting a rather grand and peaceful reading room there are a number of study desks located in the library itself. The DEI makes a welcome change to the hustle and bustle of the campus library, and whether you choose to study in the library itself or in the reading room under the shadow of the cathedral, you will not be disappointed spending a few hours in this beautiful building – in fact as historians, the environment may even add some extra flair to your historical writing, as it certainly transported me back a few decades!

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Medieval Resources at the DEI

Last July I was delighted to accept an internship with Exeter University cataloguing the medieval material held at the DEI – rifling through old books in a beautiful historic building did not seem like a bad way to spend a few weeks of my summer. The aim of the role was to try and get a clearer idea of what medieval materials the DEI possessed and to organize and present my findings in a way that would be useful for medievalists. Professor Henry French and Dr Catherine Rider had informed me at interview stage that to date, there was no comprehensive list of medieval materials held at the DEI so there was no way of knowing how long this task would take. It was a case of digging through the materials and finding a way of making it accessible to future researchers. I found this an exciting prospect, if not a little daunting. It was a project which I could fully co-ordinate and organise myself and one in which no one was sure what I might find hidden in the depths of the DEI. Of course as an historian the dream of finding a rare, undiscovered manuscript, hiding, untouched on a dusty shelf was never far away. Alas, this did not happen, but I did discover that the DEI holds a wealth of resources for medievalists, in particular for those wanting to research the history of the local area and contemporary views on medieval life.  

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The DEI (for those yet to visit) consists of two large rooms downstairs (The Inner Library and The Outer Library) and the Gallery situated upstairs. With over thirty-thousand volumes held within these rooms it was almost impossible to know where to begin. However, for this I must thank Paul and Derek from the DEI library team, who sat with me and explained how the library catalogue worked, where the most likely places to find medieval resources were and certain books of interest. Without their help I think I may have been unintentionally trapped in the DEI forever examining each book in turn! With their advice, as well as help and advice from Dr Catherine Rider, I identified the following categories as areas of interest: the Rolls Series, Local History, Wider Local History, Royal History and General History. These five areas are the ones which are covered in the most depth in my catalogue. The aim is to help medievalists who are researching the local area and students who are embarking on a research project and who want to use this local collection of sources.

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Working through the areas identified produced a surprisingly large amount of medieval material; so much so, that it was impossible within this internship to list every individual resource. The catalogue produced is intended to give the researcher an idea of what type of material is held in each category and list examples from each. I have also included material that I found to be the most interesting, for example The Alchemical Testament of John Gybbys, translated from a 1423 ms held at the Bodleian Library and a wardrobe account from Edward I. I have tried to select a wide range of material to showcase just how useful the DEI library can be to medievalists.

This project has highlighted the medieval resources held at the DEI and has hopefully catalogued them in way which proves useful for medievalists. I would highly recommend the DEI as a place to study for Exeter students and hopefully this guide will show that it holds potential for medieval researchers. There are still areas yet to be covered in the hunt for medieval material, so who knows that medieval manuscript or unpublished source may be hiding in the DEI waiting for you to find it! Happy researching!

Cheryl Cooper, BA History Graduate and MA Student, University of Exeter


Exeter’s Hotel Fire and Historians: A Different Kind of Impact

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Fire takes hold of the Royal Clarence

Mid-morning on 28 October I received an urgent request from BBC Spotlight to provide historical background on an emerging news story in Exeter: the Royal Clarence Hotel had just caught fire.  Within a few minutes I was in Cathedral Yard and watched in despair as the flames spread across the building.  More than 150 fire-fighters, police and ambulance crews had already filled Cathedral Green.  Over the next hour the knot of journalists increased to several dozen and I remained there for most of the following four days as the fire took hold of the building and refused to be put out.  Requests by other journalists increased and I eventually gave more than 50 interviews to local, regional, national and international media in print, radio and television.  These began at 7am on site but the latest one, at 10.30 pm, took place at home when the BBC organised it so I could Skype.  However, the chaos of papers in my study was picked up upon by the engineer who suggested that I should tidy the background – I hadn’t the heart to point out that I had spent 10 minutes to make it, as I thought, look respectable.

The story had a tag which gave it national status: the fire was destroying ‘England’s First Hotel’.  It seemed inappropriate in the midst of a disaster to nit-pick and state that this might not be the case, so I had to carefully note the Royal Clarence as being ‘long known as England’s first hotel’.

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Todd being interviewed at the scene

It transpired that I was in an advantageous position (situated within the police cordon and placed in the media area) and it was an ITN reporter who realised that only I had any knowledge of the historic nature of the buildings.  In that opening hour I was given access to senior fire officers and relayed details of the buildings’ physical constructions and histories – I was able to draw upon the investigations which had been made by the now defunct Exeter Archaeology Unit.  On one side of the main hotel building lies two merchant town houses of the early 1600s and behind the hotel block is a range of other similar buildings in the High Street, one at least of which was built in about 1500 or earlier, and these are more significant architecturally than the hotel itself.  To my great relief the fire service stressed the saving of these merchant houses – these men and women achieved a near miraculous survival as the backs of the buildings, which adjoin the hotel, were already alight.  Even so, while these fires were largely put out by Saturday, they continued to flare up and smoulder for the following few days.

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High Street buildings that backed onto the Royal Clarence

By chance it was only a few months ago that I had acted as general editor for Jannine Crocker’s Elizabethan Inventories & Wills of the Exeter Orphan Accounts, a two-volume collection of documents published by the Devon & Cornwall Record Society (currently available by request through www.stevensbooks.co.uk) and it appears as though two of these High Street buildings have extensive inventories of the late 1500s.  These provide a sense of use which bring alive these magnificent buildings – Exeter at its best.  The publication of these documents is timely in that they will be useful in the imminent reinvestigation of these buildings.

On the second day of the fire, while the buildings were still burning, I was asked by Exeter City Council (ECC) to give a lecture on the disaster in the following week.  Media appearances had made me a familiar face and I had previously worked with ECC on a number of projects.  The council identified a public need to gather and a lecture would give a focus to this.  Instead I suggested that I contribute to a session in which I would invite those building archaeologists who had extensive understandings of the buildings.  I organised the event, all the speakers volunteered their time, and the venue, the Barnfield Theatre, was filled to capacity (300 seats).  Another 150 people were turned away.  A repeat event was similar.  The first session was filmed by the council and is online via youtube. What has emerged is a passionate interest and support amongst the public for the city’s built heritage.  I have rebranded the bloc of buildings ‘St Martin’s Island’ and this has been widely taken up.

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The site of the Royal Clarence on Cathedral Green and the extent of the damage revealed

This past fortnight Exeter experienced a palpable sense of shock and loss; the Clarence was a familiar building located in the most prominent part of the city.  Until now the city’s most famous fire had been that of its theatre in 1887. This was followed by German bombing in WWII that destroyed more than a thousand buildings and killed hundreds of people. The fire at the Clarence, as traumatic as it was, gives just of what the loss must have felt like for Exonians two generations ago.

The experience has raised questions, for me personally, beyond merely the use of the present to understand the past.  It became obvious that a historian’s presence at the fire was important but it required putting aside all other commitments and dedicating nearly a fortnight entirely to it.  I was aware that Exeter University recieved a considerable boost in its media presence during this fortnight but also that it was taking a different form to that in which impact is normally measured.  Perhaps what the experience has most clearly shown is one way in which historians can make a tangible contribution in terms beyond standard academic considerations.

Dr Todd Gray, Honory Research Fellow in History at Exeter

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