Exeter Heritage Guide
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HistoryWhen the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43 they established their power base in the south east of the country. It was not until 7 years later in AD 50 that they arrived on the banks of the River Exe, in what is now Devon. They built a timber fort on a hilltop overlooking the lowest crossing point on the river. In AD 75 the fort was abandoned, and a new town began to grow on the site of the former fort. The new town was called Isca, from the Brythonic (early Celtic) word for flowing water.
After the Romans departed Britain in the early 5th century Isca seems to have been abandoned, though there may have been a few families still dwelling within the old Roman walls.
The next big change came in the 7th century, when the Saxons settled in Devon, and established a monastery inside the city walls. They called their new settlement Exe Ceaster, loosely 'Exe town'. In time the words merged to their current form, Exeter.
The burgh established by King Alfred flourished, and Exeter expanded in size. A fresh wave of Danish invaders tried to capture the town in AD 1001 but were repelled and eventually left when reinforcements arrived. Worse was to come in 1003 when a reeve of Exeter betrayed the town to the Danes. The town swiftly rebuilt and by 1066 it had a population of around 2500, a very large settlement by the standards of the time. Exeter's importance was underlined in 1050 when the Bishop of Devon moved his seat from Crediton to Exeter and began building a new cathedral.
Exeter was besieged during the Prayer Book rebellion in 1549 but the rebels were repelled. Worse was to come in the Civil War when a Royalist army laid siege to the city in June 1643. The city held out for over 2 months but finally surrendered. It was not until early 1646 that Parliament recaptured the city.
HighlightsThe woollen industry and tanning trade that had made Exeter so prosperous declined gradually from the 19th century, but reminders of Exeter's historic importance are everywhere, from the 17th century Custom House on the Quayside (the first purpose-built custom house in England), to Tucker's Hall, built in 1471 for the powerful Guild of Weavers Fullers and Shearmen.
Exeter Cathedral is a largely 13th century building, and one of the finest examples of early Gothic style in the country. The cathedral offers the longest uninterupted vaulted ceiling in England, and the carving throughout the interior is superb.
Explore the vaulted 14th century underground passages constructed to hold lead pipes for the city's fresh water, or learn about 2,000 years of the city's history in the Custom House Visitor Centre.
An excellent way to learn about the city is in the company of a Red Coat guided tour host. These free 90-minute walking tours commence at the Quay House or outside the Royal Clarence Hotel in Cathedral Yard.
Address: Exeter, Devon, England
Attraction Type: Town
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Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
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