This church is a highlight for anyone interested in Exeter’s rich cultural history. Originally founded in the 13th century as a chapel on the west side of the Exe Bridge by Cowick Priory, this Grade 1 listed church has been involved in some of the most significant events in this country for the past 500 years.
The church was built to serve the important settlement which grew up on the side of the river away from the city. During the Prayer Book rebellion under King Henry VIII’s Protestant reign, the counties of Devon and Cornwall rose up in 1549 to restore the old Latin services. The parish Vicar Robert Welshe joined the rebellion and was hung from the gibbet on the top of the church tower for his efforts.
When the Civil War broke out in 1642 Exeter declared for Parliament. Soon the city was under siege, surrounded by troops loyal to the King. In September 1643, the city surrendered to the Royalists, but the tide of the war turned again and in January 1646, General Fairfax encircled Exeter. St Thomas Church was burnt down on the 30th January 1645. Following the victory by the Parliamentarians, under Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell the church was rebuilt by 1657.
On July 1942 a bomb dropped by the German Luftwaffe landed next to the church, damaging the stained-glass windows at the East end and the Lady Chapel wall.
Building campaigns during the late Georgian and early Victorian periods are what makes St. Thomas unique, as well as its’ history and heritage. The church underwent a major remodelling in the 1820s, and this included rebuilding the eastern parts on an ambitious scale. The work begun in 1827 at the East end means that the light spaciousness of the chancel contrasts with the low, long nave and aisles as might be expected from the external appearance of a building in the gothic style.
Mid-17th-century and 1820’s work on the scale of St Thomas is quite unusual in English churches and thus this gives the building special importance. The 17th-century work was altered in the 19th century but the tower is essentially intact and is an important example of Gothic survival into the post-Reformation period. An arcade survives from the earlier church of 1412.
This fantastic building is part-way through a major restoration, partly via Heritage Lottery funding. A legacy of poor construction and inadequate repairs during the twentieth century saw things became critical, with the collapse of a significant section of plaster work in the North Transept and the collapse of hood mouldings to the door and window on the exterior wall of the north east elevation of the church.
The church has a large graveyard – anyone interested in history and a step back in time will find this absolutely fascinating.