The memorial inscription on the tomb of the thirteenth century bishop Walter, in Exeter Cathedral, spells his name as "Bronescombe". Experts agree that this is probably a variant spelling of "Branscombe", and that the name is in some way derived from the Devon village. Beyond that though, there is little common ground among scholars. Some speculate he was born in Branscombe, others that he came from an Exeter family. There is no contemporary biography to settle the matter. An Exeter Cathedral historian, writing a hundred years after Walter's death says he was born into a poor family of Exeter, but offers no evidence.
However, there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest he was indeed born in Branscombe, into the relatively wealthy family that owned Edge Barton manor.
Firstly, there is his name. Surnames were not in common use in the thirteenth century, certainly not for poor families, of Exeter or anywhere else. The average poor person had no need of them. They seldom strayed from their duties on the land, unless they were mariners, and they were illiterate, so had no use for a distinctive signature. Their landlord spoke for them in all matters. They were known within the confines of the village community by their trade, "Jack (the) Miller", or by the place they came from, "Joan (of the) Forest". Later, these often became their surnames.
The land-owning class was different. A family calling itself Branscombe is first documented as owning land in the parish in 1218, about the time of Walter's birth. They lived at Edge Barton and probably adopted the name of their manor, a common practise. Over the next two hundred years, their fortunes developed rapidly until they were among the wealthiest and most influential families in Devon. Families of this type typically sent their second or third sons to be trained for a career in the Church. Walter was probably educated at Oxford - hardly the kind of privileged background that could be supported, or even contemplated, by a poor family.
Walter obtained his first post in 1243, at Coningsby, Lincolnshire. He was just 23 years old, and about to experience such a rapid rise through the ranks that historians have cast about to identify an influential benefactor. Just two years later, he was appointed Chancellor of Exeter Cathedral, at the recommendation of William de Raleigh, Bishop of Winchester, who may thus have been revealed as the hidden power behind Walter's early career. In the same year, Walter was appointed Archdeacon of Surrey and given the title of "King's Proctor in Rome". A position in the Royal Court of Henry III and dispensation to hold his other jobs at the same time, meant he was already wealthy and influential.
In 1250 Walter was in Rome, acting for Henry III at a papal curia securing confirmation of the highly controversial election to the bishopric of Winchester of William de Raleigh's successor, Aymer de Valence, the King's half-brother. Walter is by this time being called 'Papal Chaplain and King's Clerk', indicating he is favoured by both the King and the Pope.
By 1254, Walter had been appointed a canon of Exeter Cathedral, in addition to his other appointments and the income from a string of rectories from Dorset to Lincolnshire. In 1258, he was elected twelfth Bishop of Exeter, apparently undisputed. He was ordained and consecrated in Canterbury Cathedral by the Queen's uncle, Archbishop Boniface of Savoy. He was enthroned in Exeter Cathedral on the 14th of April.
Walter continued in royal service, acting from time to time as a negotiator and advisor, notably at times of crisis. He gives the impression of having been practical and conciliatory, a man who inspired confidence in those with whom he had dealings.
In medieval times, a bishop was a great territorial magnate, enjoying the revenues of various manors and knights' fees. He wore princely attire and lived in state. His income of two or three thousand pounds a year was fabulous compared with the yearly wage of forty or fifty shillings earned by a shepherd or ploughman. Walter had nine residences in Devon alone and, like every other prelate, a mansion in London from which to perform his duties as a peer of the realm, attending meetings of parliament and the Royal Council. He also had manor houses in Hampshire and Surrey. When a bishop travelled, it was on horse-back, or in a litter with a retinue of thirty or forty mounted clerics and attendants, including knights and men-at-arms drawn from his tenantry to guard him. Walter was known as a "building bishop", and this may provide us with a second clue about his links with Branscombe. It has been suggested that the massive extension of St.Winifred's in the thirteenth century is evidence of his personal connections with the parish through birth, and this may be true. But it has to be said he was exceptionally active in consecrating new churches and rebuilding old ones. In 1259 alone he founded 40 new parish churches. By 1270 the number had grown to 88. But St.Winifred's and Ottery St.Mary are regarded by some as "showpiece" churches, on which he lavished care and attention. He only visited St.Winifred's officially on two occasions during his term as bishop, although that was twice more than most of his small parish churches, so this could be construed as evidence also.
In 1260 he began extending Exeter Cathedral, including the construction of the chapel that today contains his tomb. When Henry III died, in 1272, it was Walter who travelled to Paris to meet the heir apparent, Prince Edward, who was returning from a crusade to the Holy Land. Walter attended his coronation in Westminster Abbey, in 1274, when 500 horses were turned loose in celebration, to be kept by whoever managed to catch them, and wine flowed from the public fountain in Cheapside.
In 1275, Walter baptised Alphonsus, the son of Edward I and Queen Eleanora, in Bayonne. The child was named after his godfather, the King of Spain. By this time, although only aged 55, Walter's health was failing. His was among the more spectacularly successful careers of the time, especially for a boy brought up in the folds of Branscombe's wooded combes, if that is indeed where he was born.
It's not known if he stopped at Branscombe on his last journey from London, but he passed close by on the road. He knew he was dying, as he stayed in Exeter long enough to finalise his funeral arrangements. He passed into history, probably at his residence in Bishopsteignton, one wall of which is still standing, on the 22nd of July 1280.
The last piece of evidence supporting the notion he was born in Branscombe is the strongest. Walter's arms, carved into the fine tomb he had already installed in St.Gabriel's Chapel, Exeter Cathedral, are the same as used by the Branscombe family of Edge Barton for the next hundred years, a sure sign of descent from the same ancestors.