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HER Number:MDV10076
Name:Bishop's Court, Sowton


Substantial country house which was originally a palace of the medieval Bishops of Exeter from the mid 13th century to the mid 16th century, remodelled in the 19th century.


Grid Reference:SX 980 918
Map Sheet:SX99SE
Admin AreaDevon
Civil ParishSowton
DistrictEast Devon
Ecclesiastical ParishFARRINGDON

Protected Status

Other References/Statuses

  • Old DCC SMR Ref: SX99SE/1
  • Old Listed Building Ref (I)

Monument Type(s) and Dates

  • PALACE (Built, XIII - 1201 AD to 1300 AD (Between))
  • HOUSE (Built, XIX - 1801 AD to 1900 AD (Between))

Full description

Lysons, D. + Lysons, S., 1822, Magna Britannica, 237 (Monograph). SDV323771.

Oldham, D. W., 1906, The Private Chapels of Devon: Ancient and Modern, 394,400-1 (Article in Serial). SDV7299.

Author surmises that a private chapel at Bishops Court was licensed and erected in 1296 by Bishop Bronescombe. It was re-licensed in 1863.

Department of Environment, 1952, St Thomas RD, 106 (List of Blds of Arch or Historic Interest). SDV336328.

Hoskins, W. G., 1954, A New Survey of England: Devon, 479 (Monograph). SDV17562.

Alcock, N. W., 1966, The Medieval Buildings of Bishops Clyst, 140-4 (Article in Serial). SDV126511.

Bishop's Court. Of the medieval house only two 16th century rooms remain after a rebuilding in 1803 in Palladian Gothic style, and another in 1863 in Early English. A half ruined tower at the north west corner of the house was thought to be earlier than the rest of the house. A gatehouse had been demolished shortly before the rebuilding. The account rolls of 1374-1525 give details of repairs to the house. The house was built of stone with stone tiles on the roof. It comprised an enclosed court with most of the building probably in a block on the west, but with others round the sides, and the farm buildings outside to the east. At the centre is the hall with two louvres over an open hearth. The kitchen probably adjoined the hall; it also had a louvre and a chimney. The domestic buildings include a dairy, a coal-house, 'Le Kenell', a bakery, two cellars, a stool- house and a latrine. There was a well in the centre of the court. Round the outside was a wall with one main gatehouse and one or more posterns. A moat was outside this. The drawbridge was made in 1444, and was replaced by a stone bridge in 1524. The lord had his parlour, study and chamber, and there was a chapel and several small rooms for clerks and the lord's officials. The farm buildings were in the Barton, another walled courtyard linked to the main court. The barn and stable are frequently mentioned in the account rolls. Three other stables and a sheepfold are also mentioned. The sheepfold was rebuilt in 1408, a substantial building with two gables and probably five trusses. An ex-house was reconstructed in 1375: its timbers, three doors and wattled partitions were made, and it was thatched with rushes (the only time their use is recorded). Other farm buildings include a hay-house, a granary, a larder with a drain, a cart-house, a slaughter-house, and a dovecote, which was destroyed in 1449 and never rebuilt. The house may have been rebuilt in the 16th century. A new porch with battlements and a leaded roof, and a new stone bridge over the moat were built. Carved stone fragments remain to show how finely decorated the house was. Two rooms in the southwest corner of the house show 16th century details. Some of the beams have complex mouldings with 'converging' stops. Other details: Plates 11-12, Figs 5-6.

Alcock, N. W., 1973, An East Devon Manor in the Lter Middle Ages Part II, 141 (Article in Serial). SDV126509.

In 1546 the Manor of Bishop's Clyst passed to John Russell, but he and his successors never seemed to have resided there, unlike the Bishops who had their summer palace there. Manorial administration continued although the property was sold up in c1620.

Alcock, N. W., 1975, Fields and Farms in an East Devon Parish, 93-172 (Article in Serial). SDV130126.

Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division, 1982, SX99SE4 (Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division Card). SDV336327.

A fish pond, presumably associated with Bishop's Court, is shown on Ordnance Survey 1:10000 (1972) at SX980916.

Griffith, F. M., 1983, B, 33 (Aerial Photograph). SDV336329.

Department of Environment, 1987, Sowton, 23,24 & 25 (List of Blds of Arch or Historic Interest). SDV118121.

Substantial country house now serving in part as a company headquarters. Originally a palace of the medieval Bishops of Exeter from its purchase by Bronescombe in the mid 13th century to the mid 16th century. Considerable amounts of the 13th century fabric survive together with some fragmentary detailing. The medieval palace was a courtyard plan. Front markedly asymmetrical. The 3 principal elements in the plan - the main range and library wing, the chapel, and the service end - are carefully distinguished and dramatically contrasted. See DoE list for full details.

Cherry, B. + Pevsner, N., 1989, The Buildings of England: Devon, 181 (Monograph). SDV325629.

Devon Gardens Trust, 1999, Bishops Court (Un-published). SDV356149.

An intensely Gothic mansion remodelled by William White in1860-4, a transformation of a house of circa 1800 which itself incorporated remains of the most important medieval country residence of the Bishops of Exeter (acquired in1265 and used by them until 1546).

Fisher, J., 1999, East Devon Conservation Area Appraisals: Sowton, 5 (Report - non-specific). SDV347074.

Thorpe, J. + Horton, D., 2005, The Great Barn and Medieval Stables at Bishops Court, Devon, 2-3 (Report - Survey). SDV359932.

Bishops Court was the country residence of the bishops of Exeter from 1265 to 1546. Little remains visible of the medieval residence except for the shell of the chapel and a few 15th or 16th century features in two small rooms on the ground floor. However, the known history of the house coupled with its modernised layout suggests it incorporates much more ancient fabric. Revd. Swete visited the old house in 1801 and illustrations of it appear in his Tours of Devon. The present house is largely the result of remodelling by William White in 1860-45 which transformed an earlier refurbishment of 1803 from a more restrained Palladian Gothic building to a High Victorian Gothic structure.

Parker, R. + Allan, J. + Fletcher, M. + Higham, R. + Laithwaite, M., 2006, The Bishop's Palace at Chudleigh, 226 (Article in Serial). SDV338151.

Nothing now remains of defences at the house now known as Bishop's Court but manorial accounts reveal that the site once had an enclosure wall, tower, moat, postern, gatehouse and drawbridge. The absence from the accounts of any major works on the defences in or immediately after 1379 make it seem unlikely that they resulted from a licence to crenellate but were built over a longer period of time. The accounts also reveal that Bishop's Court comprised two adjoining courtyards with buildings, one mainly residential and the other primarily agricultural in function. Elements of the site's plan may have survived from the 13th century, associated with the works that followed Bishop Branscombe's purchase of the manor in 1265. Subsequent bishops presumably developed it further.

Debois Landscape Survey Group, 2007, Bishops Court, Devon. Landscape Survey and Management Plan, 3, Appendix 1:BC01 (Report - non-specific). SDV349911.

The house, remodelled by William White in 1860, is a fine example of Victoric Gothic domestic architecture. It incorporates the remains of the medieval bishop's residence and some of the Georgian remodelling.

Debois Landscape Survey Group, 2007, Bishop's Court, Devon: A Documented History (Report - non-specific). SDV351922.

Historical summary of the development of the house, gardens and park with copies of maps and documents. See report for full details.

Ordnance Survey, 2014, MasterMap (Cartographic). SDV355681.

Historic England, 2016, National Heritage List for England, 1097577 (National Heritage List for England). SDV359353.

Bishop's Court. Substantial country house now serving in part as a Company HQ. Originally a palace of the medieval bishops of Exeter from its purchase by Bronescombe in the mid C13 to the mid C16. Considerable amounts of the C13 fabric survive together with some fragmentary detailing. Bishop Veysey was induced first (1546) to lease, then (1549) to grant outright, the Manor of Bishop's Clyst, along with the palace, to John Russell, first Earl of Bedford. Some C16 work is preserved in various rear rooms of the main range and service end. The house was purchased by Admiral Graves who partly rebuilt it in 1803; the plan and some of the decorative scheme remain from this work, but the whole building was remodelled, and the elevations reworked in 1860-4 by William White, for the Garrett family. Varied stones (Eastlake counted 8), random rubble with some carefully positioned dressed stone. Slate roofs, those to the main range concealed behind parapet. Plan: the medieval palace was a courtyard plan (Swete's engravings reproduced in Alcock, see references below) with the main range to the west. Considerable parts of the fabric of the chapel wing survive (the medieval chapel was on the first floor), with the respond of an internal arch, carefully exposed by White, at the junction between this wing and the main range; the latter contained on open hall and it seems likely that the screens passage divided the hall (on the right) from the private rooms on the left adjoining the chapel; judging by the high quality of the C16 rooms in this position, it seems likely that the good rooms were retained at the lower end of the hall. It is not certain where the kitchen was situated, or the other rooms mentioned in documentary sources, such as the chancellor's hall, the other officials' and visitors' accommodation. A ruined north-west angle tower, presumably medieval, is indicated in Swete's engraving. The early evidence is discussed in detail by Dr Alcock; in terms of scale the late medieval and C16 complex of buildings which included a tithe barn (q.v.) and stable range (q.v.) must have been comparable to Dartington Hall. The 1803 work gave the whole house a polite, symmetrical appearance, with a central entrance, and a right-hand wing running parallel to the chapel (engraving by Penny, 1826, in possession of the present owner). William White retained the plan, but gave the house its present distinctive and muscular Gothic appearance. It is composed of 3 principal functional elements : a double-pile main range with an axial corridor to both storeys, served by stairs at either end, those to the left of 1803, with the principal staircase at the right-hand end, by White, and projecting forward of the principal staircase, the 2-storeyed library wing. The chapel, forming a cross-wing at the left end of the main range, is clearly distinguished by its steeply-pitched roof and tall lancet windows (replacing a first storey Perpendicular window). To the left of the chapel, and at the same alignment as the main range are the service wings and servants' accommodation. Each range has axial and end stacks with clustered polygonal stone shafts; the external lateral stacks to the front and rear are important elements in the elevations. Except for the chapel, 2 storeys throughout, the service end with garret rooms. Exterlor: Front: markedly asymmetrical; the 3 principal elements in the plan - the main range and library wing, the chapel, and the service end - are carefully distinguished and dramatically contrasted. Main range and library wing contained under a moulded parapet pierced with shouldered-arched apertures; the main entrance is set to the extreme right-hand of the main range whereas before it had been centrally placed), and is approached by a glazed, leanto conservatory that abuts the inner wall of the library wing. Above this feature is some weathering and a corbel table that presumably marks the outline of White's original (or intended) porch. Main front a 5-window range with paired lancets to first floor and a prominent central external lateral stack with bold set-offs and gabled buttresses, and containing a single lancet. Polygonal stone shafts. Ground floor windows, one of 3 lights, 3 of 2, and one of (to the entrance hall), all with stone mullions, and square-headed. To the left of this part of the front and occupying the angle formed by it and the chapel, is a tall bell turret with a shingle spire, containing a C15 bell (information from Rev John Scott). The front end of the library wing has a 2:8:2 pane oriel supported by a massive central buttress elaborately corbelled with crisp foliage decoration, and a small carved bishop. Chapel: 3 tall correctly C13 lancets by White; stumpy weathered flying buttresses; 2 lancets to the inner face of chapel, none to the outer. Service range, much more domestic in character, each range separately roofed with patterned slates, and all half-hipped; asymmetrical with a shallow front wing running parallel with the chapel, and a single-storeyed gabled-end front wing containing the main service-end entrance. Right-hand (N) elevation: dominated by the heavily buttressed external stair turret, with lancet and casement windows irregularly arranged, one 3-light window under a pentice roof squeezed between the stairs and the north-west angle tower which probably marks the site of the medieval tower illustrated by Swete. This is polygonal, with lancets to the ground floor and tall sash windows above; the parapet, heightened at this point, takes in the corner tower, and is emphasised by the deeply overhanging coping; recessed above this is a glazed, timber hexagonal turret with spirelet and elaborate weathervane. Rear(W): very long with hardly any breaks in plane to the main range; first floor 2 and 3-light sash and casement windows, variously treated, but all under window arches; ground floor with sets of double and triple steeply pointed lancets which serve as glazed garden doors. Main entrance under wide pointed arch. The 2 C16 rooms to the rear of the chapel are marked by the only significant breaks in this sheer elevation, namely 2 flying buttresses, gabled with set offs supporting superordinate arches containing the 2 and 3 light ovolo moulded windows with stone mullions and surrounds. The service end clearly incorporates some older fabric; it is mostly of Heavitree stone, with another ovolo moulded window and an external stack; axial stacks and irregularly placed windows; it provides an effective foil to the rather austere rear facade. Interior: (1) Medieval work. Little is now identifiable internally; White revealed part ot a 1st floor arch (now in the chapel antechamber) that possibly pave access from the bishops private apartments into the 1st floor chapel. (2) C16 work survives in 2 rooms to the SW and the main range and to the rear of the chapel. 3 cross ceiling beams, stopped with complex mouldings; axial beams similarly treated; one of these spans an extremely narrow area between a cross beam and an internal partition, and has blocks (not stops) added by White. The herringbone slats between the joists were believed by Dr. Alcock (1966) 'to have no recorded parallels'. Fireplace with unusual moulding, largely replaced by White. The existence of high-quality detailing such as this to the lower-end of the passage, reinforces the impression that the conventional plan was jettisoned, and the C16 private apartments probably represent a remodelling of the medieval private rooms. (3) 1803 work. Except for alterations at either end of the main range, the 1st floor retains the early C19 decorative scheme; axial corrider with central domed skylight with husked festoon; panelled doors to bedrooms to either side; double panelled doors at North end under large semi-circular fanlight with coloured glass. Some early C19 decorative feature survive at ground floor level, eg. plaster acanthus cornices, and chimneypieces; especially noteworthy in the marble fireplace to the North-West room with 2 Tuscan columns. Dogleg staircase to south of main range. (4) Whites work of the 1860's is of exceptional quality and is remarkably intact, this design retains much original work whilst at the same time transforming it. Entrance hall: dominated by an arcade of 4 arches of unequal width which allow access to the axial corridor, all with polished limestone shafts with stiff-leaf capitals and moulded bases. Varied, brightly-coloured all-over stencilled patterning to the walls. The 5-light window has 3 pointed inner arches, with shafts and capitals similar to the arcade. Part of an ovolo-moulded window (rebated to take glass) has been converted by White into a chimneypiece with elaborate all-over patterning to fireback and overmantel. A second chimneypiece to the right of the entrance, is all White's and very characteristic, with stumpy columns, oversized capitals and supporting a tripartite mirror with robustly detailed wooden overmantel. Also by White is the furniture: a huge low table, a floor to ceiling armoire with mirrors, a Gothic mantel-clock and coat and hat stand, all of this insitu and an intrinsic part of the design. Principal rooms lead off from the axial corridor. Former dining room to the left of the entrance hall, with big dressers-cum-buffets to either end, a stone chimney piece with 3 pointed arches (containing the fireplace) under a superordinate arch; internal shafts to window arches; intersecting ceiling beams, and a date (1863). Saloon opposite the entrance hall, with White's painted ceiling but containing much work of 1803, including the chimneypiece (see above). The polygonal corner turret is entered from this room by a multi-centred arch with panelled soffit, and is vaulted in timber, with polished limestone shafts. Library : rather more restrained, with floor to ceiling fitted bookcases. 1803 chimneypiece retained. Rear principal rooms : less worked over by White who added small touches to the 1803 scheme, retaining the chimneypieces and cornices. Principal stairs approached through 2 arches of unequal width; open well staircase with inventive carpentry detailing, turning around a large pier to half landing with foliated capital. Axial corridor : A free-standing angel in a canopied corner niche and a double- chamfered pointed arch are preparation for the chapel. This is an impressive building, very tall for its area, and with its decorative scheme and fittings intact. Wooden west gallery, with moulded rail and chunky balusters, supported by a glazed 7-bay screen, is entered from the first floor axial corridor, and the contrast between the restrained 1803 work retained here by White, and the powerful Early English chapel is dramatic. Roof of 3 bays, collars, arch-braced, with stone and timber corbels, the principals canted and boarded between. Walls stencilled to simulate ashlar; tall lancets to the east, with trompe l'oeil shafts, and extremely fine C13-style stained glass. All-over floor tiling. Fittings : Collegiate stalls returning at west end; prie-dieu, brass lectern, fald stool, several pairs of wrought-iron candlesticks and altar cross studded with semi- precious stones. Triptych by Westlake. Brass (south wall) to John Garrett, died 1886. Summary: Bishops Court is one of William White's most important domestic buildings. His treatment of the early work was to transform it completely. Rugged, characteristic and studiously asymmetrical exterior with all the various parts clearly distinguished according to their functions. The interior is a remarkably well-preserved example of a serious mid-C19 architect's conception of domestic Gothic. The fittings are all carefully designed, with a remarkable attention to detail, and everything, including a complete set of internal shutters, survives intact.

Sources / Further Reading

SDV118121List of Blds of Arch or Historic Interest: Department of Environment. 1987. Sowton. Historic Houses Register. A4 Comb Bound. 23,24 & 25.
SDV126509Article in Serial: Alcock, N. W.. 1973. An East Devon Manor in the Lter Middle Ages Part II. Transactions of the Devonshire Association. 105. A5 Paperback. 141.
SDV126511Article in Serial: Alcock, N. W.. 1966. The Medieval Buildings of Bishops Clyst. Transactions of the Devonshire Association. 98. A5 Paperback. 140-4.
SDV130126Article in Serial: Alcock, N. W.. 1975. Fields and Farms in an East Devon Parish. Transactions of the Devonshire Association. 107. A5 Paperback. 93-172.
SDV17562Monograph: Hoskins, W. G.. 1954. A New Survey of England: Devon. A New Survey of England: Devon. A5 Hardback. 479.
SDV323771Monograph: Lysons, D. + Lysons, S.. 1822. Magna Britannica. Magna Britannica: A Concise Topographical Account of The Several Counties o. 6: Devonshire. Unknown. 237.
SDV325629Monograph: Cherry, B. + Pevsner, N.. 1989. The Buildings of England: Devon. The Buildings of England: Devon. Hardback Volume. 181.
SDV336327Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division Card: Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division. 1982. SX99SE4. Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division Card. Card Index.
SDV336328List of Blds of Arch or Historic Interest: Department of Environment. 1952. St Thomas RD. Historic Houses Register. Unknown. 106.
SDV336329Aerial Photograph: Griffith, F. M.. 1983. B. Devon Aerial Photograph. Photograph (Paper). 33.
SDV338151Article in Serial: Parker, R. + Allan, J. + Fletcher, M. + Higham, R. + Laithwaite, M.. 2006. The Bishop's Palace at Chudleigh. Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society. 64. Paperback Volume. 226.
SDV347074Report - non-specific: Fisher, J.. 1999. East Devon Conservation Area Appraisals: Sowton. East Devon District Council Report. A4 Stapled + Digital. 5.
SDV349911Report - non-specific: Debois Landscape Survey Group. 2007. Bishops Court, Devon. Landscape Survey and Management Plan. Debois Landscape Survey Group Report. A4 Comb Bound + Digital. 3, Appendix 1:BC01.
SDV351922Report - non-specific: Debois Landscape Survey Group. 2007. Bishop's Court, Devon: A Documented History. Debois Landscape Survey Group Report. A4 Comb Bound + Digital.
SDV355681Cartographic: Ordnance Survey. 2014. MasterMap. Ordnance Survey Digital Mapping. Digital. [Mapped feature: #61381 ]
SDV356149Un-published: Devon Gardens Trust. 1999. Bishops Court. Devon Local Register of Parks and Gardens of Local Historic Interest. Digital.
SDV359353National Heritage List for England: Historic England. 2016. National Heritage List for England. Historic Houses Register. Digital. 1097577.
SDV359932Report - Survey: Thorpe, J. + Horton, D.. 2005. The Great Barn and Medieval Stables at Bishops Court, Devon. Keystone Historic Buildings Consultants. K711. A4 Unbound + Digital. 2-3.
SDV7299Article in Serial: Oldham, D. W.. 1906. The Private Chapels of Devon: Ancient and Modern. Transactions of the Devonshire Association. 38. A5 Paperback. 394,400-1.

Associated Monuments

MDV17200Parent of: Sowton, Bishop's Court, Chapel (Building)
MDV117961Related to: Driveway to Bishop's Court from Sowton (Monument)
MDV117960Related to: Driveway to Bishop's Court House, Sowton (Monument)
MDV117977Related to: Fishponds in Home Covert, Bishop's Court, Sowton (Monument)
MDV59850Related to: Ha-ha at Bishop's Court, Sowton (Monument)
MDV87487Related to: Parkland and Gardens at Bishop's Court, Sowton (Monument)
MDV117993Related to: Pet Grave by path to south of Bishops's Court House, Sowton (Monument)
MDV10078Related to: Stables at Bishop's Court, Sowton (Building)
MDV117962Related to: Terraces at Bishop's Court House, Sowton (Monument)
MDV60674Related to: Tiles, Bishop's Palace Chudleigh (Find Spot)
MDV10077Related to: Tithe Barn at Bishop's Court, Sowton (Building)

Associated Finds: none recorded

Associated Events

  • EDV3894 - DAP/B
  • EDV5959 - Archaeological Survey, Bishops Court, Devon
  • EDV7157 - Assessment of the Great Barn and Stables at Bishop's Court, Sowton

Date Last Edited:Nov 27 2019 11:11AM