Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe


                        7 December 2022 Talk by Dr Stuart Blaylock at Leonardo's Hotel (formerly Jurys) 

Our speaker this evening, to quote a description in the latest book to which he has contributed “is an independent scholar and archaeologist, based in Devon, who has been studying historic buildings since the mid-1970s. He is the author of four books and numerous scholarly articles on archaeology, historic buildings and near-eastern archaeology. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and an Honorary Research Fellow of the British Institute at Ankara.”


It was from Ankara that he had just returned, the week before our talk, in order to share with us his research towards the book written by himself and Dr Robert Higham. This was published by the Devon Archaeological Society in 2021 and entitled Rougemont, Exeter: A Medieval Castle in its Urban Context – Excavation and Building Recording at Exeter Castle, 1985-2016. Stuart explained that he had been involved with Bob Higham in research on Rougemont Castle for some 35 years and his part in the book became his lockdown project.


Commencing his talk, Stuart explained that the Castle occupies a significant part of the area within the city wall. He first worked on the early Norman gatehouse in 1985 and had memories of watching the Judges processing by. He showed many maps and photos taken from the air to illustrate the parts of the Outer and Inner Baileys. which are bordered by Gandy Street, High Street and Northernhay Gardens. The Gardens incidentally were one of the earliest pleasure grounds created in the early 17th century, and renewed after the Civil War.


One image showed the Danes Castle earth work dating to the early 12th century, a remnant of King Stephen’s Siege of 1136, as was a possible siege tunnel near the Gaol Tower on the city wall, found in the 1930s. He talked about the Castle defences and Rougemont Gardens in the Outer Bailey, and showed the earliest topographical image held in the British Library which shows two gatehouse complexes, one of which is opposite the main entrance in the north wall. This image includes a bowling green and artillery defences of the late 16th century.


After the conquest William supervised the siege of 18 days in 1068, selected the site for the castle, and left his lieutenants to build it. Stuart explained about the Castle being granted to the Prince of Wales as Duke of Cornwall in 1348 and its precincts being connected to Bradninch (the chief manor of the Duchy of Cornwall in Devon), and hence the many instances of the name in the immediate area. Stuart went into detail about the building of the Gatehouse and the different stones that were used in its construction, which show a combination of Norman and Saxon architectural features – plus images showing a comparison with other such buildings across the country.


He also talked about Athelstan’s Tower with the arch between Rougemont and Northernhay Gardens showing the Roman wall with white sandstone built on top – a stratigraphic ‘sandwich’ construction in which Roman, Saxon and Norman masonry sit one on top of the other, enabling the earlier phases to be accurately dated. Also he explained traces of the outer defences of the castle ramparts that can still be seen in the topography of the city – such as the slope leading up from Gandy Street to the old University building which became the Phoenix, steps from the side of that building which were part of the rampart and, now demolished, the slope leading up to the present Library, and the different height of buildings in Bailey Street. We learnt about the Chapel which was demolished in 1792 which had an extra part built on at one end which became the Armoury.


Many burials had been revealed in various trenches during the archaeological excavations, including a number of charcoal burials. This is a distinctive burial rite characteristic of the pre-Conquest period and dated by radiocarbon between the 9th and early 11th centuries. These show that the castle burials were coeval with the Cathedral Close cemetery and challenge the received history that the cathedral (and before it the minster) had a monopoly on burial within the city. Attempts to explain this have led to the hypothesis that there may have been a pre-existing royal enclave in this area before the Castle was built. Evidence was found in trenches of Roman quarrying and building in the form of mosaic tesserae and central-heating tiles. The Castle reached a crisis point and lost its remaining function when the Court moved to a new more accessible building in 2004. The City decided not to purchase the site which is now home to a variety of private and commercial functions, the main Court room being used for weddings.


 Stuart gave us a very interesting insight into a part of Exeter’s ancient heritage.



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