The Exeter Book

The Exeter book, an important Anglo Saxon work of literature preserved in Exeter Cathedral. Exeter is visited on a small group educational tour for senior couples and mature solo travellers as part of a collection of British escorted tours.

30 Oct 21 · 5 mins read

The Exeter Book

The Exeter Book contains the largest and probably oldest surviving collection of Old English literature in the world. Dating back to the late 10th-cenutry, it is one of the four most significant verse manuscripts to survive from the Anglo-Saxon period, along with the Beowulf manuscript in the British library, the Junius manuscript in Oxford, and the Vercelli Book in Italy. The texts in these four manuscripts are all unique, and without which our understanding of the earliest period in English literature would be much for the worse.

Over 1000 years old, the Exeter Book has had a long and tough life. Its original cover is missing, and of its 131 original pages, eight have been lost and replaced at some point, one was evidently used as a wine coast, and others were singed by fire. Still, for the most part it has managed to survive, preserving within it approximately one-sixth of all the Anglo-Saxon poetry ever known to have been written.

Today, housed in a secure loft above the Bishop’s House behind Exeter Cathedral in Devon, the book is recognised for its national, and indeed international, importance and immense value. As such, it was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2016, described as “the foundation volume of English literature, one of the world’s principal cultural artefacts”.

The Exeter Book / Per Se/ CC BY-SA 2.0


A single scribe, most likely a monk, is believed to have copied out all the poems from a variety of texts in the late 10th-century, sometime from 960 to 990. This was a period of intense monastic activity and productivity under the renewed influence of Benedictine principles and standards. In this case, the scribe used brown ink on vellum, wielding his quill with an impeccable, steady hand.

Its importance today lies considerably in the fact that the contents were written in Anglo-Saxon (the oldest form of English), which started to die out as early as the 12th century. This is rare amongst the majority of medieval western manuscripts which are written in Latin.

It is not known though whose hands the book was exchanged during its first 100 or so years, with no trace of it for at least three generations after it was written. Somehow though it ended up with the Bishop at Exeter, Leofric, who bestowed it to the Exeter Cathedral library upon his death in 1072. In his will, Leofric famously describes it as “”mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoð-wisan geworht” (i.e., ‘a large English book of poetic works about all sorts of things’). Along with the Exeter Book, the bishop bequeathed sixty-five other manuscripts, of which about twenty still survive.

The book has been kept and cared for in the Cathedral ever since that time. It remains mostly in its original form, although there are some missing gatherings and pages, and some marginalia were added to the manuscript in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Exeter Cathedral
The Cathedral Church of St Peter in Exeter Devon, England built in Norman times was refashioned into Gothic style.

The Exeter Book’s Contents

The Exeter Book is comprised solely of poetry, apart from the eight leaves added after it was written. This distinguishes it from most surviving Old English Texts written in prose. Only one other Anglo-Saxon manuscript contains poetry alone – the Junius Manuscript. However, these two books are still quite different, for whereas the Junius Manuscript contains only biblically inspired stories, the Exeter Book has an unmatched diversity of genres among its contents.

The poems exhibited are of an extremely high quality, intriguing as they are diverse, giving us a powerful insight into the intellectual sophistication of Anglo-Saxon literary culture. Most famous of the texts are the moving elegies and enigmatic riddles. In all there are some 40 elegies and 95 riddles.

Amongst the descriptions in the elegies are those of the separation of lovers, the sorrows of exile, and the terrors and attractions of the sea. Through them such timeless universal themes as desolation, death, loss, loneliness, and social exile are explored.

In turn, the elegies have inspired many writers in their own creations. For example, “The Wander” inspired W.H. Auden’s poem of the same name, and Erza Pound’s poem “The Seafarer” is an interpretation of the first nine-nine lines of the Exeter Books’ poem also by the same name (originally inspired by the Atlantic Ocean).

Mizen Head
Mizen Head, County Cork – the beginning of the Wild Atlantic Way on the ocean that inspired “The Seafarer”.

Perhaps the most famous inspiration though is that drawn by J. R. R. Tolkein from the Exeter Books’ poem “Christ I”, which include the lines: Hail Earandel brightest of angels/ over Middle Earth sent to men.” These lines are considered to be the origins of Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth and his character Eärendil, father of Elrond.

The riddles, meanwhile, are written as intentionally ambiguous to be solved by reader or hearer. Their descriptions explore the fabric of the world through the prism of the everyday.

Tour of Exeter

Odyssey Traveller conducts a half day tour of Exeter during our Tour of Devon and Cornwall, England. While in Exeter, we explore the main sights including the Exeter Cathedral – home to the Exeter Book and a beautiful example of the Gothic Decorated style of church architecture.

Our Tour of Devon and Cornwall is a small group tour for up to 16 travellers for mature and senior travellers who are travelling with their partner or as a solo traveller. It is a journey filled with medieval treasures, charming fishing villages in the north Cornish coast, stunning cliff-top coastal views of the blue Atlantic, and atmospheric destinations traditionally linked to the legends of King Arthur.

Our 15-day small group tour begins and ends in Bristol, situated on the River Avon in South West England, once a medieval trade centre and a busy maritime port for explorations into the New World. Bristol is a great first stop for our own adventure as we travel west and south, even venturing beyond the Cornish coast and across the Atlantic to the Isles of Scilly.

We will spend nights in Exeter, Paignton, St Austell, Penzance, Hugh Town, Newquay, and Lynton, exploring top attractions in the British mainland dating from the medieval and industrial ages: from the medieval stronghold believed to be where King Arthur was conceived (Tintagel Castle in Tintagel) to the last castle constructed in England (Castle Drogo); from the highest and steepest water powered railway in the world (Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway) to the longest passenger ship of its time that once travelled from Bristol to New York (SS Great Britain).

Devon, Valley of the Rocks
Valley of the Rocks, Devon

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about England published by Odyssey Traveller:

The following list of articles published by Odyssey Traveller for mature aged and senior travellers to maximise their knowledge and enjoyment of England when visiting;

External articles to assist you on your visit to Devon and Cornwall:

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