Note of a report, commissioned by English Heritage in 2003, on the dates of timbers used in the construction of Holy Cross and how its conclusions affect our knowledge of the building history of the church.
The most accurate way of dating wood used in an old building is to take samples (which is done using a 15mm corer attached to an electric drill) from some of the timber, to examine the ring patterns in the wood and to match them with those in a piece of timber of known date. This science has been christened dendrochronology
In any year every tree in a region tends to make more or less the same amount of wood growth. Looking at the pattern of ring growth over the years of any piece of wood and matching the rings with those of a piece of timber of known date, enables one to date a piece of wood with complete precision and if the timber in question had traces of bark on it, to know the exact year of its felling and even the time of that year in which it was felled. Although patterns of growth are comparable across a region, they are affected by weather and soil/rock type, and of course in the UK there are great regional variations in both, so data bases have been constructed of the patterns of growth of timber in various parts of the country. These are held by academic institutions, several of which conduct research for English Heritage.
Most timber used in medieval and Early Modern era construction was oak and oak felled locally. It would have been used very soon after felling – it wasn’t stockpiled. For example, samples have been taken from the oak beams in the roof space of Exeter Cathedral (the trees were all from the Bishop of Exeter’s estates in Newton St Cyres and Chudleigh and the timber was probably matured under water for just a year at Newton and Chudleigh mills) and the dates that the scientists give for the felling of the trees used in these beams match within a couple of years the dates given for their use in a particular part of the cathedral in the Fabric Rolls, the ongoing account (on vellum) of the Gothic reconstruction of the cathedral in the C13th and C14th which are still held in the Cathedral Archives.
Results for the Holy Cross Timbers
Samples were taken from timbers of the tower of Holy Cross (from the floor and ceiling of the clock chamber, the bracing of the clock chamber, the ringing chamber floor and the old bell frame). Other samples were taken from the big oak planks of the floor of the Governors’ Room, from the joists and tie beams under the planks and from the roof trusses.
The old bell frame – some reused sixteenth century wood was used in its construction
There is much wood of the late C18th/early C19th in the frame in which the eight bells just smelted in the Whitechapel Foundry were housed, but a certain amount of older timber, readily identifiable, was also used in its construction. This re-used material has been dated to the early 1530’s. Other tower timbers sampled, from the floor and ceiling of the clock chamber, the clock chamber bracing and from the floor of the ringing chamber were from a few years later, but from before 1540. The suggestion in the English Heritage report is that the frame of which the re-used timbers were originally part was one which held bells (at that time, new bells) which together with their new frame proved too heavy for the old floors of the tower to bear and that old timbers were showing signs of strain; it concludes that the supporting wood dating from the late 1530’s was put in place to cope with this additional weight. The Collegiate Church was surrendered to Henry VIII on 27th May, 1545 (the dissolution of the monasteries began in 1536, that of the collegiate churches and the chantries in 1545), so the major project of the complete rearrangement of the internal layout of the timber support of the middle section of the tower was therefore probably completed just before the Roman Catholic Canons and Vicars disappeared from Holy Cross.
The Governors’ Room
This floor planking has been dated to the mid fifteenth century and the roof timbers to the very early part of the nineteenth century.
The report reveals that the trees from which the planking of the Governors’ Room floor was cut were growing between 1434 and 1483. This exciting information tells us that the fine two foot wide oak planks must have been trodden by the Deans, Canons and Vicars of Crediton Collegiate Church and that they were inserted as part of the late Gothic reconstruction of Holy Cross.
The timber of the ceiling of the Governors’ Room was growing between 1785 and 1821 – and it seems likely that it was placed there at an early stage of the restoration of the church in the C19th .
The Chapter House of Holy Cross
The knowledge that the timbers of the Governors’ Room floor are of the mid-fifteenth century helps us to draw conclusions about the internal structure of the Chapter House in that century.
The southwards extension of the church we call the Chapter House was probably originally built in the second half of the C13th. Until the Reformation it had two floors. The lower one comprised a chapel – the existence of a drain for a double piscina ( found in the southern wall in the early 1920’s) and an altar in the west wall (mentioned in medieval record) are evidence of this – and at least one other room, a vestry, which is referred to in Bishop Stapeldon’s Register (1312).
This was used for the storage of clerical garments (special cupboards are needed for copes) and for robing. In fact the church is mentioned as having two vestries in an inventory of 1548, a high one, and by implication, a lower one (see next paragraph).
The Chapter would have wanted to proceed from its meeting room to the high altar robed, so a robing area at ground level was an essential – it would have been impossible for priests to negotiate stairs in mass vestments – and this would certainly have been separated from the chapel by a wall.
Thomas Barton (d 1416), whose will is quoted in Bishop Stafford’s Register, left a large sum in gold (£20) to be kept in “the Archives of Crediton Church” together with an iron-bound chest and a coffer for its storage. Archives are also mentioned in Bishop Lacy’s Register (1443). Logistically, the Chapter House, which was essentially the “administration block” of the church, would have been the obvious natural home for any archive, and three chests, possibly including Barton’s (together with a lamp and candlesticks) are recorded as being in “the high vestry” in an inventory of 1548. A mass of papers and money and gold left to fund the saying of masses together with other church funds and of course the church plate – much of which is listed in inventories of 1524 and 1548 – had to be safely stored. Robbery was commonplace in medieval times and during the sixteenth century (the Churchwardens’ Accounts for Morebath, near Tiverton, record three robberies between 1520 and 1560), and gold and coin, church plate and precious documents would be a great deal safer at first floor than ground floor level, so it seems likely that the upper vestry (separated from the study area by a partition) served both as a treasury and archives and possibly a library as well. There are records of many books being left to the Chapter over the years.
The present library, over the south-west porch, was in the parish part of the medieval church, and was no doubt used exclusively for parish records until the Reformation. During the rebuilding of the church in the C15th, it seems likely that the arches of the northern boundary of the chapel were blocked-in to form the present solid wall of the south choir aisle. We can reasonably guess that the chapel extended northwards to these arches, southwards to the wall of the present sink and water heater, eastwards to the limit of the present vestry, and westwards to the walls of the medieval vestry. The chapel almost certainly had a vaulted ceiling, and with the masonry and woodwork necessary for this, there would only have been space for a single floor above it. This can be confirmed by looking at the present windows and the outlines of their predecessors on the outside of the south wall.
The Upper Room
The upper room was the Chapter House itself, the room where the chapter of the Collegiate Church met and studied. At its busiest there were 36 canons and vicars (with ancillary staff in the form of clerks, annuellars and choir members) serving the church, but we know that many of these had up to half-a-dozen posts in a variety of churches and cathedrals around the West Country, and that as they were frequently absent, the population at any one time could have been accommodated comfortably in the room. Knowing that the timbers of the floor of its upper room were inserted in the middle years of the C15th, we can now safely assume that the re-arrangement of the interior of the Chapter House began well after the choir and the nave of the church had been reconstructed in Perpendicular Gothic style (this work was started between 1410 and 1420 and was probably finished by mid-century). Part of this work was the blocking-in of the arches between the south choir aisle and the Chapter House Chapel. Deep grooves flank the blocked-in arches, the purpose of which is obscure. It has been suggested that these might have held screens when the chapel was open to the aisle. Altars and chapels were very important to pre-Reformation clerics and to lose one of their eight altars and a substantial area of worship designated for the Chapter would have been a considerable blow to the prestige of the church. It seems almost certain, therefore, to the writer that the now four-walled chapel (together with its vault) must have survived until the Reformation, and that the present lower floors with their interior walling were created sometime in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. A careful examination of the Governors’ records would probably tell us exactly when this happened.