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Exeter Castle's precincts are privately owned and are inaccessible unless attending a specific event held at the location. The castle walls however, including the hugely impressive eleventh century stone Gatehouse, are viewable from the adjacent park. The route of the town walls can also be walked and there is a medieval bridge in close proximity.
Gatehouse Keep. The impressive late eleventh century Gatehouse was built almost concurrently with the founding of the castle. The distinctive style of the windows is evidence of Saxon masons being used in the construction; it was likely they were compelled to assist. In the thirteenth century the original entrance was blocked up and an alternative arch created adjacent to the tower. The red coloured stone used in the stone Gatehouse Tower led to the fortification becoming known as Rougemont Castle - quite literally red castle.
Exeter Fortifications. The first fortification was the Legionary fort (outline shown) which still dictates the modern road layout. The town walls were built around AD 180 and were restored by Alfred the Great in the early ninth century to create a fortified burh. Following the Norman invasion the northern corner was enclosed and converted into the site of the castle.
Towers. The towers around the castle wall and large sections of the town wall still survive.
The Devon Witches. In 1682 and 1685 the four "Devon Witches" were tried and condemned at Exeter Castle. They were the last individuals to be executed for witchcraft in England.
Medieval Bridge. The River Exe used to run closer to the town hence the reason why the medieval bridge is now high and dry!
EXETER (ROUGEMONT) CASTLE
Originally a Roman Legionary Fortress and later a Saxon fortified burh, Exeter Castle (also known as Rougemont Castle) was a Norman creation designed to dominate and control a town that had defied the conquest. The castle saw action during the Anarchy and was taken by Royalist and then Parliamentary forces during the Civil War.
Exeter Castle and the town walls are (not unsurprisingly) found in the centre of the city. There are ample parking facilities (most pay and display) just a short walk from the castle. The castle site is not sign-posted but easily found and accessed via Northernhay Gardens.
Car Parking Option
The Second Augustan Legion (Legio II Augusta) was one of four such forces which took part in the Roman invasion of AD 43 (which probably landed at Richborough in South East England). Whilst the entire force initially moved to secure the key tribal centre at Colchester, each Legion was capable of operating alone as an independent battle-group. Once Colchester had been taken, the Second Legion was detached and tasked with sweeping along the South Coast of England destroying any resistance. Under the command of Titus Vespasianus (the future emperor Vespasian), the Legion neutralised multiple hill forts en route and by around AD 50 Southern England had successfully been brought under Roman control. The Second Augustan Legion now sought to establish a semi-permanent operating base in the South West and chose a spur of land overlooking the River Exe; a perfect location due to its central placing in the region and its easy access to the sea (for logistical advantages). The site was also on the south-west terminus of the Fosse Way - a military road that ran north-east to Lincoln and became a temporary frontier as the Romans consolidated their conquest of Southern England.
The Legionary fortress established by the Romans was an earth and timber fortification. As with all such forts, it was configured in a standard rectangular layout with rounded corners. The earth rampart, which would have been topped by a timber palisade, was augmented by doubled ditches. Gatehouses existed on each side of the Legionary fort and were connected by the two primary roads that ran through the centre of the site - the modern layout of central Exeter is still defined by these roads. Of note the fortress was relatively small for a Legionary base enclosing an area of around 37 acres. By contrast the later fortress (for the same Legion) at Caerleon enclosed 50 acres whilst the contemporary base of the Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana) at Lincoln was circa 41 acres. The reason for the small size of the Exeter fortress is unknown - perhaps the Legion had suffered heavy casualties in the conquest and was not expecting reinforcements or alternatively a vexellation may have been detached for semi-permanent service elsewhere. A civilian settlement evolved outside the fortress walls to serve the needs of the garrison.
Little is known about any military operations in the South West in the first two decades after the conquest. However in AD 60 the revolt of Boudica in modern day East Anglia almost brought Roman Britain to an end. Faced with the destruction of Colchester, London and St Albans and a military defeat of a portion of the Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana), the Romans sought to pool all their forces in an attempt to defeat the rebellion. The military commander, General Paulinus, mustered the Ninth, Fourteenth, Twentieth Legions - and also summoned the Second Augustan Legion from Exeter - to rendezvous on Watling Street. However the Prefect of the Second Legion refused to answer the call - for reasons unknown - disgracing his force. Paulinus defeated Boudica without the Second and the Prefect committed suicide.
In AD 66 the Second Augustan Legion was relocated to Gloucester where a new fortress was built. Exeter seems to have been decommissioned at this time and the site partially dismantled but it is likely a settlement continued and in AD 75 building commenced over the former Legionary fortress on key components of a new civilian town; the forum and basilica were started at this time and a new bathhouse built. The town, known as Isca Dumnoniorum, seems to have been successful and around AD 180 a city wall was built - something that at this time was a status symbol rather than a defensive requirement. Four main gates provided the access into the town.
With the withdrawal of Roman forces in the early fifth century, Exeter seems to have gone into a steep decline but resurgence occurred in the seventh century when Saxon settlers occupied the town initially co-habiting with the native Britons. In AD 876 Exeter was attacked and occupied by Danish forces but were expelled the following year by Alfred the Great. It was he who converted the town into a fortified burh - a defended settlement - re-using and extensively repairing the Roman walls. These defences were sufficient to repel Danish raiders in AD 893 and further upgrades were made in AD 928 by King Athelstan who concurrently expelled the native Britons. Exeter successfully repelled other Danish attacks in 1001 and 1003.
The Roman-Saxon defences were still of sufficient quality in 1066 to enable the citizens to attempt resistance to William the Conqueror. Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, mother of King Harold who had been killed trying to repel the Normans at Hastings, had moved to the town and this coupled with Norman taxation demands inevitably incited rebellion. In 1067 the South West rose up in revolt against the invaders prompting William to lead a large army into the area to quell resistance. Exeter refused to surrender prompting him to initiate a siege which forced capitulation after 18 days.
With resistance in Exeter neutralised William sought to immediately stamp his authority with the construction of a castle which started as an earth and timber ringwork fort positioned on the highest point of land within the Roman walls. The Domesday Book of 1086 implies that a significant number of Saxons houses were demolished to make room for the fortification - probably as much a statement to the local populace as the castle itself. William entrusted Baldwin FitzGilbert (also known as Baldwin de Meules) to complete the structure and it was he who commissioned the impressive stone Gatehouse Tower. This tall structure would have dwarfed all others around it and would have clearly articulated the Norman message of power and permanence. Based on the Saxon style of architecture, its construction almost certainly used forced local labour. The wooden stockade surrounding the castle was quickly replaced with a stone curtain wall. The unfinished site was attacked by rebels in 1069 but not taken.
During the Anarchy - the civil war between Queen Matilda and King Stephen over who should rule England - Exeter Castle was seized by Baldwin de Redvers. He had rebelled against King Stephen who deployed in force and placed the castle under close siege. Redvers held out for three months, including withstanding attempts to undermine the walls and heavy damage from siege apparatus, but ultimately was defeated by failure of the water supply. The original Barbican was destroyed at this time. An earthwork fortification, known as Danes Castle, was built nearby to support Stephen's siege.
Despite its location in central Devon, Henry III incorporated the castle into the Earldom (later Dukedom) of Cornwall in 1232. The new owner was the King's brother - Richard, Earl of Cornwall - was one of England's largest landowners. He made frequent repairs - as did the Crown and later Edward, Prince of Wales (the Black Prince) - but after the fourteenth century it was allowed to decline. At some point during this period the original entrance through the stone tower was blocked up and an alternative arch installed. Thereafter the next upgrades occurred in 1607 when a courthouse was built within the castle’s precincts.
Exeter's defences briefly saw action during the rebellion of Perkin Warbeck. He claimed to be Richard, Duke of York - one of the 'Princes in the Tower' whose fate remains a mystery. With England only just emerging from the dynastic struggle now known as the War of the Roses, he posed a threat to the new Tudor dynasty especially as he had international supporters. In October 1497 he landed at St Michael's Mount in Cornwall and soon raised an army from the local populace who were hostile to the Tudor regime and had been in open rebellion earlier in the year. Warbeck successfully raised a 6,000 strong army and marched on Exeter. Significant damage was done to the town defences including the burning of the North Gate and structural damage to the East Gate (to such an extent it collapsed in 1510). A Royal army was sent to intercept and, on hearing their approach, Warbeck abandoned his army and fled only to be captured at Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire. He was taken to London and, on 23 November 1499, was executed at Tyburn.
Exeter was victim of another rebellion against Tudor rule in 1549. As the effects of the Reformation spread into Cornwall, unrest grew amongst the populace whose Celtic background meant many had a better grasp of (the now banned) Latin rather than English and in 1549. Exeter remained loyal to the Crown and was accordingly attacked by the rebels who burnt the North Gate and besieged the city. A Royal army under John Russel (later Earl of Bedford) drove off the rebels after a five week siege. The city defences were repaired once more and in 1563 the Water Gate was added to the circuit aimed at making life easier for Exeter's mercantile community.
Although neglected the perimeter wall remained intact and as the Civil War erupted in 1642 the castle and city was garrisoned for Parliament. The castle was augmented with artillery and associated earthworks whilst four satellite forts - St David's, Mount Radford, St Sidwell and St Thomas - were constructed to protect the routes into the city. Nevertheless the Royalists had the upper hand in the South West and in September 1643 Exeter was stormed and taken. However, following the King's defeat at the Battle of Naseby (1645), Parliamentary forces pushed back into the South West and in 1646 took control of Exeter once more.
In 1773 a new courthouse was built within the castle grounds to replace the seventeenth century one and the remaining medieval buildings were demolished. The gates of the town wall met a similar fate and were demolished throughout the early nineteenth century. The Crown Court remained at Exeter Castle until 2003 when it was sold to a private company who have converted the site into an events venue.
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