History – St Mary Steps

The church of St Mary Steps was near the old West Gate, before it was dismantled. It is at the bottom of West Street, adjacent to Stepcote Hill. The original church dates from about 1150 and has some round arched Norman windows. There is also a Norman font with an ornate, conical cover carved by Harry Hems in the 19th-century. Hems also made the altar and he carved the nave screen. The church was rebuilt in the 15th century and now consists of a main building and tower of red Heavitree sandstone. Hoskins is certain that the church was originally known as St Mary Minor, with St Mary Major in Cathedral Yard the senior church.

Religious purges

The church suffered through the 16th and 17th-century religious purges, and in September 1559, thirteen pictures and the tabernacle were removed from the church and burned in St Peter’s Yard, by command of the Queen’s messenger.

A hundred years later and St Mary Steps was one of thirteen churches in Exeter ordered to be announced for sale by the public crier “… the towers of the churches were to be taken down “clean to the roof by the purchasers and to be converted either into schools or burying places.”” On the 14 September 1658, the church was sold for a £100, although it was eventually taken back by parishioners and returned to worship.

In 1744 the rector reported that “I have, upon the best calculation I can make, in my parish about 200 families. And of them, I thank God, I have not more than four whole families of Dissenters of any kind”. This was a time when so called Dissenters where growing in numbers and threatening the established church.

Matthew the Miller

An interesting feature is the Matthew the Miller clock. Made in 1619-21 by Matthew Hoppin, it is said to be named after a local miller who lived his life precisely to the tick of the clock, thus helping the locals know the time. An Exeter rhyme of Matthew the Miller runs:

“Matthew the Miller’s alive

Matthew the Miller’s dead

But Every hour on West Gate Tower

Matthew nods his head.”

The figures are said to represent Henry VIII and two guards. They are animated with the guards striking a bell each, on the quarter hour, while Henry nods sagely in the centre of the action. The clock was restored in 1980, but by 1994 the figures had deteriorated, due to exposure to the elements. The body of the central figure was re-carved, only the head remaining. The church has four bells in the tower.

The register dates from 1610, while a transcript exists from 1655.

Sources: White’s 1850, Blind Devotion of the People by Robert Whiting, Ecclesiastical antiquities in Devon By George Oliver, Journal of the British Archaeological Association By British Archaeological Association 1862

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