But it is not until the days of the third Bishop, William Warelwast, a nephew of the Conqueror, that the ascertainable history of our present Cathedral begins. In the year 1112, says the "Short Chronicle of Exeter," (among our archives, and copied in the MSS. of C.C.C. and in Archbishop Laud's papers in the Bodleian Library) "the Church of Exeter," (i.e. the present Cathedral Church, the Cathedral of Laud's days and of our own), "was first founded."(2) That Church, as we shall see hereafter, passed through two distinct phases or conditions, the one Norman with Transitional additions, the other Decorated.
The great question about the Norman builders (1112 - circ. 1200) is, How much did they do? How much, that is, of the present plan and structure of the Cathedral was included in their design, and how much was ultimately carried out by them?
Now, that they built the mighty Transeptal Towel's, at once the glory and the riddle of our Cathedral, is certain from the architecture. The arrangement is very unusual, and very striking. There are, it seems, but three Cathedral Churches(3) in the world that have two towers in exactly that position: and (no doubt by imitation) the Church of Ottery St. Mary, Devon.
One word, first, as to the relative dates of our two Towers. We may, perhaps, place the Northern second, since we discern here a later variety of Norman work (c. 1150), in the interlacing arcade occurring half way up; though another account of this may be given, as will be seen presently. We may presume from hence, that the new Norman Cathedral began with the Choir and Southern Tower. There is some very simple and apparently Norman work hereabouts, viz., the Chapel of the Holy Ghost, south of this Tower. It may even, from the great simplicity of its vaulting, be Saxon - a relic of Leofric's or earlier times. And it is remarkable that here, in the Southern Tower, an inscription of the 16th century (1568) alleges that Leofric is buried. This inscription, it is true, and the monument on which it occurs, were placed there at the suggestion of our historian Hoker,(4) but an earlier monument was there already. Another account(5) however, says that Leofric was buried in the crypt of his own Church which we shall hereafter see was probably in another position than this; so that we cannot rely on Hoker's evidence as to the date of this part of the Church. On the subject of the position of Leofric's Church, I shall have occasion to say more hereafter. I proceed to speak of the two Norman Towers.
One interesting question to which they give rise is this; Were they meant, originally, to serve as Western Towers to a fabric lying east of them, and only converted into Transepts as an afterthought? or, were they intended, from the first, to stand in their present position? The former view is, no doubt, attractive. But, after the fullest consideration, I have no hesitation in joining with our best antiquaries in rejecting it. The facts on the other side are irresistible. First, there is no appearance, in the Western face of these Towers, of any suitableness to serve as a part of a facade: no portal, no ornamental work. Nothing can be more rudely simple than all the lower stages; one small window (and in the North Tower, a small door) is all there is to relieve their severity, In fact they are, up to nearly half their height, rather castles than towers. We know that (as my namesake, the great historian of the Norman Conquest, Mr. E. A. Freeman, has shown at large,) a Norman's ruling idea was to build a castle; and if he could build two, so much the better. And here our Norman architect did build two: and being under no inducement, either for ornament or utility's sake, to pierce them below (as he certainly would have been, had they been Western Towers), he gave full scope to his genius, and shut the world out most effectually. And it was no doubt owing to the fortress-like character thus imparted to the new Cathedral, that it was indebted for being soundly battered by King Stephen(6) in 1136, twenty-five years after its foundation. It is very possible that it is to a partial demolition, at that time, of the Northern Tower, that we owe the difference of character, above noted, of the upper half of it. But, secondly, the remains of Norman work west of the Towers, prove that they were from the first intended to serve as Transepts. - (See Plan).
If it be asked, Why build transeptal towers at all? it is obvious to rejoin, Why not? The real wonder is that there are no more of them in the world, rather than that there should be so very few. For the arrangement is noble, and productive of a goodly external effect. The purpose of towers is not merely and solely to contain bells. They are to the exterior what the soaring arch and roof are to the interior, - the heavenward-reaching element, - the symbol of prayer. And if, in the case of churches so arranged, the central tower or spire reminds us of the folded, upward-pointing hands of some old recumbent effigy, - our two-fold towers may equally well image forth that ancient gesture of prayer, which prevailed alike among Pagans and Israelites (1 Kings viii, 54; Virg. ’n. i, 97), the lifting up of the outspread palms towards Heaven. It is, we may say, our Cathedral evermore "Duplices tendens ad sidera palmas ; " "Stretching forth both its hands to heaven."