By Tim Lambert
Roman Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum)
Exeter began as a Roman town. The Romans arrived in the Southwest about 50 AD they built a wooden fort on a hill near the river Exe at the lowest point where it could be easily crossed. (Exe is derived from a Celtic word meaning ‘the water’). However, the local Celtic tribe put up little resistance to Roman rule, and about 75 AD the soldiers moved on. A town was then created on the site of the fort. The Romans called it Isca.
Like all Roman towns, Exeter or Isca had a rectangular space called the forum. This was the marketplace. It was also lined with shops and the basilica, a kind of town hall. There were also public baths in Roman Exeter. In Roman times people went to the baths not just to get clean but also to socialize. It was the Roman equivalent of going down the pub.
The Romans made Exeter the administrative center of Southwest England. However Roman civilization was skin deep in this part of the country. Further west it faded away altogether. In Roman Exeter, rich people lived in houses of stone with mosaic floors and even a form of central heating but poor people lived in simple wooden huts. Roman Exeter does not seem to have been a particularly prosperous town.
In the 2nd century, the Romans built a sturdy wall around Exeter, which lasted for centuries. However, in the 4th-century Roman civilization began to decline. The populations of the towns fell. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407 AD and the Roman way of life slowly disappeared. People drifted away from the towns to the countryside and returned to a simpler way of life.
After the Romans left there may still have been some people living inside the walls of Exeter and farming the land outside. However, it seems that Exeter ceased to function as a town.
Meanwhile, Saxons from Germany invaded Eastern England in the 5th century. By the 7th century, they had reached Devon. In 680 they built a monastery inside the walls of the old Roman town. The Saxons called each Roman town a ceaster. They called this one Exe ceaster. In time the name changed to Exeter.
In the 9th century, Danes began to raid England. In 876 they captured Exeter and spent the winter inside the walls. The next year they marched off to invade another part of the country. Then late in the 9th century Alfred the Great created a network of strongholds across his kingdom called burghs. In the event of a Danish attack, men from the surrounding area could gather together in the stronghold. Each burgh was also a market town with a weekly market. Each had a mint.
In Exeter, a new main street (the High Street) was created with smaller streets leading off it. The land between the streets was divided into plots for building.
The new town at Exeter was a big success. It grew in size and prosperity during the 10th century. Then in 928, King Athelstan repaired the walls of Exeter. The Danes besieged the town in 1001 but they left when an English army approached.
However, in 1003 disaster struck Exeter. An official called a reeve ruled the town. At the time the reeve was called Hugh and he was a traitor. He let the Danes in through a gate and they destroyed the town.
However, Exeter soon recovered. By 1066 it probably had a population of about 2,500. It would seem tiny to us but by the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized town. In 1050 the bishop moved his seat there from Crediton and a cathedral was built at Exeter.
Exeter in the Middle Ages
Exeter was the centre of a rebellion in Southwest England in 1068. The Normans lay siege to Exeter for 18 days but they were unable to capture it. Eventually, the people of Exeter agreed to submit to William the Conqueror. In return, he swore an oath that he would not harm the town. However, he built a castle to make sure the townspeople behaved themselves in the future. Exeter castle was built on a hill known as red hill (rouge mont in Norman French) because of its red rock. The castle became known as Rougemont castle.
In 1136 Exeter castle was besieged during a civil war between Stephen and Matilda. One of Matilda’s supporters held the castle but Stephen laid siege. Exeter castle surrendered when it ran out of water.
After 1114 the Normans rebuilt Exeter Cathedral but it was demolished in 1260 and rebuilt again. In 1080 a Benedictine priory (a small monastery) was founded in Exeter. In the 13th century, the friars arrived in Exeter. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. There were two denominations of friars in Exeter. The Augustinians were called grey friars because of their grey habits. At first, their friary was on the site of Friernhay Street. Later they moved to a site east of the town walls. There were also Dominican friars, known as black friars because of their black habits.
In Medieval Exeter, the main industry was making wool. It was woven then fulled. That means the wool was pounded in a mixture of clay and water to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. It could then be dyed.
In the Middle Ages, the marshy ground around Bridge Street was drained. Channels called leats were dug through it. Some of these powered fulling mills. There was also a tanning industry in Exeter. There were as well the craftsmen found in any medieval town such as butchers, bakers, brewers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and shoemakers. Skilled workers of one kind tended to live and work in the same street. Goldsmiths lived in Goldsmith Street. Milk Sellers lived in Milk Street and smiths in Smythen Street.
In those days the word hay meant a piece of land enclosed by a hedge or field. The hays of Exeter live on in many street names such as Southernhay, Northernhay, Princesshay, Friernhay (the friar’s hay), and Bonhay Road. (Bonhay may be from the Norman French good hay). Rack Street gets its name because wool was hung out to dry on racks there.
Exeter was an important port in the Middle Ages. Wool was exported and wine (the drink of the upper class) was imported.
However, in the late 13th century Isabella, Countess of Devon, built a weir across the Exe, 3 miles south of Exeter. Ships could no longer sail into the town to load and unload their cargoes. That had to be done at Topsham.
In the early 13th century passages were dug to bring water into Exeter. In 1435 William Wynard built almshouses for 12 poor people. There was also a hostel for lepers, dedicated to Mary Magdalene built in the 12th century. Magdalen Street is named after it.
Exeter in the 16th century and 17th century
By 1500 Exeter probably had a population of about 8,000. In those days a typical village had only 100 or 150 inhabitants. So Tudor Exeter was a large and important town. The main industry was still the manufacture of wool. The tanning industry also continued to thrive. Moreover, Exeter continued to be an important port. In 1566 a canal was dug around the weir so ships could once again sail to the town.
In 1538 Henry VIII closed the priory and the friaries. The religious changes of the 16th century led to a rebellion in 1549. The rebels laid siege to Exeter but were unable to capture the town and they fled when a royal army came.
In 1642 civil war between king and parliament began. At first, Exeter supported parliament. However, in June 1643 a royalist army laid siege to the town. Exeter was forced to surrender in early September. However parliamentary forces recaptured Exeter early in 1646.
At the end of the 17th century, the travel writer Celia Fiennes described Exeter as ‘a town very well built. The streets are well-paved, spacious streets and a vast trade are carried on. There is an incredible quantity of serges (a kind of cloth) made in the town’.
Exeter in the 18th century
In the early 18th century Daniel Defoe said that Exeter was ‘large, rich, beautiful, populous and was once very strong’. Exeter may have been a rich city but there were a great many people in Exeter living at subsistence (bare survival) level. However, for the well-off life grew more comfortable and genteel.
Life in 18th century Exeter slowly improved, at least for the well off. By 1707 Exeter had its first newspaper. The first bank in Exeter opened in 1769. Also in 1769 Assembly Rooms were built. After 1760 the streets were lit by oil lamps and in 1778 pavements were made in the main streets. New County Courts were built in 1774 and in 1778 Devon and Exeter hospital was built. Also in 1778, a new Exe bridge was built. New Bridge Street was laid out to lead to it.
The old industry of wool manufacture continued to flourish and the port continued to import large quantities of wine. However, Exeter became very cramped as the population grew but most people continued to live inside the walls. In 1769 North Gate was demolished to ease the flow of traffic. East Gate followed in 1784. n
In 1799 a writer said: ‘Exeter is an ancient city and has been so slow in adopting the modern improvements (i.e. paving and cleaning of streets) that it has the unsavory odor of Lisbon. One great street runs through the city from East to West. The rest consists of dirty lanes. The streets are not flagged neither are they regularly cleaned as in other parts of the kingdom.’
Exeter in the 19th century
In 1801, at the time of the first census, Exeter had a population of 20,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large and important town. However, towns and cities in the Midlands and the North soon overtook Exeter. The industrial revolution largely passed it by.
During the 19th century, Exeter continued to grow in absolute numbers (its population more than doubled to 50,000 by 1901) but it declined in relative size. In the 18th century, Exeter was the 6th largest town in England. By 1860 it had fallen to 60th place. Exeter dwindled to being a quiet market town. Nevertheless, it spread beyond the walls and in 1815 West Gate and Water Gate were demolished.
During the 19th century, the traditional industries of wool manufacture and tanning also declined. Exeter ceased to be an important manufacturing centre.
Meanwhile, in 1810 a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners was formed with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Exeter. However much of the town was still dirty and unsanitary. Like all 19th century towns, Exeter had appalling slums. In 1832 a cholera epidemic killed 440 people. Afterward, a network of sewers was built. St Michael’s church was built in 1868. From 1882 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets.
Exeter in the 20th century
By 1914 the population of Exeter had risen to about 60,000. Meanwhile, in 1905 the horse-drawn trams in Exeter were replaced by electric ones. They, in turn, were replaced by buses. The last tram ran in 1931. Exeter airport opened in 1937.
However, Exeter suffered a severe air raid during the Second World War. In the Spring of 1942, the RAF bombed the historic German towns of Lubeck and Rostock. In revenge, the Luftwaffe attacked historic British towns. In May 1942 the Germans bombed Exeter and destroyed much of the town center. Altogether 1,500 houses were destroyed and 2,700 were seriously damaged. Furthermore, 6 churches were damaged or destroyed. The city center was rebuilt in the 1950s. Furthermore, Exeter university was founded in 1955.
Northcott Theatre was built in 1967.
Today most of the workforce in Exeter is employed in service industries such as tourism, education, and public administration. Meanwhile, Guildhall Shopping Centre was built in 1977. Harlequins Shopping Centre followed in 1986.
EXETER IN THE 21st CENTURY
In the 21st century, Exeter is still a flourishing city. In 2004 the Met Office moved to Exeter and in 2007 a new shopping centre opened at Princesshay. In 2022 the population of Exeter was 129,000.