Exeter began as settlements on a dry ridge ending in a spur overlooking a navigable river teeming with fish, with fertile land nearby. Although there have been no major prehistoric finds, these advantages suggest the site was occupied early. Coins have been discovered from the Hellenistic kingdoms, suggesting the existence of a settlement trading with the Mediterranean as early as 250 BC. Such early towns had been a feature of pre-Roman Gaul as described by Julius Caesar in his Commentaries and it is possible that they existed in Britannia as well.
The presence of the fort built up an unplanned civilian community formed of natives and the soldiers’ families, mostly to the northeast of the fort. This settlement served as the tribal capital (civitas) of the Devonians and was listed as one of their four cities (Greek: poleis) by Ptolemy in his Geography (It also appeared in the 7th-century Ravenna Cosmography, where it appears as the apparently confused entry of Scadu Namorum.) When the fortress was abandoned around the year 75, its grounds were converted to civilian purposes; its very large bathhouse was demolished to make way for a forum and basilica and a smaller-scale bath was erected to the southeast. This area was excavated in the 1970s, but could not be maintained for public view owing to its proximity to the present-day cathedral. In January 2015, it was announced that Exeter Cathedral had launched a bid to restore the baths and open an underground centre for visitors.
In the late 2nd century, the ditch and rampart defences around the old fortress were replaced by a bank and wall enclosing a much larger area, some 92 acres (37 ha). Although most of the visible structure is older, the course of the Roman wall was used for Exeter’s subsequent city walls, meaning about 70% of it remains and most of its route can be traced on foot. The Devonian Isca seems to have been most prosperous in the first half of the 4th century: more than a thousand Roman coins have been found around the city and there is evidence for copper and bronze working, a stock-yard, and markets for the livestock, crops, and pottery produced in the surrounding countryside. The dating of the coins so far discovered, however, suggests a rapid decline: virtually none have been discovered dating after the year 380.
Bishop Ussher identified the Cair Pensa vel Coyt listed among the 28 cities of Britain by the History of the Britons as Isca, although David Nash Ford read it as a reference to Penselwood and thought it more likely to be Lindinis (modern Ilchester). Nothing is certainly known of Exeter from the time of the Roman withdrawal from Britain around the year 410 until around 680 when a document about St Boniface reports that he was educated at an abbey in Exeter. By that time, the city was held by the Saxons, who had arrived in Exeter after defeating the British Dumnonians at Peonnum in Somerset in 658. It seems likely that the Saxons maintained a quarter of the city for the Britons under their own laws around present-day Bartholomew Street, which was known as “Britayne” Street until 1637 in memory of its former occupants.
Exeter was known to the Saxons as Escanceaster. In 876, it was attacked and briefly captured by Danish Vikings. Alfred the Great drove them out the next summer. Over the next few years, he elevated Exeter to one of the four burhs in Devon, rebuilding its walls on the Roman lines. These permitted the city to fend off another attack and siege by the Danes in 893. King Athelstan again strengthened the walls around 928 and, at the same time, drove out the remaining Britons from the city. (It is uncertain, though, whether they had lived in the city continuously since the Roman period or returned from the countryside when Alfred strengthened its defences.) According to William of Malmesbury, they were sent beyond the River Tamar, which was fixed as the boundary of Devon. (This may, however, have served as a territorial boundary within the former kingdom of Dumnonia as well.) Other references suggest that the British simply moved to what is now the St. David’s area, not far outside Exeter’s walls. The quarter vacated by the Britons was apparently adapted as “the earl’s burh” and was still named Irlesberi in the 12th century. In 1001, the Danes again failed to get into the city, but they were able to plunder it in 1003 because they were let in, for unknown reasons, by the French reeve of Emma of Normandy, who had been given the city as part of her dowry on her marriage to Æthelred the Unready the previous year.
Two years after the Norman conquest of England, Exeter rebelled against King William. Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, the mother of the slain King Harold, was living in the city at the time and William promptly marched west and initiated a siege. After 18 days, William accepted the city’s honourable surrender, swearing an oath not to harm the city or increase its ancient tribute. However, William quickly arranged for the building of Rougemont Castle to strengthen Norman control over the area. Properties owned by Saxon landlords were transferred into Norman hands and, on the death of Bishop Leofric in 1072, the Norman Osbern FitzOsbern was appointed his successor.
In 1136, early in the Anarchy, Rougemont Castle was held against King Stephen by Baldwin de Redvers. Redvers submitted only after a three-month siege, not when the three wells in the castle ran dry, but only after the exhaustion of the large supplies of wine that the garrison was using for drinking, baking, cooking, and putting out fires set by the besiegers. During the siege, King Stephen built an earthen fortification at the site now known (erroneously) as Danes Castle.
The city held a weekly market for the benefit of its citizens from at least 1213, and by 1281 Exeter was the only town in the south west to have three market days per week. There are also records of seven annual fairs, the earliest of which dates from 1130, and all of which continued until at least the early 16th century.
During the high medieval period, both the cathedral clergy and the citizens enjoyed access to sophisticated aqueduct systems which brought pure drinking water into the city from springs in the neighbouring parish of St Sidwell’s. For part of their length, these aqueducts were conveyed through a remarkable network of subterranean tunnels, or ‘underground passages’, which survive largely intact and which may still be visited today.
In 1537, the city was made a county corporate. In 1549, the city successfully withstood a month-long siege by the so-called Prayer Book rebels: Devon and Cornish folk who had been infuriated by the radical religious policies of King Edward VI. The insurgents occupied the suburbs of Exeter, burnt down two of the city gates and attempted to undermine the city walls, but were eventually forced to abandon the siege after they had been worsted in a series of bloody battles with the king’s army. A number of rebels were executed in the immediate aftermath of the siege. The Livery Dole almshouses and chapel at Heavitree were founded in March 1591 and finished in 1594.
The city’s motto, Semper fidelis, is traditionally held to have been suggested by Elizabeth I, in acknowledgement of the city’s contribution of ships to help defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588; however its first documented use is in 1660. Schools in Exeter teach that the motto was bestowed by Charles II in 1660 at the Restoration due to Exeter’s role in the English Civil War.
When in 1638 Reverend John Wheelwright was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and subsequently established a community on the banks of the Squamscott River, he named the region Exeter after its Devonian counterpart. During the American Revolution it became the capital of New Hampshire.
Exeter was secured for Parliament at the beginning of the English Civil War, and its defences very much strengthened, but in September 1643 it was captured by the Cornish Royalist Army led by Prince Maurice. Thereafter, the city remained firmly under the king’s control until near the end of the war, being one of the final Royalist cities to fall into Parliamentarian hands. The surrender of Exeter was negotiated in April 1646 at Poltimore House by Thomas Fairfax. During this period, Exeter was an economically powerful city, with a strong trade of wool. This was partly due to the surrounding area which was “more fertile and better inhabited than that passed over the preceding day” according to Count Lorenzo Magalotti who visited the city when he was 26 years old. Magalotti writes of over thirty thousand people being employed in the county of Devon as part of the wool and cloth industries, merchandise that was sold to “the West Indies, Spain, France and Italy”. Celia Fiennes also visited Exeter during this period, in the early 1700s. She remarked on the “vast trade” and “incredible quantity” in Exeter, recording that “it turns the most money in a week of anything in England”, between £10,000 and £15,000.
Georgian and Victorian Era.
Early in the Industrial Revolution, Exeter’s industry developed on the basis of locally available agricultural products and, since the city’s location on a fast-flowing river gave it ready access to water power, an early industrial site developed on drained marshland to the west of the city, at Exe Island. However when steam power replaced water in the 19th century, Exeter was too far from sources of coal (or iron) to develop further. As a result the city declined in relative importance, and was spared the rapid 19th century development that changed many historic European cities. Extensive canal redevelopments during this period further expanded Exeter’s economy, with “vessels of 15 to 16 tons burthen [bringing] up goods and merchandise from Topsham to the City Quay”. In 1778 a new bridge across the Exe was opened to replace the old medieval bridge. Built at a cost of £30,000, it had three arches and was built of stone
In 1832, cholera, which had been erupting all across Europe, reached Exeter. The only known documentation of this event was written by Dr Thomas Shapter, one of the medical doctors present during the epidemic. The first railway to arrive in Exeter was the Bristol and Exeter Railway that opened a station at St Davids on the western edge in 1844. The South Devon Railway Company extended the line westwards to Plymouth, opening their own smaller station at St Thomas, near the lower end of Fore Street. A more central railway station, that at Queen Street, was opened by the London and South Western Railway in 1860 when it opened its alternative route to London. Butchers Lloyd Maunder moved to their present base in 1915, to gain better access to the Great Western Railway for transportation of meat products to London. The first electricity in Exeter was provided by the Exeter Electric Light Company, which was formed at the end of the 1880s, but it was municipalised in 1896 and became the City of Exeter Electricity Company.
The first horse-drawn trams in Exeter were introduced in 1882 with 3 lines radiating from the city’s East Gate. One line went to St David’s station via New North Road, the Obelisk (where the Clock Tower now stands) and St David’s Hill. The second line went out along Heavitree Road to Livery Dole and the third went to Mount Pleasant along Sidwell Street. There was a depot off New North Road.
On 29 March 1905 a new bridge across the Exe was opened replacing the former Georgian bridge. Made of cast-iron and steel with a three hinged arch design, it cost £25,000 and was designed by Sir John Wolfe Barry. Also in 1905 electric trams replaced the horse trams with a new route which passed along the High Street, down Fore Street and over the new Exe Bridge. Once over the Exe the line divided, with one route along Alphington Road and another along Cowick Street. The line to St David’s Station travelled along Queen Street instead of along New North Road and the line to Heavitree was extended. On 17 March 1917, a tram went out of control going down Fore Street, hit a horse-drawn wagon, then overturned on Exe Bridge and one female passenger was killed. By the 1920s, there were problems with congestion caused by the trams, a need for expensive track renewal work and the slow speed of the trams in Exeter’s narrow streets. After much discussion the council decided to replace the tram service with double-decker buses and the last tram ran on 19 August 1931. The only remaining Exeter tram in service is car 19, now at the Seaton Tramway.
Exeter was bombed by the German Luftwaffe in the Second World War, when a total of 18 raids between 1940 and 1942 flattened much of the city centre. In 1942, as part of the Baedeker Blitz and specifically in response to the RAF bombing of Lübeck and Rostock, 40 acres (16 ha) of the city, particularly adjacent to its central High Street and Sidwell Street, were levelled by incendiary bombing. Many historic buildings in the heart of the city were destroyed and others, including the Cathedral, were damaged. Large areas of the city centre were rebuilt in the 1950s, when little attempt was made to preserve Exeter’s ancient heritage. Damaged buildings were generally demolished rather than restored, and even the street plan was altered in an attempt to improve traffic circulation. The post-war buildings are generally perceived as being of little architectural merit, unlike many of those that they replaced, such as Bedford Circus and a section of the ancient city wall.
On 27 October 1960, following very heavy rain, the Exe overflowed and flooded large areas of Exeter including Exwick, St Thomas and Alphington. The water rose as high as 2m above ground level in places and 150 employees of the local firm Beach Bros were trapped for nine hours. 2,500 properties were flooded. Later the same year on 3 December the river levels rose again, flooding 1,200 properties. These floods led to the construction of new flood defences for Exeter. Work began in 1965, took 12 years to complete and cost £8 million. The defences included three flood relief channels, and were complemented by the construction of a two new concrete bridges (built in 1969 and 1972) to replace the old Exe Bridge which had obstructed the flow of the river and made the flooding worse.
Despite some local opposition, the Princesshay shopping centre has been redeveloped between the Cathedral Close and the High Street. The development was completed and opened on time on 20 September 2007. There are 123 varied residential units incorporated into the new Princes shay.
To enable people with limited mobility to enjoy the city, Exeter Community Transport Association provides manual and powered wheelchairs and scooters (called Shopmobility) for use by anyone suffering from short or long-term mobility impairment to access to the city centre and shopping facilities, events and meetings with friends and company.
Previously regarded as second only to Bath as an architectural site in southern England, since the 1942 bombing and subsequent reconstruction Exeter has been a city with some beautiful buildings rather than a beautiful city. As a result, although there is a significant tourist trade, Exeter is not dominated by tourism. In May 2008 there was an attempted terrorist attack on the Giraffe cafe in Princes shay.