Uncovering historic Exeter – from Roman fortress to thriving cathedral city

Anyone who is enthused by heritage is unlikely to get that excited by a city centre shopping complex. Exeter, however, has a claim to fame in modern history in that it boasts the country’s first pedestrianised shopping precinct.

The current Princesshay development only dates back to 2007, but it is built on the site of a ghastly concrete monstrosity whose foundations were laid by Princess Elizabeth October in 1949 after whom the development was named.

Although considered revolutionary when it was built, by the 1990s Princesshay was looking very shabby and so the developers took bold steps to re-build it from scratch. In the process archaeologists found a considerable amount of Roman tile fragments, plus medieval pottery and coins.

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Bob (in red coat) leads group through Princesshay shopping centre

And today, as far as shopping centres go, it’s a fairly pleasant place to stroll with different building styles, quirky pieces of artwork and views of the cathedral and surrounding area.

But if it hadn’t been for destructive Second World War bombing raids Exeter could look a completely different place. The events of 1942 wiped out beautiful medieval, Georgian and Victorian architecture. And many of the fine buildings that the Nazis didn’t destroy were then flatten by civic planners who were eager to make their mark on this cathedral city, which dates back to Roman times.

To get a historical overview of Exeter I went on a free 90 minute walk ran by the city’s Red Coat guides – an army of knowledgeable volunteers who are eager to show their city to the world. On the sunny day I visited, it was Bob enthusing about the city to two retired ladies from Canada, a German visiting her niece who is studying at Exeter University and me.

Setting out from the near the cathedral, we jumped straight into the Exeter’s history with Bob providing the introduction to his walk on what two thousand years ago been a Roman legionary fortress. Called Isca, the rectangular construction was surrounded by ditches and was large enough to house 6,000 men.

The fortress was believed to be the first large settlement in Devon and was connected to a network of smaller forts across the region. Over the years archaeologists have found traces from it, such as a barrack block, a bath-house (which the cathedral is currently considering uncovering and opening as a tourist attraction) and workshops, but much of it lies under modern Exeter.

For an excellent overview of this period, it’s worth exploring the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in the city which displays a considerable amount of finds unearthed during digs, not least from 2005 when work began on the new Princesshay exhibition.

The Romans left Britain by 410AD and the dark ages – a period where little history is recorded – followed, but in medieval times it was a bustling place again. William the Conqueror captured Exeter in 1068 after an 18 day siege and built a castle called Rougemont that was “raised on a very high mound and fortified with towers of hewn limestone,” according to a 12th century source.

And according to contemporary accounts displayed at RAMM, ships brought “every kind of merchandise” during medieval times, including Caen stone, fine pottery, jugs and bowls. William of Malmesbury, a monk who visited Exeter in the 1120s, was impressed by the “magnificence of the city and wealth of its inhabitants”.

The Bishop of Exeter wrote to the Pope in 1327, noting that Exeter Cathedral was “marvellous in beauty” and believed that one day the building would “surpass every church in England and France”. The city as a whole was an important religious centre in the Middle Ages and the church had considerable power in the town.

Near the cathedral yard we explored the site of what had originally been medieval almshouses. Wiped out by the 1942 bombing, the ruins have been preserved and on the day I visited seemed to be attracting quite a lot of interest from passing visitors. It was here that a fine Roman floor mosaic (now on display at RAMM) was found.

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Cathedral Yard

But it was the wool trade that really transformed the riches of Exeter, with accounts from the 17th century suggesting it was the most important centre for the trade in the country. The city was transformed, with the construction of upmarket venues that allowed well-to-do residents to patronise the arts, music and literature.

Exeter became known for its fine architecture. Bedford Circus – sadly lost during the Second World War and finished off by eager planners in its aftermath – was a stunning development of grand houses set alongside curved lines facing each other.

Even when the presence of coal in other parts of Britain pushed the Industrial Revolution north (Exeter only had water), the city still thrived because it had made a name for itself in trading other goods and the port continued to be very busy. Then with the advent of the railways Exeter grew increasingly popular with tourists (the city claims to have the country’s first hotel – the Royal Clarence Hotel was said to be the first building in England to be given that name).

Although there has been considerable development following the Second World War there are still considerable reminders that this was once a walled city. The first defence was built in AD200 and it was strengthened many times after that, as and when the settlement was threatened by attack.

In Princesshay there is a red line on the ground showing the site of the original wall, but as you move to Northenhay Gardens – apparently Britain’s first public park and laid out as pleasure gardens in 1612 – much of the defence of remains.

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Northenhay Gardens – Britain’s first public park

We walked along the terrace and enjoyed fine views across the Devonshire countryside. And before dropping back into the town’s bustling streets we saw a Norman gatehouse which is said to be Britain’s oldest surviving castle building (it was built soon after the 1066 conquest).

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Norman gatehouse – Britain’s oldest surviving castle building

Before ending the 90 minute walk, Bob took us into the Guildhall, a historic building on the high street. There has been a reference to the Guildhall here since 1160 and Exeter city council still meets in the impressive oak panelled room, with a wonderful wooden beamed ceiling and chandeliers. The surviving main oak front door was installed in 1593 – when the present entrance front was built – at a cost of £4.50 in today’s money.

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Inside Exeter’s historic Guildhall

While the shopping development outside may be modern, the historic Guildhall was a fitting place to get a sense of Exeter’s past. It is fascinating history that more from the outside world should set out to discover.

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Common seal of Exeter – from 1170 to 1200 (on display at RAMM)

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Parliament Street – claimed to be the narrowest street in the world!


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