EXETER, a city and county of a city, municipal, county and parliamentary borough, and the county town of Devonshire, England, 172 m. W.S.W. of London, on the London & South Western and the Great Western railways. Pop. (1901) 47,185. The ancient city occupies a broad ridge of land, which rises steeply from the left bank of the Exe. At the head of the ridge is the castle, on the site of a great British earthwork. The High Street and its continuation, called Fore Street, are narrow, but very picturesque, with many houses of the 16th and 17th centuries. There is a maze of lesser streets within the ancient walls, the line of which may be traced. All the gates have disappeared. The suburbs, which have greatly extended since the beginning of the 19th century, contain many good streets, terraces and detached villas. The surrounding country is rich, fertile and of great beauty. Extensive views are commanded in the direction of Haldon, a stretch of high moorland which may be regarded as an outlier of Dartmoor. The lofty mound of the castle is laid out as a promenade, with fine trees and broad walks.
The cathedral, although not one of the largest in England, is unsurpassed in the beauty of its architecture and the richness of its details. With the exception of the Norman transeptal towers, the general character is Decorated, ranging from about 1280 to 1369. Transeptal towers occur elsewhere in England only in the collegiate church of Ottery St Mary, in Devonshire, for which Exeter cathedral served as a model. The west front is of later date than the rest (probably 1369–1394), and the porch is wholly covered with statues. Within, the most noteworthy features are the long unbroken roof, extending throughout nave and choir, with no central tower or lantern; the beautiful sculpture of bosses and corbels; the minstrel’s gallery, projecting from the north triforium of the nave; and the remarkable manner in which the several parts of the church are made to correspond. The window tracery is much varied; but each window answers to that on the opposite side of nave or choir; pier answers to pier, aisle to aisle, and chapel to chapel, while the transeptal towers complete the balance of parts. A complete restoration under Sir G. G. Scott was carried out between 1870 and 1877. The modern stall work, the reredos, the choir pavement of tiles, rich marbles and porphyries, the stained glass and the sculptured pulpits in choir and nave are meritorious. The episcopal throne, a sheaf of tabernacle work in wood, was erected by Bishop Stapeldon about 1320, and in the north transept is an ancient clock. The most interesting monuments are those of bishops of the 12th and 13th centuries, in the choir and lady chapel. Some important MSS., including the famous book of Saxon poetry given by Leofric to his cathedral, are preserved in the chapter-house. The united sees of Devonshire and Cornwall were fixed at Exeter from the installation there of Leofric (1050) by the Confessor, until the re-erection of the Cornish see in 1876. The bishop’s palace embodies Early English portions. The diocese covers the greater part of Devonshire, with a very small part of Dorsetshire.
The guildhall in the High Street is a picturesque Elizabethan building, which contains some interesting portraits; among them being one of General Monk, who was a native of Devon, and another of Henrietta, duchess of Orleans, given by her brother Charles II. Both are by Sir Peter Lely. The assize hall and sessions house dates from 1774. The Albert Memorial Museum contains a school of art, an excellent free library, a reading-room, and a museum of natural history and antiquities. There is a good collection of local birds, and some remarkable pottery and bronze relics extracted from barrows near Honiton or found in various parts of Devonshire. Of the castle, called Rougemont, the chief architectural remnant is a portion of a gateway tower which may be late Norman. Traces are also seen of the surrounding earthworks, which may have belonged to the original British stronghold. Beneath the castle wall is the pleasant promenade of Northernhay. The churches of Exeter are of little importance, being mostly small, and closely beset with buildings, but the modern church of St Michael (1860) deserves notice. The Devon and Exeter Institution, founded in 1813, contains a large and valuable library, and among educational establishments may be noticed the technical and university extension college, the diocesan training college and school; and the grammar school, which was founded under a scheme of Walter de Stapeldon, bishop of Exeter and founder of Exeter College, Oxford, in 1332, and refounded in 1629, but occupies modern buildings (1886) outside the city. It is endowed with a large number of leaving exhibitions, and about 150 boys are educated. There are two market-houses in the city, many hospitals and many charitable institutions, including the picturesque hospital or almshouse of William Wynard, recorder of Exeter (1439).
Exeter is one of the principal railway centres in the south-west, and it also has some shipping trade, communicating with the sea by way of the Exeter ship-canal, originally cut in the reign of Elizabeth (1564), and enlarged in 1675 and 1827. This canal is an interesting work, being the first canal carried out in the United Kingdom for the purpose of enabling sea-going vessels to pass to an inland port. The river Exe was very early utilized by small craft trading to Exeter, parliament having granted powers for the improvement of the navigation by the construction of a canal 3 m. long from Exeter to the river; at a later date this canal was extended lower down to the tidal estuary of the Exe. Previous to the year 1820 it was only available for vessels of a draft not exceeding 9 ft., but by deepening it, raising the banks, and constructing new locks, vessels drawing 14 ft. of water were enabled to pass up to a basin and wharves at Exeter. These works were carried out under the advice of Thomas Telford. A floating basin is accessible to vessels of 350 tons. Larger vessels lie at Topsham, at the junction of the canal with the estuary of the Exe; while at the mouth of the estuary is the port of Exmouth. Imports are miscellaneous, while paper, grain, cider and other goods are exported. Brewing, paper-making and iron-founding are carried on, and the city is an important centre of agricultural trade. The parliamentary borough returns one member. The city is governed by a mayor, 14 aldermen and 42 councillors. Area, 3158 acres. The eastern suburb of Heavitree, where is the Exeter city asylum, is an urban district with a population (1901) of 7529.
Exeter was the Romano-British country town of Isca Damnoniorum—the most westerly town in the south-west of Roman Britain. Mosaic pavements, potsherds, coins and other relics have been found, and probably traces of the Roman walls survive here and there in the medieval walls. It is said to be the Caer Isce of the Britons, and its importance as a British stronghold is shown by the great earthwork which the Britons threw up to defend it, on the site of which the castle was afterwards built, and by the number of roads which branch from it. Exeter is famous for the number of sieges which it sustained as the chief town in the south-west of England. In 1001 it was unsuccessfully besieged by the Danes, but in the following year was given by King Æthelred to Queen Emma, who appointed as reeve, Hugh, a Frenchman, owing to whose treachery it was taken and destroyed by Sweyn in 1003. By 1050, however, it had recovered, and was chosen by Leofric as the new seat of the bishops of Devon. In 1068, after a siege of eighteen days, Exeter surrendered to the Conqueror, who threw up a castle which was called Rougemont, from the colour of the rock on which it stood. Again in 1137 the town was held for Matilda by Baldwin de Redvers for three months and surrendered, at last, owing to lack of water. Three times subsequently Exeter held out successfully for the king—in 1467 against the Yorkists, in 1497 against Perkin Warbeck, and in 1549 against the men of Cornwall and Devon, who rose in defence of the old religion. During the civil wars the city declared for parliament, but was in 1643 taken by the royalists, who held it until 1646. The only other historical event of importance is the entry of William, prince of Orange, in 1688, shortly after his arrival in England. Exeter was evidently a borough by prescription some time before the Conquest, since the burgesses are mentioned in the Domesday Survey. Its first charter granted by Henry I. gave the burgesses all the free customs which the citizens of London enjoyed, and was confirmed and enlarged by most of the succeeding kings. By 1227 government by a reeve had given place to that by a mayor and four bailiffs, which continued until the Municipal Reform Act of 1835. Numerous trade gilds were incorporated in Exeter, one of the first being the tailors’ gild, incorporated in 1466. This by 1482 had become so powerful that it interfered with the government of the town, and was dissolved on the petition of the burgesses. Another powerful gild was that of the merchant adventurers, incorporated in 1559, which is said to have dictated laws to which the mayor and bailiffs submitted. From 1295 to 1885 Exeter was represented in parliament by two members, but in the latter year the number of representatives was reduced to one. Exeter was formerly noted for the manufacture of woollen goods, introduced in Elizabeth’s reign, and the value of its exports at one time exceeded half a million sterling yearly. The trade declined partly owing to the stringent laws of the trade gilds, and by the beginning of the 19th century had entirely disappeared, although at the time of its greatest prosperity it had been surpassed in value and importance only by that of Leeds.
See Victoria County History, Devon; Richard Izacke, Antiquities of the City of Exeter (1677); George Oliver, The History of the City of Exeter (1861); and E. A. Freeman, Exeter (“Historic Towns” series) (London, 1887), in the preface to which the names of earlier historians of the city are given.