The history of Exeter is long with the city pre-dating the Roman occupation of Britain and being continuously settled from that period to the present day. This long history created a city with an eclectic mix of architecture and a unique character. The city began as a small settlement on a spur of land overlooking the river. 

Its pre-Roman name was Caer-pen-huel-goit, which means ‘the fortified town on the hill near the high or great wood’  which probably gives the best description of the settlement. It seems that the infant city was a place of trade and importance even at this early stage, as Hellenistic coins have been found in the city dating from 250B.C. suggesting that the city was engaged in Mediterranean trade at this time. With the Roman occupation of Britain, Exeter became the official capital for the tribe Dumnonii and became known as Isca Dumnoniorum. The Roman occupation of the city created two lasting marks, the city walls and the street layout. The Roman walls still stand, although much repaired and rebuilt at various periods during the city’s history.  These walls determined the size of the city up until the 18th century when the city began to spill outside the walled area as the population grew. The Roman street layout and roads leading to and from the city formed the basis of the main streets of the city and are still in use today.

The city began to gain prominence in the 11th century when it became the seat of the Bishop of Devon, lending the city new importance. A new cathedral began to rise on the site of an Anglo-Saxon abbey in the heart of the city. This architectural gem was just one of many which grew up in the city from the 12th century onwards and has represented the heart of the city to the modern day. 

Exeter grew in size and wealth throughout the next six centuries by virtue of its connection to the wool trade, its position as a regional religious and administrative centre, a transport hub and its trading and financial institutions. The wool trade in the area was extensive and created much wealth in Devon. Local towns such as Crediton and Ashburton bear the marks of this wealth in their buildings and the richness and size of their churches. Exeter was the closest point for many of these towns to trade and transport their products. It also became a centre of cloth production. By the early part of the sixteenth century Exeter was the fifth largest city in the country and also stood fifth in wealth. In addition to the wool trade, the city had a well established tanning industry and it was also a commercial and transport hub for the region, making it important in ways beyond its trade. It was also the main port for the area with a natural quay creating an important landing and loading point for goods. 

The city began to slip in importance and wealth during the mid-eighteenth century as the wool trade began to decline and heavier industry and cotton became more important in economic terms in the country at large. Exeter instead relied on its position as a coaching post and transport hub for the region. The city was a financial centre for the county and boasted a number of merchant and private banks during the 18th Century, the most famous of which was the Devonshire Bank. The Devonshire Bank was established in 1770 by John Baring and his brother Francis, who were also responsible for Barings Bank in London, a prestigious institution until its collapse in 1995. Exeter also began to become a retirement destination, something which was reflected in the city beginning to outgrow its walls. The 18th century saw the creation of several elegant residential areas outside the city walls with some very fine Georgian and Regency architecture. This trend was continued throughout the Victorian era as villas were built outside the main city limits. The shift in the cloth industry in Britain from wool to cotton and the change in demographics in the city affected the city's economy. Exeter began to rely on service industries and its transport role, becoming the railway centre for the region in the 19th century. The variety of occupations in the city produced a balanced economy which spared it any major upheavals in the 20th century during the various slumps of the interwar years. Exeter in the inter-war years had an economy with a heavy emphasis on distribution and transport combined with a role as the local market, shopping and financial centre and some light industry and manufacturing. The population was around 60% working class with the majority of this population living near the industrial sector of the city which was grouped around the river banks. During the 1920’s and 1930’s the city council began a programme of slum clearances in the river area which left large holes in the city. A large new council estate was built to rehouse the residents of this area. Exeter had a mixed character as the wealthy and the poor tended to live cheek by jowl with the elegant Georgian and Victorian terraces and villas next to the slums and new council estates. 

Despite the slums, the city had many beautiful and ancient buildings, and it was this rather than any strategic importance which made Exeter a target for the Blitz. The city was bombed a total of 17 times during the years 1940 to 1942. The early raids were to target the transport links that Exeter supported, especially the railways and goods yards. Damaging or destroying the railway at Exeter would disrupt transport throughout the south west. In particular it would stop the flow of goods and people to the important naval dockyard of Plymouth. The city became a target for its beauty in April 1942 as the German command created a series of bombing raids known as the Baedeker raids. These were to target cities renowned for their beauty, such as Bath, Canterbury and Exeter, in retaliation to British bombing campaigns that had targeted medieval towns in Germany with the intention of damaging German morale. Exeter suffered its worst raid in the early hours of 4th May 1942 and sustained the worst damage of the Baedeker campaign. The German radio broadcasts the day after the bombing stated that “Exeter was a jewel. We have destroyed it”.

Virtually the whole of the city centre, the ancient city-within-the-walls, was destroyed or badly damaged and residential districts just outside the walls also sustained heavy damage with around 1,500 homes destroyed. Miraculously the cathedral sustained minimal damage, with only one direct hit which damaged the south tower and the organ. The cathedral close also survived virtually unscathed, but this was an oasis in a desert of destruction. The city lost the rest of its centre, including a circus of Georgian buildings which were widely acknowledged as the finest example of its kind in England. These buildings were now no more than a burnt-out shell. 

A new city had to rise from the ruins of the old, a period of building and change like no other in the city’s long history as it rebuilt its shattered centre, rehoused the many people who lost their homes and looked forward to a new Britain which had to rise out of the ashes of war. The city centre was rebuilt in a modern style with echoes of the lost Georgian buildings. New housing estates sprouted on the edge of the city limits, creating new communities for those who had lost their homes. The rebuilding of war damaged areas was only the beginning. The city’s industry began to move away from its traditional home by the river out to newly built industrial estates on the edge of the city. The centre of the city was reclaimed as a shopping destination and the riverside for leisure while new roads cleared narrow, ancient streets from the map. Today there is little left of the city’s industrial past but it remains as the regional centre and transport hub for the county.