It has withstood sieges and assaults, bombings and demolition, and you can easily miss it, but buried behind Exeter's 20th century redevelopment is one of the most complete, well-preserved circuits of defensive city wall in England. About 72% of the circuit survives and both its layout and much of its fabric is nearly two thousand years old. It is Exeter's largest single structure, a Scheduled Ancient Monument and, considering that nearly everything encompassed by the wall has been redeveloped over the last century, it is nothing short of incredible that so much of it has survived in such good condition. Its history is detailed and complex and there are so many interesting features that this post will just be an overview of the structure.
The image above shows an aerial view of the 21st century city. The surviving portions of the city wall are highlighted in purple. Gaps in the circuit are highlighted in red. The numbers refer to the locations of the following important features: 1 The East Gate, 2 The South Gate, 3 The Water Gate, 4 The West Gate, 5 The North Gate, 6 Rougemont Castle, 7 Exeter Cathedral
The 1st century Roman fortress of the Second Augustan Legion originally occupied a 42 acre site on top of a promontory of land which projected out from the surrounding hills towards the marshes of the River Exe. This relatively small area developed over the course of the next 100 years to become a civilian settlement until, in c180AD, the boundaries of the Roman town were dramatically expanded outwards to encompass 93 acres. A huge defensive wall was built using stone quarried from the extinct volcano at Rougemont in the north-eastern corner of the newly-enlarged city. The shape of the Roman city was a distinctive rectangle, dictated by the topography of the landscape itself as the settlement spread over the top of the promontory, bounded to the north and west by deep ravines and high cliffs.
Almost everything that Exeter is and was happened within the walled area. It was this area in which the Romans lived, in which the Saxons settled, that the Danes destroyed, which Alfred the Great liberated, that William the Conqueror laid siege to, which was attacked by Perkin Warbeck in the 16th century, which was besieged (twice) during the English Civil War, which was bombed during World War Two; this area was the location of the three great institutions of medieval life: the castle, the cathedral and the guildhall; and this area was the economic, social and political heart of the city for 2000 years; a major Roman outpost, a great Anglo-Saxon town, a major medieval city, a Tudor and Stuart powerhouse of wealth, a Georgian metropolis, and the county capital of Devonshire.
Accompanying the vast stretches of stone walling were city gates, first built by the Romans and then rebuilt in the late-Middle Ages: South Gate (its medieval incarnation regarded as one of the most imposing gateways in England), East Gate (a model of which is shown above right), West Gate, North Gate and Water Gate. None of these gateways survive today. An inner ring of defensive walling was erected around the Cathedral Precinct in the late-13th century, creating a walled city in miniature.
The Romans built the city wall using purple volcanic trap, an exceptionally durable type of stone, much of it quarried from the remains of the extinct volcano at Rougemont. It was up to 10ft (3m) thick and 25ft (6m) high. Its huge scale, running for approximately 1.5 miles (2.3 kilometres), was intended to function as a defence against any angry Celts who happened to be in the area as well as acting as a demonstration of sheer power.
Some large stretches of Roman masonry from the late-2nd century survive today. The photograph above shows an exterior section of the city wall near the modern inner bypass. The purple-grey volcanic trap in the upper two-thirds is original Roman facework from the 2nd century civitas of Isca Dumnoniorum (i.e. Exeter). The lower third is where the ground level has eroded and the wall has been underpinned, probably during the Middle Ages, using a different type of stone.
The photograph right shows the seemingly impregnable the wall at Northernhay looking towards John's Tower in the distance. The precinct of Rougemont Castle is on the other side of the wall.
The city wall was strengthened and repaired by the Anglo-Saxons, probably in c920AD during the reign of King Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great. Athelstan is believed to have ordered the wall to be extensively overhauled. Some elements of the late Saxon masonry can still be seen at the wall in Northernhay gardens. The wall was repaired, improved and refaced throughout the medieval period. Ten towers were added in the 13th century. Five were added between the East Gate and South Gate, the section of wall most exposed to attack. A further four were built around the castle at Rougemont and a solitary tower, later known as the Snail Tower, was constructed in the western corner of the city. Significant repairs were undertaken in the 16th century, including a widespread overhaul between 1539 and 1540 which used stone recycled from the recently dissolved Priory of St Nicholas. Unlike the other gates into the city, which were probably constructed on the site of their Roman counterparts, the Water Gate only appears to date to the 1560s.
By the time of the English Civil War in the mid-17th century the city wall was in need of yet further repair and gun batteries were placed along the southern and eastern sections of the wall, some of which still remain. During the two sieges of Exeter in 1643 and 1646 the city wall formed one component of a defensive system which included not only the gun batteries but a complex series of ditches and ramparts; but that was the last time the wall would be called upon to defend Exeter from attack. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the wall sank into the background. Houses were built up against it and as the suburbs swelled the importance of the city wall as a defensive structure was lost. Apparently it never occurred to anyone to destroy it completely. The photograph above shows part of the external face of the wall at Southernhay. This section was badly damaged during the English Civil War but was subsequently rebuilt. Behind it are the grounds of the Bishop's Palace.
It's no surprise that the greatest damage to the surviving circuit happened during the 20th century. One particularly lengthy section near the site of the East Gate was demolished in the post-war rebuilding of Exeter following the Blitz of May 1942, and more was hacked apart with pick axes in the 1960s to build the inner bypass.
The photograph right shows how the Yaroslavl footbridge spans a large breach in the wall which had remained intact until its demolition in 1961 as part of the inner bypass road scheme. A significant stretch of surviving Roman facework was buried in the 1970s behind Broadwalk House in Southernhay. However the surviving sections are now relatively well maintained and respected. The photograph below shows the exterior of the wall as it runs along the edge of the recently redeveloped Princesshay shopping precinct. The buttresses visible to the far right are late-medieval additions. The finely dressed stone facework to the left is Roman. The rather unattractive buildings behind are 21st century. Until 1942 the gardens of the now destroyed top two Georgian terraces in Southernhay West backed onto the wall at this point.
The wall is still incredibly impressive, although unfortunately little is made of it. It is not possible to walk on top of the wall in Exeter as you can in other walled cities in England and the old city doesn't crowd around it like it used to. Compared with the walls of Chester and York it is almost ignored but properly managed they could be a major feature of Exeter's tourist industry. Guided tours are available for anyone interested in Exeter's history rather than just its shops, and a walk around the wall takes you through some of Exeter's few remaining attractive areas.