Norman Town

Writing in the mid 12th century, the author of The Deeds of Stephen described Exeter thus:

Exeter is a large town, with very ancient walls built by the Roman emperors, the fourth place, they say, in England, abundantly supplied with fish from the sea, and meat as well, and with a flourishing shipping trade. There is a castle in it raised on a very high mound surrounded by an impregnable wall and fortified with towers of hewn limestone constructed by the emperors.

Gandy Street

Gandy Street

Most of the Saxon streets in Exeter have been widened in later centuries. Gandy Street is unusual as it retains its early medieval form.

St Mary Major church

St Mary Major church

George Townsend’s painting showing St Mary Major church as it appeared before 1865, when it was demolished. The tower was Norman and had once been much taller. The church walls probably retained elements of the older Saxon minster.

The first seal of the Cathedral Chapter

The first seal of the Cathedral Chapter

The seal shows the front of a church. The earliest example of its use is on a document of 1133. At that date the Norman cathedral’s towers would not have been built, and the old Saxon cathedral was still standing. The depiction could show the Saxon cathedral but it is very uncertain whether such depictions were anything like the buildings they symbolised.

St Martin’s Church

St Martin’s Church

According to a late medieval document, St Martin’s church, at the corner of Cathedral Close and Catherine Street, was founded in 1065. An important discovery made in the 1980s and 1990s was the recognition that the surviving church, which was previously believed to date to the later middle ages, is in large part Anglo-Saxon, and presumably the church of 1065. It has a simple plan of two cells (rooms), the masonry being largely of local volcanic rubble.

The parishes of central Exeter

The parishes of central Exeter

The plan shows the sites of the ancient churches of Exeter, with the boundaries of their parishes as recorded on 19th-century maps. The process of the formation of churches and parishes seems to have its origin in the late Saxon period, although documentary evidence of the existence of most of the parishes begins only at the end of the 12th century.

Bone tools used in textile production

Bone tools used in textile production

Simple bone tools of the types shown here are known from various early medieval towns. They were used in different stages of cloth production. The circular spindle whorls, sawn from the long-bones of cattle, would weight a distaff, used in spinning thread. The plain long bones, each with one pointed end, are pin-beaters, used during weaving on a loom to push down the longitudinal threads. The needles, used in sewing, have seen much use; their surfaces are highly polished.

A metalworker’s crucible

A metalworker’s crucible

More than 40 examples of small earthenware crucibles such as this have been recovered from late Saxon and Norman deposits in various tenements at the centre of the city. They range in date from the 10th century to c. 1200. They show that metalworking must have been a significant activity in the early medieval city. The source of the crucibles themselves is an unresolved problem: they are quite different from all other local pottery.

Late Saxon imported ceramics

Late Saxon imported ceramics

Pottery imported from northern France is present in the very earliest deposits of the Anglo-Saxon town. It seems clear that Exeter’s growth at this time resulted, in part at least, from foreign trade. The largest group of imported ceramics comes from Normandy, but there are also red-painted wares from the Beauvaisis and other finds from Brittany, western France and Belgium.

Plan of Norman Exeter

Plan of Norman Exeter

This digitised map, taken from the Exeter Urban Archaeological Database compiled by Exeter Archaeology and funded by English Heritage, plots very precisely the positions of the known features of the Norman city; it should be used in conjunction with the interpretative map.

The estimated position of the river Exe at this period is shown in blue outline. Built features are shown in red. Within the oval enclosure of the city walls the street plan surviving from the Anglo Saxon period was modified by the insertion of the castle at the northern corner of the city. The extent of the Cathedral Close (to the right of the plan) at this period is uncertain as is the layout of approach roads to the city walls.

An aerial photograph of Rougemont Castle in 1989

An aerial photograph of Rougemont Castle in 1989

An aerial photograph of Rougemont Castle in 1989; the great earthwork of the ringwork is marked by trees. The line of the city wall, with Northernhay outside it, can also be seen.

Rougemont Castle Gatehouse

Rougemont Castle Gatehouse

Joseph Farington's record of the castle gatehouse, drawn in 1810, published in Lysons' Magna Britannia (1822). The gatehouse belongs to William the Conqueror's reign; its gate was later blocked and a new entrance to the castle provided beside it. The tubs of plants reflect the use of the area outside as a Georgian garden. This is the earliest reliable record of its appearance.

The flat–headed arches in the gatehouse

The flat–headed arches in the gatehouse

A view of the flat-headed arches used in the gatehouse. These are a feature of Anglo-Saxon architecture and suggest that William forced Anglo-Saxon masons to build his castle.

Drawing of Rougemont Castle gatehouse

Drawing of Rougemont Castle gatehouse

These measured elevation drawings were made by Exeter Archaeology whilst the gatehouse was being repointed in 1984-5. They provide a detailed record of the gatehouse.

Rougemont Castle earthworks

Rougemont Castle earthworks

The photograph shows the size of the great defensive ditch cut by William I, with the late 12th-century tower on the junction with the city wall.

Aerial view of the excavation at Danes Castle

Aerial view of the excavation at Danes Castle

Rougemont Castle was besieged in the early 12th century by king Stephen who built a small ringwork castle of earth and timber on the opposite side of the Longbrook Valley to conduct the siege. Now known (wrongly) as Danes Castle, it stands behind Exeter Prison. The site was excavated in 1992–3 and was subsequently donated by South West Water to Exeter City.

This aerial photograph shows the excavation in 1993, following the removal of ditch fills.

Archaeologists removing the last fills of the Danes Castle ditch

Archaeologists removing the last fills of the Danes Castle ditch

Archaeologists removing the last fills of the Danes Castle ditch.

Artist’s impression of Danes Castle

Artist’s impression of Danes Castle

This artist's impression shows Danes Castle as it might have appeared. In fact, excavation showed that it was abandoned before the construction of the timber gatehouse was completed.

View of central Exeter from St Leonards

View of central Exeter from St Leonards

The new buildings of the Norman conquerors dominated the landscape of England just as they dominated it politically. This view of central Exeter still captures something of the manner in which the Norman cathedral dominated the skyline of the old city.

View of the south tower following recent repairs

View of the south tower following recent repairs

The south tower was built in stages between about 1120 and 1170, the decorated stages with chevron ornament dating after about 1150. The view shows the tower following the completion of recent repairs in which much worn ornament was replaced.

Reconstruction of St Nicholas Priory, Exeter

Reconstruction of St Nicholas Priory, Exeter

St Nicholas Priory was a Norman monastery, founded in the reign of William the Conqueror c. AD 1087. The view offers a reconstruction of the priory as it may have appeared shortly before the Reformation in 1536. In the right foreground is the west range of the priory, now open as a museum. To its left is the priory refectory, now the newly-refurbished No. 21 the Mint. Behind lies the church with its Norman crossing tower and 14th-century western tower, demolished immediately after the Dissolution.

The Undercroft of St Nicholas Priory

The Undercroft of St Nicholas Priory

The undercroft was the cellar in which the priory stored its food and drink. It is of primitive early Norman appearance with stubby piers (pillars) and a groin vault.

Reconstruction of the lavabo at St Nicholas Priory

Reconstruction of the lavabo at St Nicholas Priory

The view shows a reconstruction of the priory cloister as understood prior to excavation in 1998. Nothing shown here stands above ground, but many architectural fragments attributable to the cloister area have been recovered during the last century. The most striking feature was a circular lavabo (washing place) surrounded by an open arcade of paired columns, all in costly Purbeck marble, dating to about c.1170.

Architectural fragment from St Nicholas Priory

Architectural fragment from St Nicholas Priory

This highly accomplished late Norman capital was stored for many years in St Olave's church, Fore Street and may have been recovered during building works in the area of the Methodist Church. It is carved in Purbeck marble and can be attributed to the cloister of St Nicholas Priory.

Part of a Norman arch from the Norman House in Preston Street

Part of a Norman arch from the Norman House in Preston Street

These fragments of an elaborately carved arch with chevron and ball decoration were recovered from the Norman House, Preston Street, following its destruction in the Exeter Blitz of 1942. In fact the house was not itself Norman in date, but incorporated fragments of a grand arcade in a Norman church - almost certainly St Nicholas Priory. Carved in Caen stone imported from Normandy, they date to c. 1140-80.

A fragment of a Norman doorway

A fragment of a Norman doorway

This block of yellow sandstone, quarried at Salcombe Regis, shows two crudely carved heads with bulging eyes; one head is bearded. It comes from a large 12th-century door surrounded with band of grotesque heads.

A fragment of a Norman arcade

A fragment of a Norman arcade

Carved in local volcanic stone, this stone shaft will have come from a group of arches; it may well have supported the centre of a pair. Its style indicates a Norman date.

In 1141 a small priory was founded on the banks of the Exe by Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Devon. It belonged to the Cluniac order- that is, it followed the customs of the great monastery of Cluny in Burgundy. There were only four monks and a prior, but nevertheless a quadrangle of buildings was laid out in the Norman period, with a solid stone-built cloister.

The site is now occupied by Old Abbey Court at the foot of Salmonpool Lane. When new flats were built there in the 1960s architectural fragments from the Norman church were recovered; further massive architectural pieces were encountered when the adjacent St James Weir was repaired later in the 1960s.

Elsewhere in the city much Norman architecture has been lost. Many architectural fragments in the museum collections, which were re-used in later buildings, show that some high-quality buildings formerly stood in the city.

St Mary Arches

St Mary Arches

Interior of St Mary Arches Church Exeter, 1942 by Dennis Flanders (1915-1994) © Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter

St Mary Arches is the only Devon parish church which retains two Norman arcades, with typical round arches, scalloped capitals and circular piers. The church is shown here after bomb damage in 1942; it was later restored by the architect S. Dykes-Bower.

Capital from the Black Lion Inn, South Street, Exeter

Capital from the Black Lion Inn, South Street, Exeter

This capital of a free-standing column was recovered from the site of the Black Lion Inn, South Street, Exeter in 1873. The capital shows a sculpted head on each of its faces. It dates to the 12th century and probably derives from an ecclesiastical building.

Fragments of a late Norman arcade

Fragments of a late Norman arcade

Fragments of a very richly ornamented late Norman arcade (series of arches) of Caen limestone, imported from Normandy, were found in 1935 at the junction of Cedars Road and Topsham Road where they had been re-used and incorporated in an old wall. Such elaborate work could only have been commissioned by one of the leading churches of Norman Exeter - either the cathedral or St Nicholas Priory.

In 2001 the museum commissioned the local sculptor Ben Jones to complete the arch with new carvings (left), showing the form of the ornament when intact.

The original work dates to c. 1150-75 and probably formed an internal furnishing in the church.

The South Gate of Exeter

The South Gate of Exeter

Pencil drawing by the local artist I.F.Bird showing the inner face of the gate prior to its demolition in 1819. The gate's arch was round-headed, and thus datable to the Roman, Saxon or Norman periods. Excavation of the site in 1992 showed that at least parts of the Roman gateway had been demolished by the 11th - 12th centuries, so this masonry was probably Saxon or Norman in date.

The Common Seal of Exeter

The Common Seal of Exeter

This silver seal is the oldest example surviving from any of the towns and cities of England. It dates to c. 1170 - 1200. It reads SIGILLVM CIVITATIS EXONIE (the seal of the city of Exeter) and shows in the central design an elaborate building between a pair of towers - symbols of wealth and security, rather than depictions of any specific building. The seal was the medieval equivalent of a credit card used to show that the city had given its authority to any transaction. It was kept at the Guildhall.

A Seal Impression

A Seal Impression

The impression is taken from the Common Seal of Exeter.

The Entrance to the Bishop’s Palace

The Entrance to the Bishop’s Palace

The oldest parts of the Bishop's Palace are the remnants of a grand aisled hall with stone walls and timber arcades dating to c. 1170-1200. In this early 19th-century engraving by Keenan and Storer, the principal doorway, visible within a later medieval porch, retains its late Norman chevron (zig-zag) decoration. This is the only house still standing in Devon which dates from the Norman period.

An imported North French Jug

An imported North French Jug

Among the many fine medieval objects recovered during the rescue excavation which preceded the construction of the Guildhall Shopping Centre in 1972 was this elegant jug. The vessel was recovered in fragments from a shallow wicker-lined well whose timbers had been preserved in the wet clay. Tree-ring analysis of some of the timbers established that they had been felled in AD 1180.

The jug is of very fine white clay, thrown with great skill. The body is scored with shallow grooves, arranged in triangles, over which the lead glaze is enriched with brilliant mottled green, achieved by mixing small amounts of bronze dust into the glaze. Compared to the robust and fairly crude pitchers made in south-west England at this time, the jug would have been a handsome adornment to the table of the household in Waterbeer Street in which it was used.

The jug is the only complete example of its sort ever found in England, although sherds of others are known from excavations in Dublin and Southampton. There is no doubt that all these finds were imported from France, but their precise source remains unknown. An important group of jugs of this sort was found in the 1970s during excavations at Orléans on the Loire, so a source somewhere in the Loire valley seems likely. We hope that further work by French archaeologists will one day find the kilns where they were made.

A Normandy cooking pot

A Normandy cooking pot

Found by Lady Aileen Fox in a pit behind South Street, this vessel was imported from Normandy in the early 12th century. Contrasting with the contemporary hand-made wares made in South-West England, the vessel was thrown on a potter's wheel with rouletted ornament on the shoulder and an upright rim.

A ’blue–grey’ ladle

A ’blue–grey’ ladle

The ladle was recovered from a late 12th-century pit encountered when the multi-storey car park was built in North Street. It was made in the central Rhineland of Germany.

Two imported French jugs

Two imported French jugs

These two splendid examples of medieval pottery were both dug up in Exeter but both were made in northern France. They are wheel-thrown vessels with buff sandy fabrics, their lead glaze enriched by the addition of copper.The production centre or centres where such wares were made is unknown. Fragments of similar vessels have been found in several major ports of the period in England and Ireland - Southampton, London, Bristol and Dublin in contexts of c. 1170-1250.

A wooden spade

A wooden spade

Early medieval spades were made of wood, consisting of a long handle attached to a separate blade. This example, which is of oak, was found in a 12th-century pit in Goldsmith Street. The holes would have held the curving handle.

A series of bone whistles

A series of bone whistles

Bone whistles are the most ancient musical instruments known. They are recorded from prehistoric times onwards, and are predecessors of the 'penny whistles' of the more recent past. Six bone whistles are known from Exeter, all but one from pits of the Norman period.

The whistles have been the subject of a study by Professor Vincent Megaw. He found that they were made from a variety of animal and bird bones including sheep, and probably deer and swan. Some were abandoned unfinished after being broken in manufacture. One (left) produced a range of notes. Prof. Megaw concluded that the whistle did not support the use of any one particular tonal system in the medieval period. He noted, however, that this was an especially well-finished and much-used object.

Examples of 12th–century coarse pottery

Examples of 12th–century coarse pottery

Fragments of hand-made unglazed pottery like these are the most common artefact discovered from the early medieval city. Most were plain vessels used in cooking; commonly their bases are heavily encrusted with soot. Other forms included lamps, lids and large storage jars.

Study of the fabric of such pottery reveals that the coarse filler used to temper the clay contains minerals typical of the Upper Greensand heathlands of the Devon-Somerset border, and that must be the area where the pottery was made.

A Norman stone lamp

A Norman stone lamp

Carved in Beer stone from South Devon, this complete and grand lamp was discovered in an early 12th-century rubbish pit in Goldsmith Street. Animal fat or oil would have fuelled a wick in the bowl at the top, and the projecting flange would have caught any spills.

Coins struck by Norman kings at Exeter

Coins struck by Norman kings at Exeter

The Norman kings simply took over the system of coinage of their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, which in truth was more sophisticated than their own in Normandy. Exeter continued to function as the major mint of the region, but its output was declining. The sites of the mint are unknown; coins will have been struck on the premises of leading citizens, rather than at Exeter Castle.

The upper row shows a series of 'portraits' of William the Conqueror, shown in successive types of penny struck at Exeter. The museum holds examples of seven of the eight types of William struck at Exeter; some are extremely rare. Below are four 'portraits' of William II, showing successive types of his extremely rare pennies struck at Exeter.

Casting a bell for Mary Major Church

Casting a bell for Mary Major Church

The remains of a 12th-century bell-casting pit were found below the tower of Mary Major church during excavations in 1971.

The process for casting a bell can be reconstructed from archaeological finds, and from a written account by a monk named Theophilus. A wax model of the bell was formed above ground in a frame, then coated with layers of clay loam. The clay was baked, allowing the wax to be melted, leaving a cavity in which the bell was cast.

Plan of the Norman city

Plan of the Norman city

Comparison with plans of the Anglo-Saxon town will show the dramatic impact of the new Norman rulers on the city. At the north end of the walled area, at Rougemont, a new castle dominated the city. In Cathedral Close, the area occupied by the new Norman cathedral was much greater than the old Saxon minster, and the area occupied by the houses of the clergy also seems to have been increased. In the western quarter of the city the new priory dedicated to St Nicholas was built.

Source: Kain, R. and Ravenhill, W. (eds) 1999, Historical Atlas of South-West England.

View of the Rougemont castle gatehouse

View of the Rougemont castle gatehouse

The view is taken from a Georgian building which stands in the castle ditch. It shows the form of the gatehouse: a simple square box with supporting buttresses at the corners and projecting wing-walls, joined by a front arch on the outer face. When newly built it would have been butted by the sloping earthwork of the Norman ringwork, which would have risen to protect its side walls. The view also shows the building materials of the tower: principally local volcanic stone rubble, with dressings mainly of white sandstone.

A detail of the doorway arch of the gatehouse

A detail of the doorway arch of the gatehouse

The view looks up one jamb of the gateway at Rougemont Castle and shows its two orders of masonry. The capitals are of simple cushion form a type which was introduced at the Norman conquest, and so offers a contrast with the Anglo-Saxon features seen elsewhere in the tower. These capitals are of considerable interest, since their context, immediately after the siege of 1068-9, makes them amongst the earliest examples in Norman England.

In the later middle ages this doorway was walled up and a new entrance to the castle formed to its side.

Long–and–short quoins in the castle gatehouse

Long–and–short quoins in the castle gatehouse

The use of long-and-short quoins was a building technique of Anglo-Saxon masons which provided a strong corner to a wall when building in small rubble. Large slabs were laid at the wall corner, arranged alternately upright (‘long’) and flat (‘short’).

The view shows a detail of one of the projecting wing walls at the front of the tower which employs long-and-short quoins. The use of this technique in a gatehouse built by the new Norman conquerors indicates that English masons were forced to carry out building work in their new castle. Anglo-Saxon building practices very quickly died out after 1066.

Reconstruction of the appearance of the Norman cathedral

Reconstruction of the appearance of the Norman cathedral

This view was prepared in the museum in the early 1980s. Of Exeter’s Norman Cathedral the transceptal towers still stand and the form of their spires can be reconstructed with confidence from the scars cut into the masonry of their turrets. Although the ground plan of the body of the church nave is firmly established, its character and height are very uncertain. This reconstruction shows the sort of appearance it may have had. The church may have been finished only as late as c.1200, so this view imagines an Early English arrangement of windows within the West Front, but this is guesswork.

The groin–vaulted cellar room at St Nicholas Priory

The groin–vaulted cellar room at St Nicholas Priory

This room with three bays is probably the oldest piece of standing architecture in Devon and Cornwall, apart from ruined fragments. It probably dates to c. 1100. At the centre of the room are two drum piers which support a groin-vault on each side of the room. The bays of the vaults are separated by arches of volcanic stone and white Triassic sandstone. This cellar would have been used for the storage of food and drink: it was well known in the early middle ages that a stone vaulted room would keep a much more even temperature than one simply with a wooden ceiling. The room would have been looked after by the cellarer, an important official in a Norman monastery who would have ordered and regulated the Priory’s supply of food and drink.

A detail of a scalloped Norman capital

A detail of a scalloped Norman capital

The view shows a detail of part of the capital of one of the central piers in the undercroft at St Nicholas Priory. It is carved in sandstone from Salcombe Regis on the coast of south-east Devon. It dates to the beginning of the 12th century.

Two shaft fragments from the cloister of St Nicholas Priory

Two shaft fragments from the cloister of St Nicholas Priory

The character of the cloister at St Nicholas is known only from architectural fragments, but these indicate that it must have been the object of lavish expenditure. These two fragments of twisted shafts carved in Purbeck marble, one of them excavated from within the cloister, are attributable to the late 12th century. They probably come from an elaborate arcade in which the capitals were supported on pairs of shafts with a variety of different designs. Such cloisters survive in France and at Canterbury in England.

Norman capital from the St Nicholas Priory lavabo

Norman capital from the St Nicholas Priory lavabo

This is one of a series of capitals in Purbeck marble discovered re-used in a post-medieval drain in the kitchen of St Nicholas Priory. They clearly come from a structure which was dismantled in the priory at the time of its dissolution in 1536. The capitals are unusual in being wedge-shaped in plan; this view shows the narrow end of one of them.

In a careful study of these fragments the architect and architectural historian Harold Brakspear showed that the capitals must have come from a circular structure — almost certainly the priory’s lavabo. A lavabo or lavatorium was the place within the cloister where the monks would wash their hands before entering the refectory to eat their meals. This took the form of a circular structure within the cloister in which a central fountain was surrounded by an open arcade. St Nicholas Priory seems to have had such a feature.

Decorated bone panels

Decorated bone panels

These three fragments with simple decoration, and piercings which would allow them to be fixed to an underlying frame, belong to a class of object which has been found on various Norman sites in Britain.

The long narrow strip and flat rectangular sheet are likely to come from a box or possibly a gaming board. The triangular plaque is rather more unusual and might perhaps come from a box with sloping sides.

Buckle fragment

Buckle fragment

This extraordinary bug-eyed figure forms part of an ornamental buckle fragment of copper alloy found in an early-13th century context in Bartholomew Street West, Exeter in the early 1980s.

Publication: Allan, J.P. 1984 Medieval and Post-Medieval Finds from Exeter 1971-1980, Exeter Archaeological Report 3, item no. M65.

Exeter Cathedral nave from the high vaults

Exeter Cathedral nave from the high vaults

This view was taken during cleaning of the high vaults in the late 1970s. It looks from the crossing down the nave to the Cathedral’s West end from a height of about 60 feet.