ST PANCRAS CHURCH
This small church in a most unlikely setting in the middle of the Guildhall Shopping & Dining represents the very heart of British Exeter, and perhaps the oldest foundations of the city.
The present St Pancras Church probably had its origins in a small church built by Roman Christians, possibly as early as the fourth century AD. They dedicated the church to the 14-year old boy-saint Pancras, who was martyred in 304 by the Emperor Diocletian. The plan of the church as it stands is almost identical to the Saxon church at Escombe, Durham. Evidence of a Saxon door was discovered when the church was repaired in the first half of the 19th Century, and some of the rough red stones built into the walls have survived from this early construction. Three carved fragments in particular can be seen high in the south wall of the chancel. Legend has it that St Boniface, aged seven, received his earliest education from Saxon Wolfhard in a nearby abbey, so may well have worshipped here around 680.
St Pancras was with his mother in AD 304 when she was summoned to the Roman Emperor Diocletian. When accused of her faith by the Emperor his mother confessed Christ without fear. Diocletian then turned to the boy, observing that so fine and tall a lad would of course have nothing to do with this foolish superstition, but would worship the Emperor’s gods and win rank and favour in his service. St Pancras promptly replied that he would have no God other than the one his mother worshipped, and that for none of the Emperor’s favours would he desert his mother or deny her faith. This answer so much enraged Diocletian that he killed both of them on the spot
I may be small, nevertheless I am heard over a wide distance.
The present church, 46 feet long and 16 feet wide, was first recorded in 1191, and is constructed from coarse local Heavitree stone. The impressive Norman font is original, as is the scalloped piscina (a stone basin) in the south wall, where holy vessels were washed. The windows in the chancel and the stairs to a rood loft (a raised gallery) were added in the 14th Century, when the building would have stood without a church yard, tightly surrounded by stables, shops and houses in what was then described as Exeter’s British Quarter.
The Church bell was cast by Exeter’s own Robert Norton, a leading bellmaker from the reign of Henry VI (1422 – 1461). Norton was responsible for many fine bells throughout the region, and this example bears the Latin inscription Quamvis sum parva tamen audior ampla per arva – “I may be small, nevertheless I am heard over a wide distance.”
During the rule of Oliver Cromwell, St Pancras was one of twelve churches in Exeter. Following England’s declaration as a commonwealth in 1658, the Government decided that the city required only four, and so put St Pancras up for sale, before being bought
back by the parishioners for the sum of £50 and saved from demolition. The tombstones on the walls inside the church were transferred
from other city churches that are no longer standing, (the accompanying remains were taken to The Higher Cemetery).
Over the centuries
St Pancras stood disused and neglected from 1658 to 1831. One commentator wrote in 1806 “As no use is now made of this Church, except as a cemetery for a few families, it is consequently very much neglected and may soon be desecrated.” The neglect continued until 1831 when the church was repaired and reseated. These repairs however were not carried out with much care or skill, and the chancel arch was destroyed and substituted with plain brick.
Again St Pancras fell into disuse, until 1888, when a new restoration programme was undertaken. Saving the chancel was impossible after years of neglect and it was rebuilt again, when traces of the original early English arch were found. The East window (featuring the Lord on the Cross, St Pancras and St Boniface) was a gift to the church from Bishop Tozer of Zanzibar at the end of the 19th Century.
Today St Pancras Church sits fully restored and preserved in Guildhall Shopping & Dining, a harbour of peace and tranquillity in the heart of a busy city. St Pancras is open for worship every weekday, and services are held weekly – please see inside the church for details.
On Tuesday 7th August 2012 there was a service held in the Church to dedicate the fitting of the newly re-spliced and re-plaited bell rope. The repair was funded by Guildhall Shopping & Dining, who were more than happy to support this well deserving cause.
Helping to celebrate the event were members of the Moretonhampstead Hand Bell Ringers, together with dignitaries from the church and the city.