From Bishop Leofric to Bishop Jackie

Posted in Blog, Devon

When Bishop Jackie Searle came to Pip and Jim’s church in Ilfracombe on 13 June, preached, and celebrated communion with us, she was too modest to remind us that there was a Bishop of Crediton nearly 150 years before there was a Bishop of Exeter. It happened like this.

In the year 909, or thereabouts, Devon and Cornwall, which had previously been a part of the large diocese of Sherborne, were separated off and given a bishop of their own. Crediton was chosen as the seat for Devon partly, no doubt, because Crediton lies close to the centre of the county, with access to the Exeter region, to our region in the north, and to Cornwall. From the 1020s the Bishop of Crediton, who looked after Devon, was also appointed to Cornwall so that from then on the two bishoprics were held in plurality – in other words, the same bishop cared for both counties. The bishops had a house or palace in Crediton, which was their principal but not their permanent residence, and which they visited frequently with their travelling household of clergy and lay servants.

As time went on, the Crediton church acquired its own resident staff of clergy, distinct from the bishop’s household, who were able to move freely about the country, and to own private property.  Bishop Lyfing (1027-1046) not only looked after Devon and Cornwall – he was also Bishop of Worcester and must have been frequently absent from Crediton. It is likely that this meant that the Crediton clergy acquired a good deal of autonomy. Some of them may well have lived in private houses and even have married.

This state of affairs didn’t please Bishop Leofric, who succeeded Lyfing as bishop of both Devon and Cornwall in 1046. Leofric was a well-educated, widely travelled man, and active supporter of church reform. A document now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford describes him as a man ‘of modest life and conversation who, when he succeeded to his see, went about his diocese studiously preaching the Word of God to the people committed to him and instructing the clergy in learning’. He quickly fixed on the idea of moving his seat from Crediton into the monastery of St Peter in Exeter and establishing there a reformed body of clergy. Cathedrals in Europe were generally in cities and the English tradition of rural cathedrals was coming to seem anomalous. Later, in the 1070s, other English bishops were to follow Leofric’s example and transfer their seats to towns like Chichester, London and Salisbury.

In about the year 1049 Leofric wrote to Pope Leo IX, requesting approval of the change, arguing that Crediton was a mere village, unsuitable for the seat of a bishop, whereas Exeter was a walled city. The pope agreed and wrote to the English king, Edward the Confessor, asking him to carry out the project. Things moved fast and, the following year, Edward and his queen came in person to Exeter to enthrone Leofric in the old minster (just north-east of the present building which was begun in 1114) as his new cathedral. The charter which King Edward issued, approving the new bishopric, gave a new reason for the change asserting that Exeter would provide better protection for the bishop against pirates which had devastated the church at Crediton. But Edward went further in his charter and approved the union of the two dioceses of Devon and Cornwall, about which the pope was not apparently consulted. Leofric was still in office when the Norman King William conquered England in 1066 and is believed to have been within the walls of Exeter during the siege of the city by the new King in 1068. He may have assisted in persuading the citizens of the city to submit to the Conqueror.

The union of Devon and Cornwall into the diocese of Exeter lasted until the creation of the Truro diocese in 1876.

The removal of the bishopric to Exeter deprived Crediton of its chief distinction and citizens of Crediton who take an interest in history look back on the years prior to 1050 as a golden age for the town. To be fair to Bishop Robert, however, I do have to tell you that although the See of Crediton is older than the See of Exeter, the Bishop of Exeter can look back to a longer line of succession. This is because when Bishop Leofric moved his seat from Crediton to Exeter there was a break of nearly 850 years before former Bishop of Exeter, but by now Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple, consecrated Robert Trefusis as the first Suffragan Bishop of Crediton in 1897.

Lines of succession fascinate me. Suppose you asked Bishop Leofric of Crediton in the year 1050 who told him the good news of the gospel he would, no doubt, have been able to tell you. And the man or woman who first told Leofric the good news would be able to tell you from whom he had heard it. And so on, back and back (over roughly the same distance of time that separates us from Leofric) and you would come to the time of the apostles one of whom would tell you that he heard the good news from Jesus himself!