INTRODUCTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: John Hooker medieval Exeter topography fortifications water supply conduits ports customs commerce earl weirs obstructionism disputes cathedrals government
Subject: Exeter at the close of the Middle Ages
Original source: John Hooker, The Antique Description and Account of the City of Exeter, Exeter: Andrew Brice, 1765, 5-12, 15-16
Original language: English (my modernization)
Date: 1575


This city ... which King Athelstan surrounded with a stone wall, is not quite square but tends towards being rounded off, and its perimeter encompasses 1,600 complete paces – a pace being five feet – which, there being 1,000 paces to a mile according to the Italian reckoning, makes the circuit about a mile and a half, or a little more. The city's setting is very pleasant and tasteful, it being set upon rising ground among adjacent hills, for the surrounding countryside is very hilly. It faces towards the south and west, with the result that regardless of how smelly or dirty the streets may be, a shower of rain will clean and freshen them. Although hills are usually dry, nature has been kind to the small hill [on which Exeter is set], so that in every quarter springs are plentiful, and this has allowed the city to be well provided with wells and cisterns....

There are also within the city fountains or conduits to which, through certain channels or lead pipes, are conveyed water from springs rising in fields not far from the city. This water is highly valued because the process of conveying it purifies it and makes it less sediment-ridden than the waters rising within the city, and thereby more suitable for preparing food. Two of these conduits are particularly of note. One is located within the cemetery, or churchyard, of the cathedral church of the city, and is called St. Peter's Conduit. The other, which is of great antiquity, is located in the middle of the city where the four principal streets meet, and from which it formerly took its name, being called the Conduit at Quatrefois or Carfox; now known as the Great Conduit.

At the higher end of the city is a very ancient castle named Rougemont – that is, Red Hill – so-called because of the red colour of the soil on which it is situated. Its site rises above the city and the surrounding countryside; they lie, as it were, in its lee. It has a fine view towards the coast, for between that and it there are no hills. It has a strong ditch surrounding it and was first built (so some think) by Julius Caesar; but in actual fact by Romans coming after him, to whom it served as a defence, a refuge, and living quarters for many years. It also formerly served as the palace for those kings who had sway over the kingdom of Wessex, or West Saxons. Following that it was the residence of the Earls of Cornwall, and subsequently the Dukes of Exeter....

In the lower part of the city, outside the walls, flows a fine river. It is well stocked with salmon, trout, peal, dace, pike and similar freshwater fish. These, although they are very good and tasty (especially the salmon and pike), are held in less high regard because the sea, which is so close, furnishes city and countryside with an abundant supply of various saltwater fish that are very tasty.

The sea proper is only about 8 miles away from the city, but from it an arm reaches in to serve the city's port. This (as is evidenced by certain ancient records) at one time flowed up to the very walls of the city, at which place it was the custom to load and unload ships and boats of all kinds of goods and merchandize, at a suitable location assigned for that purpose. Which up to the present day retains its ancient name and is called the Watergate. The decline of this port happened around the year A.D. 1312, thanks to one Hugh Courtenay, the third of that name and Earl of Devon. He, being angry with Exeter for some offence received, had a new weir constructed in the gap or opening [between two older weirs], filling and blocking the same with trees, timber and stones to the extent that no vessels could go through or return.

Subsequently Hugh's nephew, Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon, not only maintained and continued the actions of his ancestor, by repairing and protecting the weir on a daily basis; but also, to utterly destroy any possibility of river passage to or from the city, on the pretence of building certain mills, erected two more weirs: one at St. James' straddling the entire river, and another at Lampreyford. As a result of which not only did the city have to bear the loss of its harbour, but the surrounding countryside was over the course of time flooded by seawater, and is up to the present day. Complaints being made of these injuries, and various writs and commissions being granted by the king, the various consequent inquiries found passed a guilty verdict against the earls. Notwithstanding, such was their power and authority and such the iniquity of those times, that judgement could not be put into effect against them nor the law follow its course to proper conclusion.

Furthermore, the same Hugh also, to usurp for himself the revenues from the loading and unloading of merchandize in the port and river, built a quay with a crane on the river at his town of Topsham, about three miles distant from the city. He used his power to force and coerce all merchants coming to the port to load and unload their goods and merchandize at that location only. Ever since, all goods and merchandize have been transported to and from the city by horse, cart and wagon; although this profited the earl and his tenants, it has been a great annoyance and hindrance to the city and its merchants. Nonetheless, the port has always kept its ancient name of the Port of the City of Exeter, and it still does. And it has always been, and remains, the case that a revenue is paid to the city, under the name of Town Custom, on all types of goods and merchandize unloaded in the port, or along the river and its tributaries.

There were only a few parish churches within the city until the time of Innocent III.... In the year 1222, the sixth year of King Henry III, the boundaries of the parish churches were defined and they were increased to nineteen churches within the city and suburbs....

Besides these parish churches, there was also a monastery, at one time of Benedictine monks, but subsequently a cathedral church – a magnificent and imposing structure built of freestone, with beautiful pillars of grey marble. It stands in the eastern part of the city.

The bishop and canons have impressive houses, situated around the church and cemetery, which are enclosed every night by shutting securely certain gates, because of which practice it is called a Close, a claudendo. These gates are to be closed each night (with certain exceptions) and opened each morning at specific times, as is evidenced in an agreement on that matter made between the community of Exeter and the bishop and dean of the same. In the middle of the cemetery, or churchyard, is a handsome fountain or conduit of water, conveyed by lead pipes from the same fields as the city's conduit. Despite the fact that the waters come from springs in the same field, not far apart from each other, this one excels the other. From this well or fountain water is conveyed to various of the canons' houses, and also more recently to the bishop's house, as well as serving in addition the entire Close and city.

The city itself is heavily populated. It was once inhabited mainly by clothiers and producers of broad cloths, destined primarily for Spain and southern Europe. In those days they were of such quality that they are still known by their [local] names in those countries. But now it is mainly inhabited by merchants, kersey clothiers, and various kinds of artisans; of whom the merchants are the most prominent and wealthiest.

The city was once governed by four bailiffs, who before the Conquest were called portgreves... Not long after the Conquest there was constituted a senate of thirty-six persons; ... from whose number each year was (and is) chosen one to be the head of government for the year following, who is given the title of mayor .... This mayor, in association with the four provosts or bailiffs, is responsible for hearing and judging all civil lawsuits between one party and another; for this purpose they hold a weekly court each Monday in the city guildhall. But the bailiffs, by ancient custom, hold a similar court for similar cases separately from the mayor, at any time (except on Mondays and on festival days) they consider it necessary to convene it; their court is known as the Provosts' Court.


John Hooker was one of England's earliest local historians. Like others with an interest in preserving local tradition – such as Andrew Horn (chamberlain of London), Robert Ricart (town clerk of Bristol) and Nathaniel Bacon (recorder of Ipswich) – Hooker was in a privileged position of access to documentary evidence, having served as chamberlain at Exeter from about 1555 until his death in 1601. He also served in other posts, such as city coroner, recorder, and M.P., and was one of the founders of the guild of merchant adventurers at Exeter, incorporated 1559. The family, which had earlier also used the surname Vowell, was prominent in the city and had supplied past mayors and parliamentary representatives, so family pride in the city underlay Hooker's motivation for compiling his historical studies ca.1575, which grew out of his efforts to calendar the city records. His pamphlets were intended only for local distribution, and it was not until two centuries later that some of his writings received wider publication. The above extracts are not directly from Hooker, but from a regurgitated version by an unidentified author, who also made use of the studies of other local antiquarians.

Hooker also commissioned from Remigius Hogenberg, in 1587, one of the earliest maps of Exeter (based on the Braun and Hogenberg map of 1563). This birds-eye view illustrates some of the economic aspects of the city: notably the use of the river for shipping, fishing and powering mills; like his history, the map celebrates the wealth and status of the city. He wrote other works, such as a biography of Sir Peter Carew, servant to the Tudor monarchs, whom Hooker accompanied on an expedition to Ireland and chronicled the event; he even sat as a member of the Irish parliament.

His interests and his commitment to the city inevitably colours what he produced, or commissioned, for future generations. Nonetheless his works, particularly those still unpublished, continue to be a valued source of information for modern historians.

Although Hooker asserted (without any explicit evidence, as he admitted) that Exeter was founded by the descendants of the legendary Trojan fugitive Brutus, this was part of a broader trend of aggrandizement of certain English cities, by ascribing as much antiquity as possible to them, just as FitzStephen had done for London, and as also evidenced at York and a number of other large towns. In fact, part of the site of future Exeter was a British settlement straddling a ridgeway route, part of which would become the later High Street; this settlement was of modest size yet there is evidence some of its residents were involved in international commerce, and it was important enough – perhaps even a tribal capital [W.G. Hoskins, Two Thousand Years in Exeter, rev.ed., Chichester: Phillimore, 2004, p.3] – to be described as an oppidum by the Roman invaders, and to be converted by them into the base of a legion assigned to the subjugation of the southwest. It took the 'Isca' part of its Latin name from a Celtic word meaning a flowing or a fish-stocked river, referring to the Exe, by which the site of the fortress had a strategic position, commanding a ford. Once the region was subdued, the legionnaires were replaced by colonists and Exeter became a provincial city.

It was however largely depopulated after the collapse of imperial rule, but the seeds of revival were sown with the building of a monastery there in the late seventh century, later (1050) to become a cathedral. Thanks to the Romans, Exeter was provided with an earthen bank and stone wall long before the reign of Athelstan. The crediting of Athelstan by Hooker and later writers with replacing ditch/bank fortifications with a strong new stone wall with numerous towers, and the assumption that the castle was built at the same time, reflects imperfectly the historical fact of the re-establishment of urban settlement in the time of King Alfred, when it became one of a handful of burhs in Devon and a mint was set up there. The old Roman wall was strengthened and heightened at some point in the late Anglo-Saxon period. But the walls and gates that Hooker saw are to a large extent the product of the later Middle Ages (wall-building with financial support from the king being evidenced as early as 1215-18), while the castle owes its existence to William the Conqueror. He felt the need to assure Norman control of the city after its residents rejected his authority in 1067 – at which time the existing walls were strong enough to withstand an eighteen-day siege.

Hooker's description of Exeter shows two particular preoccupations. One was the city's water supply. In this he has a common interest with FitzStephen, who also praises the quality of springs just outside London, but Hooker's account illustrates how by the close of the Middle Ages, civic effort was in a number of towns being organized towards piping in water supplies. As a member of local government, it is not surprising that Hooker should point a finger proudly at this achievement.

His other preoccupation also follows naturally from his close involvement in city affairs and fortunes, and that concerns the management of commerce through the port. The political power of families such as his was built, in most cases, on successful commercial dealings. Exeter was one of the more important towns in England, despite having a relatively small population. There were perhaps only about 2,000 inhabitants at the time of the Conquest, and little more than 3,000 by the late fourteenth century. But the city prospered thanks to its roles as administrative centre (both secular and ecclesiastical), regional market centre, and as one of the country's leading ports. During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries it expanded to the point where by Hooker's time it was one of the top provincial centres, thanks largely to Exeter (and the southwest generally) benefiting more from overseas commerce, which helped stave off the economic malaise affecting much of England. Hooker's statement about the pre-eminence of merchants in Exeter society has been confirmed by modern analysis of the character of the urban elite.

So again it is not surprising that the story of the feud between the city and the Courtenays should loom large in Hooker's narrative, or that the author should take the city's part. The story behind the rift, to which Hooker only alludes in the Description – for most of his research remains unpublished, though heavily used by later writers – was that, in 1309 on a day when fish were in short supply in the city market, a quarrel broke out between a servant of the earl and a servant of the bishop as to who should be able to buy the available supply. The argument escalating to draw in some of the citizens, who also wished to buy fish, the mayor – to avoid a riot – made an official decision that one share should be sold to the earl's servant, one share to the bishop's, and a third share reserved for purchase by the citizens. The earl, unhappy at this judgement, came to his house in the city and summoned before him the mayor, who took with him some of the citizens for protection. When earl and mayor were sequestered, a stormy argument between them ensued, and the mayor cast off his topcoat which bore the earl's livery, so as to renounce his obligations to the earl. The citizens outside, hearing the hubbub, tried to break in to rescue the mayor. The earl let the mayor out, but thereafter bore a grudge. We need not take the legend at face value, although not implausible, but it reflects an underlying dispute over authority, and over the city's effort to break free of seigneurial influence, not only of the earl but also of the bishop.

In fact, the problems between Exeter and the Courtenays over obstruction of the river arose in the 1240s, and it became necessary to use Topsham (which was under the earl's lordship, and thereby enabled him to claim a share in tolls taken there) as its outport, as the Romans had, although lighters were able to continue on to the city until the earl entirely blocked the river. The earl had lordship over the castle fee. He was also in dispute with the city over Exe Island and a suburb along the river, over which he claimed lordship; authority there would give him some control over navigation along the river. It had been at the orders of the countess, in the 1280s, that the river was first seriously blocked with a weir, to power her mills on either side of the river; although a thirty-foot gap was left, this action would have impacted on navigability, and thereby the city's fishery and its revenues from tolls. It was this gap that Earl Hugh filled, in 1311. In the 1330s there were fresh disputes, over tolls from a fair.

It was not so unusual either for a landed aristocratic family like the Courtenays to act outside the law, or for urban government to contest with local landlords for jurisdiction and associated control of revenues. Yet they were the most powerful family in Devon and, despite the feud, the city felt it politic to send leading members of the family gifts each year, as well as appoint Courtenay retainers to certain city offices (e.g. steward). Nonetheless, when the Lancastrian earl was attainted by Edward IV, the city took the opportunity to try to re-assert authority over the suburb previously held by the earl, and thereby regain some control over the river. Again, it was the execution of another Courtenay, in 1538, that gave the city opportunity to win royal permission to open up the blockage by the weir, although silting of the river made this effort fruitless. The challenge posed by Topsham was finally overcome by digging, in the Elizabethan period, a canal and creating another weir to feed water from the Exe into it; the canal was enlarged at the close of the seventeenth century so that sea-going ships could once more reach Exeter's quayside.



A type of fish that is still plentiful in parts of the south-west in summer.

This was not one of the medieval city gates, but was inserted into the wall to give access to the quayside once the canal was dug (1564-66) and the quayside enlarged. There may well, however, have been some kind of access through the wall to the earlier, smaller quay, perhaps even under the same name.

"their [local] names"
I.e. the names given them locally in England, which became a generic name for that type of cloth (in the same way that worsted and kersey, which took their names from East Anglian villages, became applied to types of cloth, regardless of where manufactured).

Port-gerefa, port being a name applied to a town (probably in view of the market function), and gerefa meaning reeve, a title which later gave way to bailiff.

The seat of city government that Hooker knew had been extensively rebuilt in the mid-fifteenth century, but had been used for that purpose for some time earlier. Exeter is one of a handful of towns where we hear of a guildhall (not necessarily the same building) as early as the early twelfth century. As a further indication of communal self-government in that same period is evidence of the burgesses acting collectively to make grants of property. In 1018 the Bishop had sent a formal notice to the witan of Exeter about a mortgage transaction he had made, which may also suggest some kind of mechanism for community representation, though whether formal or informal is difficult to say.

"modern analysis"
Marianne Kowaleski, "The commercial dominance of a medieval provincial oligarchy: Exeter in the late fourteenth century," Mediaeval Studies, vol.46 (1984), 355-84.

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Created: February 24, 2005. Last update: March 14, 2012 © Stephen Alsford, 2005-2012