Interconnected Exeter

Exeter’s history is threaded through with interconnections, from local to international.

The oldest part of the city is situated on a dry ridge of land that overlooks a navigable stretch of the Exe river, at what historically was the lowest crossing point. The Exe connected Devon through Exeter with the world, and trading was an important source of the source of the city’s growth and prosperity. Coins found in the city dating from the Hellenistic period are evidence of the existence of a settlement that was trading with the Mediterranean region as early as 250BC.

In about AD50, the Romans founded the city of Isca Dumnoniorum (“Isca of the Dumnones or Devonians”), where there was already an important town. The Fosse Way marked the western frontier of Roman rule in Iron Age Britain, and its southwestern end was at Isca. So Exeter continued to be a trading centre and to grow in prosperity until the mid-fourth century. After the Romans left Britain, it disappeared from record, until about 680, when St Boniface is recorded as having attended Exeter Abbey. Boniface later became missionary to the Frankish Empire, and is now the patron saint of Germany.

Unfortunately, Exeter’s national and international connections have not always had positive results, and it has a bit of history of being on the losing side. In 876, the Danes attacked and briefly captured what was then known as Escanceaster, until Alfred the Great drove them out. In 1002, Exeter was given to Emma of Normandy as part of her dowry on her marriage to Æthelred the Unready. The following year, her French reeve let the Danes in to plunder the city. In 1067, Exeter rebelled against William the Conqueror, who marched west and laid siege, and after the city surrendered, built Rougemont Castle. In 1136, early in the Anarchy, Rougemont was held against King Stephen, and again besieged and forced to surrender. During the Civil War, Exeter was one of the last Royalist cities to fall into Parliamentary hands. On the other hand, it did contribute ships to help defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Devon is criss-crossed by green lanes, often ancient packhorse and drovers’ tracks, which have left a legacy of hidden routes running between tall hedge banks often with overhanging trees. There are a few around Exeter, such as Hambeer Lane on a western ridge with views over the city. The city held a weekly market from at least 1213, trading locally available agricultural products, and there are also records of seven annual fairs until at least the early 16th century. By then it was a centre of the wool and cloth industry in Devon, and exporting to the West Indies, Spain, France and Italy.

Extensive canal redevelopments further expanded Exeter’s trading economy. But in the 19th century, steam power replaced water power, and Exeter was too far from sources of coal or iron to participate fully in the industrial revolution, and declined in relative importance.

The first railway to arrive in 1844 was the Bristol and Exeter Railway. Modern Exeter is the regional rail hub, connected to London, Bristol, Birmingham and beyond. It is at the southwest end of the motorway network, and is connected to the rest of the world via its International Airport. It hosts world-class organisations, such as the University of Exeter and the Met Office, and is twinned with Rennes in France, Bad Homburg in Germany, Yaroslavl in Russia, and Terracina in Italy. The Brazil national football team played its first ever game against Exeter City in 1914, and the Exeter Chiefs are now playing European rugby.