The Anglo-Saxon dioceses after 950
The history of Christianity in the South West of England remains to some degree obscure. At a certain point the historical county of Devon formed part of the diocese of Wessex. About 703 Devon and Cornwall were included in the separate Diocese of Sherborne and in 900 this was again divided, the Devon bishop having from 905 his seat at Tawton (now Bishop's Tawton) and from 912 at Crediton, birthplace of St Boniface. Lyfing became Bishop of Crediton in 1027 and shortly afterwards became Bishop of Cornwall.
According to Tristram Risdon (died 1640), the present village of Bishops Tawton, on the River Taw two miles south of Barnstaple in North Devon, was the earliest bishop's see in the shire of Devon, when in 905
"Edward, surnamed Senior, a nurse-father of the church, finding these western parts to want ecclesiastical discipline, by the advice of Pleymond, (sic) Archbishop of Canterbury, ordained a provincial synod and decreed that three new bishops should be consecrated, whereupon Edulph was appointed to Wells, Herstan to Cornwall and Werstan to Devon, who had here his see, where after him one only of his successors sat being hence removed to Crediton".
Werstan's successor appears to have been Putta (bishop 906–910), who was murdered whilst travelling from his see at Tawton to visit the Saxon viceroy Uffa, whose residence was at Crediton. It is believed that Copplestone Cross, mentioned in a charter dated 947 and situated 6 miles north-west of Crediton and 22 miles south-east of Bishops Tawton, was erected in commemoration of his murder.
The Diocese of Crediton was created out of the Diocese of Sherborne in 909 to cover the area of Devon and Cornwall. Crediton was chosen as the site for its cathedral possibly due it having been the birthplace of Saint Boniface and the existence of a monastery there.
In 1046, Leofric became the Bishop of Crediton. Following his appointment he decided that the see should be moved to the larger and more culturally significant and defensible walled town of Exeter. In 1050, King Edward the Confessor authorised that Exeter was to be the seat of the bishop for Devon and Cornwall and that a cathedral was to be built there for the bishop's throne. Thus, Leofric became the last diocesan Bishop of Crediton and the first Bishop of Exeter.
The two dioceses of Crediton and Cornwall, covering Devon and Cornwall, were permanently united under Edward the Confessor by Lyfing's successor Leofric, hitherto Bishop of Crediton, who became first Bishop of Exeter under Edward the Confessor, which was established as his cathedral city in 1050. At first the Abbey Church of St Mary and St Peter, founded by Athelstan in 932, rebuilt in 1019, etc., finally demolished 1971, served as the cathedral.
The present cathedral was begun by William de Warelhurst in 1112, the transept towers he built being the only surviving part of the Norman building, which was completed by Marshall at the close of the twelfth century. The cathedral is dedicated to St Peter.
As it now stands, the cathedral is in the decorated style. It was begun by Peter Quinel (1280–1291), continued by Bytton and Stapeldon, and completed, much as it has since remained, by John Grandisson during his long tenure of 42 years.
In many respects Exeter cathedral resembles those of France rather than others found in England. Its special features are the transept towers and the choir, containing much early stained glass. There is also an episcopal throne, separated from the nave by a choir screen (1324) and a stately West front. In a comparison with certain other English cathedrals, it is perhaps disadvantaged by the absence of a central tower and a general lack of elevation, but it is undoubtedly very fine.
The bishops of Exeter, like the general population of the diocese, always enjoyed considerable independence, and the see was one of the largest and richest in England. The remoteness of the see from London prevented it from being bestowed on statesmen or courtiers, so that over the centuries the roll of bishops possessed more capable scholars and administrators than in many other sees. The result was a long and stable line of bishops, leading to active Christian observance in the area.
The diocese contained 604 parishes grouped in four archdeaconries: Cornwall, Barnstaple, Exeter, and Totnes. There were Benedictine, Augustinian, Premonstratensian, Franciscan and Dominican religious houses, and four Cistercian abbeys.
This wealthy diocese was forced to cede land during the reign of Henry VIII, when Vesey was obliged to surrender fourteen of twenty-two manors, and the value of the see was reduced to a third of what it had been. Vesey, despite his Catholic sympathies, held the see until 1551, when he finally had to resign, and was replaced by the Bible translator Miles Coverdale. Following the accession of Mary, in 1553, Vesey was restored, but died soon after in 1554. He was succeeded by James Turberville, the last Catholic Bishop of Exeter. Turberville was removed from the see by the Reformist Elizabeth I in 1559, and died in prison, probably in or about 1570.
Henry Phillpotts served as Bishop of Exeter from 1830 to his death in office in 1869. He was England's longest serving bishop since the 14th century. The diocese was divided in 1876 along the border of Devon and Cornwall, creating the Diocese of Truro (but five parishes which were at the time in Devon were included in this diocese as they had always been within the Archdeaconry of Cornwall). The diocese covers the County of Devon. The see is in the City of Exeter where the seat is located at the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter which was founded as an abbey possibly before 690. The current incumbent is Robert Atwell.