Exeter is a historic city in Devon, England. It lies within the ceremonial county of Devon, of which it is the county town as well as the home of Devon County Council. Currently the administrative area has the status of a non-metropolitan district, and is therefore under the administration of the County Council. The city is on the River Exe, about northeast of Plymouth, and southwest of Bristol. According to the 2011 Census, its population in that year was 117,773.
The city's transport hubs include Exeter St Davids railway station, Exeter Central railway station, the M5 motorway and Exeter International Airport connecting the city both nationally and internationally.
Prehistoric and Roman times
The favourable location of Exeter, on a dry ridge ending in a spur overlooking a navigable river teeming with fish, and fertile land nearby, suggests the site was occupied early. The discovery of coins dating from the Hellenistic period in the city indicates the existence of a settlement trading with the Mediterranean region as early as 250 BC.
The Latin name for Exeter, Isca Dumnoniorum ("Isca of the Dumnones or Devonians"), suggests that the city was of Celtic origin. This oppidum (a Latin term meaning an important town) on the banks of the River Exe certainly existed prior to the foundation of the Roman city in about AD 50; however, the name may have been suggested by a Celtic adviser to the Romans, rather than by the original inhabitants of the place.
Significant parts of the Roman wall remain, though most of the visible structure is later. Most of its route can be traced on foot. A substantial Roman baths complex was excavated in the 1970s, but because of its proximity to the cathedral, it was not practicable to retain the excavation for public view. Exeter was also the southern starting point for the Fosse Way Roman road.
More than 1,000 Roman coins have been found in the city, indicating its importance as a trading centre. The dates of these coins suggest that the city was at its most prosperous in the first half of the fourth century. However, virtually no coins dated after AD 380 have been found, suggesting a rapid decline.
After the Romans left Britain in the early 5th century, nothing is known of Exeter for about 270 years, until around 680 when a document about St Boniface reports that he was educated at the Abbey in Exeter.
Celtic & Saxon times
The Saxons arrived in Exeter after defeating the Britons at the Battle of Peonnum in Somerset in 658. It is likely that amongst the ruins of the Roman city there was plenty of room for both peoples, and the Saxons allowed the Britons to continue to live in their own quarter of the city under their own laws. This was almost certainly in the same area as the ancient British settlement – in the locality of the present-day Bartholomew Street. Until 1637 this street was known as Britayne in memory of the fact that it was once the British quarter.
In 876 Exeter (then known as Escanceaster) was attacked and briefly captured by the Danes. Alfred the Great drove them out the next summer, and in the following years made Exeter one of the four burhs in Devon, repairing the Roman city walls in the process. In 893 the city held off another siege by the Danes.
In about 928 King Athelstan caused the walls to be thoroughly repaired and at the same time drove out the Britons from the city. It is not known whether or not these Britons had lived in the city continuously since Roman times – they may have been immigrants from the countryside when Alfred made the city a burh. According to William of Malmesbury, they were sent beyond the River Tamar, thereby fixing that river as the boundary of Devon, although Athelstan may have been restoring an old Dumnonian boundary. Other references suggest that the British simply moved to what is now the St. David's area, not far outside the city walls. The quarter vacated by the Britons was then 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.
In 1068, possibly because Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, mother of King Harold, was living in the city, Exeter rebelled against William the Conqueror who promptly marched west and laid siege. After 18 days William accepted the city's honourable surrender in which he swore an oath not to harm the city or increase its ancient tribute. However, William quickly arranged for the building of Rougemont Castle to ensure the city's compliance in future. 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 once the large supplies of wine in the garrison that they were using for drinking, baking, cooking and for putting out the fires started by the besiegers, were exhausted. 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.
Tudor and Stuart times
In 1537, the city was made a county corporate. In 1549 the city successfully withstood a month-long siege by the Prayer Book rebels. 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 at first a Parliamentarian town in the English Civil War in the largely Royalist South West, but it was captured by the Royalists led by Prince Maurice on 4 September 1643, and it remained in their control until near the end of the war, being one of the final Royalist cities to fall into Parliamentary 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 times
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 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.
Early 20th century
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.
Second World War to the present
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, 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.
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 Princesshay.
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 Princesshay.