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Exeter, Devon

Historical Description

Exeter, without rival " the Queen of the West," is a cathedral city, a parliamentary and municipal borough, a county borough under the Local Government Act of 1888 and the county town of Devonshire. It stands on the Exe, 10 miles above the river's embouchure, is, by railway 39½r miles SE of Barnstaple, 521 NE by E of Plymouth, 75½ SW of Bristol, 169¼ SW of Birmingham, and 194: WSW of London by the G.W.R., and 171¼ by the S.W.R. It has railway communication toward Exmouth, Dartmouth, Plymouth, Barnstaple, Bristol, and London, with such numerous ramifications as connect it with all parts of the kingdom. There are three railway stations in the city-St David's, Sfc Thomas, and Queen Street.

History.-Exeter was a town of the ancient Britons long before the Roman invasion, and it has made a conspicuous figure in every subsequent age. It was called by the Britons Caer-Isc, " the city of the water," from its situation on the Exe-anciently Isc, signifying "water," and Caer-Rydh, " the red city,'' from the colour of the soil around it. It was called by the Romans Isca et Legio Secunda Augusta from its having been occupied by the Augustan legion, and Ibca Damnoniorum from its having belonged to the British Dam-nonii, and to distinguish it from Isca, afterwards Usk, in Monmouthshire. It was called by the Saxons Exan-Cestre or Exacestre, signifying 'l the castellated city of the Exe," and that name passed in course of time through the forms of Exceaster, Excester, and Exceter, into the modern form Exeter. It is called by Geoffrey of Monmouth Caer-Pen-huelgoit, signifying the " prosperous chief city in the wood," and by the writer of an old local legal document Pennehalte-caire, signifying t1 the chief town upon the hill." It likewise bore for some time the descriptive name of Monkton from the existence in it of many monasteries, and was described by Henry of Huntingdon as tk Excestria clara metallis"- Exeter famous for metals-probably from its vicinity to the Dartmoor mines. It was the chief city of the Damnonii; it must, from the evidence of relics, have been an important station of the Romans; and it has ranked in later times as the capital of the south-west of England. Ancient roads went from it to Totnes, Stratton, Molland, and Collumpton; traces of camps are discernible in its vicinity, and many Roman coins, small bronze statues, tessellated pavements, fragments of columns, and other relics, have been found within and near its site.

Exeter was besieged by Vespasian, by Penda "of Mercia, and by several other parties in early times. The Danes seized it, spoiled it, and wintered in it in 876, but were driven away by Alfred. The Danes again, in 894, came against it by sea in nearly 250 vessels, but were again driven off by Alfred. The Cornish Britons afterwards took it, and Athelstan drove them away, made it a mint town, and either surrounded it with a new wall or repaired one originally constructed by the Romans. Sweyn of Denmark in 1003 besieged it, got possession of it by treachery, put its inhabitants to the sword, and destroyed a castle in it which some writers affirm to have been built by Julius Caesar. Harold's mother, Gytha, in 1068, roused it to resist the Normans, but William the Conqueror took it after a siege of 18 days, and rebuilt its castle. Stephen, in 1136, captured it from a force placed in it by the partizans of Matilda. Edward I. was in it in 1285 and 1297; Edward the Black Prince, in 1357 and 1371; Henry VI. in 1451, and Richard IIL in 1483. Perkin War-beck besieged it in 1497, and the western insurgents in 1549. The Princess Catherine, on her way to be married to Henry VIII., was in it in 1501. The parliamentarians held it at the commencement of the civil war; the royalists, under Prince Maurice and Sir John Berkeley, soon captured and made it their headquarters for the SW; the queen took up her abode in it at Bedford House, and gave birth there to the Princess Henrietta; the king also, with the Prince of Wales, made it a visit; and the parliamentarians under Fairfax in 1646 besieged it, took it, and dismantled its castle. Charles II. was in it in 1670, the Prince of Orange in 1688, George III., with his queen and three princesses, in 1789; the Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV., in a subsequent year; the Duke of Clarence, afterwards William IV., in 1827; Queen Adelaide in 1845, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1856. When Richard III. was here he expressed admiration of the castle, and, on being told that it was called Rougemont, he mistook the name for Richmond, and hence does Shakespeare make him say-" Richmond! When last I was at Exeter The mayor in courtesy showed me the castle, And called it Rougemont; at which name I started. Because a bard of Ireland told me once I should not live long after I saw Richmond."

Among the natives of Exeter have been Iscanus, a Latin poet, who died in 1185; Archbishop Baldwin, who died in 1190; Cardinal Langton, who died in 1228; Bishops Iscanus, Blondy, Bridgeman, and Bronescombe; Sir W. Petre, who was born in 1505; Hooker and Barkham, the antiquaries; Richard Hooker the theologian, born in the immediate neighbourhood at Heavitree; Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian library; Lord Chancellor King, Sir William Morice, Secretary of State to Charles II.; Cardmaker, the martyr, 1555; Hilliard, the limner of Queen Elizabeth; Ac-land, Foster, Hakewell, Hallet, Hawker, Manduit, Mudge, Tapper, Trope, and Walker, the theologians; Yalden and Hopkins, the poets; Sir S. Baskerville, the physician; Lock and Jackson, the musicians; Sir Vicary Gibbs, the lawyer; Gandy, the portrait painter; Merivale, the scholar; D'Urfey, the wit; Eustace Budgell, the friend of Addison; Simon Ockley, the orientalist; G. Walker, the defender of Londonderry; Bryce, the topographer; Maria, Duchess of Orleans; Chief-Baron Peryan, Johanna Southcote, and Edgar Bowring Stephens, A.R.A., sculptor. Exeter gives the title of Marquis and Earl to the family of Cecil.

Site and Structure.-The city occupies the slopes and summit of a flat ridge, rising to the height of about 150 feet from the left bank of the Exe. The ridge ascends gradually on one side, descends abruptly on the other, and is engirt with rich undulating country. The city proper, or the old city, or the part within the circuit of the ancient walls, covers a space of about half a mile by three furlongs, nearly in the form of a parallelogram, and is intersected in a cruciform manner by four principal streets, which meet at right angles near the centre. High Street and Fore Street traverse it in a line from E to W, and North Street and South Street traverse it in a line from N to S. Other streets branch out from these, and extensive suburbs lie all around. St Sid-well's prolongs the principal street-line on the E, St David's on the N, Mount Radford on the S and Exe Island and the Quarter on the SW. These suburbs are of various character, but include several fine thoroughfares and squares. The principal streets in all parts of the city, both old and new, are spacious, and some of the recently-erected places are at once airy and elegant. High Street is very cheerful, and contains handsome shops and many curious old house-fronts. North Street goes down a steep descent, and has on one side some remarkable old houses. Numerous parts, both in the other streets of the old city and in some streets of the oldest suburbs, show features of antiquity, while most parts, especially the modern streets and the handsome squares and terraces, present a highly pleasing aspect, and indicate a prosperous and tasteful care for renovation, embellishment, and extension. The city altogether, from the conjoint effects of its site, its structure, and its police arrangements, is one of the cleanest, most orderly, and best regulated in the kingdom; and at the same time, from the purity, mildness, and equability of its climate, is one of the most healthy.

Walks and Environs.-The Northenihay, lying along a high slope on the N of the city, immediately under the castle wall, is a beautiful promenade and favourite lounge, was long ago levelled and planted at much cost, includes ornate grounds and shaded walks, commands extensive and pleasant views, and is the scene in summer of the exhibitions of the Devon and Exeter Botanical and Horticultural Society. The Bury Meadow, in the New North Road, is another public walk, with pleasure grounds. The general character of the surrounding scenery is that of a succession of small undulations, increasing in height as they recede from the city, and eventually lost in eminences which bound the horizon, excepting to the SE where the estuary of the Exe opens to the English Channel. The Whitstone Hills, rising to the height of 740 feet, are on the N; the Stoke range connects these with the Woodbury Hills to the E; Haldon Hill, upwards of 800 feet high, is on the SW; and the ridge of Dartmoor, with a mean , height of 1792 feet, extends beyond. Brilliant views of the northern part of the city, and of the country to the N, are obtained, from the Northernhay, excellent views on the S side, away to distant tracts, are got from Friar's Walk, and from the parade in front of Colleton Terrace, and prime views of the city, in its connection with the surrounding scenery, are had from Exwick Hill-the numerous churches and other edifices spreading gradually from the river till they are surmounted by the towers of the venerable cathedral, while the heights of Haldon and the distant eminences, with their bold and swelling outlines, form the background and fill the horizon.

Public Buildings.-The city walls were entire in 1769, but many parts of them have been destroyed. Leiand says- " The toune is a good mile and more in compace, and is right strongly waullid and maintained. Ther be diverse fare towers in the toune betwixt the south and west gate. There be four gates in the toune, by names of est, west, north, and south. The east and the west gates be now the fairest, and of one fascion of building; the south gate has been the strongest." None of these gates now exist. The castle was situated at the highest point of the city on the N, bore the name of Rougemont, either from the red colour of its stones or from a baron called Eothemond, and has been so nearly demolished that only the gateway, a portion of the walls with three of the bastions, and a portion of the rampart now remain. The gateway and the best part of the rampart are within the pleasure-grounds of Rougemont Lodge, and the old keep is mantled over with ivy, while the rampart is tastefully laid out as a terrace-walk. The assize hall and sessions house. more generally called the Castle, stands on part of the castle's site, was erected in 1773, but has undergone several alterations and enlargements, and is a neat stone-fronted edifice, with commodious interior. The guildhall was restored in 1888-89, has a projecting arcaded facade, and is a carious specimen of English and Italian architecture. A new court-house and police station "was erected at the rear of the guildhall in 1887. The Victoria Public Hall was built in 1869, and can accommodate 2000 persons. Wornford House Lunatic Asylum for the middle and upper classes was built in 1869, at a cost of £30,000, and has accommodation for 120 patients. The prison, opposite Northemhay, was almost entirely rebuilt in 1853 and preceding years at a cost of about £32,000. The Western Market, in Fore Street, was erected in 1835-36, and consists of a central avenue 71 feet long and 81½ wide, and a market-hall 157 feet by 91. The Eastern Market, in Queen Street, was opened in 1838, shows Doric features, and has a central avenue of granite pilasters. The post office, in the High Street, is a handsome edifice, erected 1883-85. The city has six banks. Marble statues of Sir Thomas Acland and Earl Fortescue, both by E. B. Stephens, were erected, the former in the Northernhay in 1861, the latter in the castle yard in 1863. Northernhay also contains a marble statue (by E. B. Stephens, R.A.) of the late John Dinham, an eminent philanthropist of the city, erected in 1866. There is also a group in bronze (by Mr Stephens), of a deerstalker with his dog; and a white marble statue (by J. E. Boehm, R.A.), on a Devonshire granite pedestal, of Stafford Northcote, first Earl of Iddesleigh, in the robes of a peer. In Bedford Circus is a bronze statue (by Mi-Stephens) on a granite pedestal, of½the late William Reginald, eleventh Earl of Devon, erected in 1880. An elegant stone bridge of three arches was erected over the Exe, at the western entrance to the city, in 1776-78, at a cost of about JE20.000.

Institutions.-The College Hall in South Street is the meeting place of the Exeter Architectural Diocesan Society, was formerly a chantry of the Vicar's Choral, dates from the 14th century, is hung with antique portraits, supposed to be of early½bishops of Exeter, and contains models, drawings, and other matters relating to ecclesiology. The Devon and Exeter Institution in Cathedral Yard was established in 1813, and contains a large library, a good museum,, and an extensive herbarium. The Royal Public Rooms in New London Inn Square were erected in 1820. They contain an assembly room 92 feet long, 41 feet wide, and 40 feet high, lighted by a handsome dome. The Athenaeum in Bedford Circus was erected in 1835, is a large and fine edifice, and includes a lecture-room, with accommodation for nearly 400 persons. The Albert Memorial Museum in Queen Street was erected in 1869, and contains a museum, free library, reading-room, and a spacious art gallery, which was added in 1884. The Constitutional Club was'erected in 1883. A new theatre, built in 1886, was burnt down in the following year, when 200 lives were lost. It has since been rebuilt. The Devon and Exeter Hospital in Southernhay was opened in 1743, has undergone many enlargements. A new wing was added in 1857, and a chapel for the use of the patients was erected in 1866. The institution is well supported by voluntary contributions. The dispensary in Queen Street is a handsome erection of 1841. The new lunatic asylum near the city was erected in 1883-86, is in the Tudor style, and has a frontage of 450 feet. There are also in the city Wynard's hospital, numerous almshouses, a female penitentiary, an eye infirmary, a homoeopathic dispensary, an institution for the deaf and dumb, an institution for the blind, a lying-in charity, and a number of benevolent societies and charities.

The Cathedral.-A Benedictine monastery was founded on the site of the Cathedral in 932 by Athelstan. Either that edifice enlarged, or a new edifice to supplant it, was the cathedral at the translation of the see from Crediton to Exeter in 1049, and is thought by Sir Henry Englefield to have been not more than 60 feet in length. A new cathedral was built by Bishop Warelwast in 1112, was pillaged and burnt by Stephen at his capture of the city, and was restored and enlarged at various times till 1206. Two towers of that structure still stand, and are the towers of the present pile; they are of Norman architecture, corresponding to each other in size and form, but dissimilar in details. The present cathedral, with the exception of the towers, part of the Lady chapel, and two of the oratories, was transformed into Decorated by Bishop Quivil in 1288, and was not completed till 1478. It consists of a nave, with aisles, a transept, terminating in the towers, a choir, with aisles, a Lady chapel, ten oratories, and a chapterhouse. The nave is 180 feet long, 60 wide, and 68 high; the transept is 140 feet long, 32 wide, and 68 high; the choir is 132 feet long, 54 wide, and 68 high; the Lady chapel is 65 feet long, 35 wide, and 40 high; the chapter-house is 55 feet long, 28 wide, and 50 high; the towers are 28 feet each way, and 145 high; and the entire pile is 387 feet long. The Lady chapel was built in 1224-44 by Bishop Bruere, and completed in 1281-91 by Bishop Quivil. The oratories of Gabriel and St Mary Magdalene were built in 1257-80 by Bishop Bronescombe. The first four eastern arches of the choir were completed in 1310 by Bishop Stapleon. The nave was built in 1293-1307 by Bishop Bytton. The choir was completed, the nave vaulted, and the west front built, in 1327-69, by Bishop Grandison. Additions were made to the west front, the cloisters were built, and the east window of the choir was constructed in 1370-95, by Bishop Brenting-ham. The chapter-house was built in 1420-58 by Bishop Lacy, and completed in 1478 by Bishop Booth. The prevailing style is the Early Decorated, and it is maintained, from the early parts to the latest, with a persistency which has rarely been exemplified in similar structures, and which produces an appearance as if the entire pile had been constructed as a single work and by one designer. " A singular felicity," remarks Sir H. Englefield, " attended the erection of this cathedral. During the long period of 500 years, no tasteless or vain prelate interfered with the regular and elegant plan of the founder. Though the taste in architecture was continually changing, so scrupulous was the adherence to the original design, that the church seems rather to have been erected at once in its perfect state/than to have slowly grown to its consummate beauty. Even Grandison, who, if we may judge from his screen, had a taste florid in the extreme in architecture, chastised his ideas within the church, and felt the simple grace of Quivil's design."

The exterior of the cathedral has a venerable appearance, but loses effect from want of height and from the unusual position of the towers. The clerestory is supported by very elegant flying buttresses, and the ridge of the roof has a fleur-de-lis ornament-a feature which exists in no other English cathedral. The west front was restored iu 1817 by Kendall, presents an elaborate screen covered with canopied imagery work, and has a great window, 32 feet by 27, of nine lights. The interior, from the uniform style of the architecture, the fresh appearance of the stone, the numerousness of the oratories and screens, and the splendid stone vaulting of nave and choir, is highly effective. The nave has clustered piers, -with shafts of Purbeck marble, the triforium consists of arcades of four trifoliated arches in each bay, with a gallery of open stonework, and the organ-screen separating the nave from the choir, has three arches, is mostly as old as the time of Edward III., but includes paneled additions of 1819. The stalls are of good design, three sedilia have rich openwork canopies; and the bishop's throne is of black oak, tastefully carved, and forming a light pyramid 52 feet high. The whole of the interior of the cathedral was thoroughly restored in 1870-77, under the superintendence of Sir Gilbert Scott. A curious astronomical clock, of the time of Edward III., based on the ancient ideas of astronomy, is in the north transept. A great bell, weighing 12,500 Ibs., or 2500 more than " Tom of Lincoln," is in the north tower, and a peal of eleven bells, the tenor weighing 7552 Ibs., is in the south tower. The chapter-house stands on the south side of the south tower, is partly Early English, partly Perpendicular, has an oblong form, with richly panelled and pointed roof, and contains a library of about 8000 volumes. The cloisters were destroyed by the Puritans. The episcopal palace stands adjacent on the south, and is not a building of any note, but has an Early English chapel.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyDevon 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Church Records

The Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials of the City of Exeter, volume 1 - the Registers of Exeter Cathedral 1593 - 1813 is available online.

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Exeter from the following:


Online maps of Exeter are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following newspapers covering Devon online:

Visitations Heraldic

The Visitation of the County of Devon in the year 1564, with additions from the earlier visitation of 1531, is online.

The Visitations of the County of Devon, comprising the Heralds' Visitations of 1531, 1564, & 1620, with additions by Lieutant-Colonel J.L. Vivian, published for the author by Henry S. Eland, Exeter 1895 is online.

RegionSouth West
Postal districtEX4
Post TownExeter