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The History of Exeter

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Exeter lies in the south west of England, on the River Exe. The word ‘Exe’ is derived from the Celtic word for water). In the middle of the 1st century AD, the Romans arrived in the south west and built a fort on the River Exe at its most crossable point. The local tribe apparently did not put up a great deal of resistance to Roman rule and the soldiers were eventually moved on, leaving the small town that had grown up around the fort. During Roman rule Isca as they called it, grew in importance. It was a full scale Roman town with baths and a forum, and was soon made the administrative centre for the south west by the Romans.

The town declined after the Romans left Britain, with most people returning to their rural existences. The Saxons did not reach this part of Britain until the 7th century. Following their victory over the Britons at the Battle of Peonnum in Somerset , the Saxons came to Devon. They revived the town, building a monastery inside the original Roman walls. It appears at this time that the size of the original Roman settlement allowed both Saxons and Britons to live in the city, each in their own sector with their own laws. The modern name of Exeter is derived from the Saxon name Exe Caester; the Saxons called all Roman towns casters.

The Danes arrived a couple of centuries later, capturing the town in 876 and spending the winter their before moving on to another part of England. Alfred the Great then created a network of Burghs, which included Exeter. These were fortified strongholds which locals could rally to in the event of a Danish attack. Exeter grew in prosperity at this time, its Burgh status granting it a weekly market and a mint. The town was betrayed by its own leader (the Reeve of the town) in 1003, who let the Danes into the town through a gate. The Danes destroyed Exeter, but it recovered quickly and in 1050 a cathedral was built in Exeter.

The city rebelled against William the Conqueror in 1067, which may have had something to do with the fact the King Harold ’s mother Gytha was living in Exeter at this time. William besieged the city and eventually secured their surrender, promising not to harm the city or raise taxes in revenge. However, he did build Rougemont Castle in Exeter soon afterwards as a precaution. Saxon property rights were also transferred to Norman owners.

The castle was besieged in 1136 during the unsettled reign of King Stephen. Baldwin de Redvers, supporter of Queen Matilda, held out for three months against Stephen. They eventually had to concede after the wine stocks ran out. They had been using the castles huge wine stocks for everything from cooking to putting out fires since the wells had run dry!

During the Tudor and Stuart times, Exeter and the surrounding areas saw plenty of military action. The city held out against the popular ‘Prayer Book Rebels’ for a month long siege. The rebellion was in response to the introduction of a new English book of common prayer, which was opposed strongly by areas of the country which were still very strong in Catholic beliefs. The rebellion was suppressed largely by the use of German and Italian mercenary soldiers. The city was also recognised by Queen Elizabeth I for its contribution in repelling the Spanish Armada . It is rumoured that the cities motto ‘Semper Fidelis’ was suggested by the Queen following the Armada, but there is no recorded use of the motto prior to 1660; some 72 years later.
The golden age for the city is considered to have been the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries when its cloth trade flourished, exporting to Rotterdam and the rest of the Netherlands. Exeter did not boom, however, during the early parts of the Industrial Revolution like many towns and cities of the era. This was largely due to its not being in close enough proximity to the necessary resources for industrial expansion. Like many towns and cities at the time, Exeter began to introduce improvements to the urban environment such as gas lighting and paving during the 18th century. However, one commentator noted at the end of the century that Exeter had been slow to adopt such improvements and was less than complimentary about the odour of the city. Part of the problem was the fact that the city was expanding rapidly during this time and yet most people chose to settle within the old city walls, meaning the city became increasingly crowded. To ease the problem, sewers were built in the city following a severe cholera outbreak in 1832 which killed over 400 people. The cities fortunes revived somewhat with the expansion of the canal system, and later the introduction of the railway. The first railway service was introduced in 1844, and a new central station was built at Queen Street for the introduction of the London and South Western Railway service to London in 1860.

During the Second World War the Germans bombed Exeter heavily as part of a series of revenge attacks for British air raids on Rostock and Lubeck. The city was devastated by the attacks, with over 1500 houses destroyed and almost twice this amount severely damaged. This meant that the city was largely rebuilt during the 1950s. The University of Exeter opened in 1955 and has become a well respected and thriving educational establishment.

During the 20th century, the population of Exeter rose to over 120,000 and several new shopping centres were built in the latter part of the century. The mainstays of the Exeter economy nowadays are generally service based industries, with education, public administration and tourism being the most important. In 2004 the Met Office, responsible for weather forecasting in the United Kingdom and respected worldwide, relocated from its old home in Bracknell, Berkshire to Exeter.

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