Exebridge

Has been described as a Possible Fortified Bridge

There are masonry ruins/remnants remains

NameExebridge
Alternative NamesExe Bridge
Historic CountryDevonshire
Modern AuthorityDevon
1974 AuthorityDevon
Civil ParishExeter

The Old Exe Bridge survives particularly well as one of the best-preserved examples of a major medieval stone bridge of its date built in England. Constructed around the year 1200 it spanned the waters of the River Exe for almost 600 years until its partial demolition in 1778. Excavation has demonstrated that St Edmund's Church, which stood on the bridge, formed part of the original construction and that houses were built onto the bridge and surrounding banks during the medieval period. The monument will be informative about early bridge construction techniques in stone and the fabric of the bridge preserves medieval masonry in abundance; this masonry has been studied in detail. The ruins of the bridge, church, and tenements will be informative about medieval life and the lives of the inhabitants of Exeter during that period. The remains have been consolidated and are displayed as a monument within a landscaped park forming a visual and educational amenity.

The monument includes the surviving standing and buried remains of the medieval Exe Bridge (known as Old Exe Bridge) which once spanned the River Exe, together with the remains of St Edmund's Church, which was constructed on the bridge itself, and part of the rear house foundations of a series of medieval tenements which fronted onto Frog Street at the bridge's eastern end. The site lies on the east bank of the River Exe at a point where the river appears to have been much wider in former times allowing the possibility of a ford, although a succession of timber bridges may have been in existence from Roman times until the decision was taken to construct a stone bridge by the closing decade of the 12th century. The Old Exe bridge, which is Listed Grade II, took a diagonal course across the river running between the church of St Edmund on the city side and the church of St Thomas Becket on the opposite, western bank

As originally constructed the bridge is thought to have consisted of 17 or possibly 18 arches spanning a total distance of about 180m between the abutments. Of the original river arches eight survive fully exposed whilst part of a ninth is visible, these representing a little under half of the original length, ie: about 87m. A further length of about 25m of bridge lies buried beneath Edmund Street and the modern bank of the Exe. The span of the arches varies from 3.66m to 5.68m. The first four arches on the Exeter side are segmental (almost semicircular) but the fifth to ninth alternate between pointed (two centred) and segmental vaults. All the arches are of ribbed construction. The segmental arches each have three rectangular sectioned ribs, 1m wide, whilst the pointed ones have either four or five, narrow, chamfered ribs 0.6m wide. All but the first arch are strengthened with one, or sometimes two 'arch rings' above the first set of voussoirs and many are chamfered along their lower edges. The bridge is on average 5m in width and it carried a roadway some 4m wide if allowance is made for the parapets which no longer exist. The height of the roadway above the river rose from about 3m at the Exeter abutment to over 6m above the ninth arch. Some medieval paving of the roadway survives above the seventh arch whilst the rest is a modern reconstruction. The bridge piers are faced with local volcanic trap and sandstone ashlar; they were founded on bases of rubble and gravel contained within bays of wooden stakes driven into the riverbed. Dendrochronological (tree ring) dating has demonstrated that some of these oak stakes were felled in the years 1190-1200. The upstream cutwaters of the piers are pointed to break up the strength of the current whilst the downstream piers are rounded. Later repairs of the bridge fabric can be identified with some confidence where local Heavitree breccia stone has been used as this stone is known not to have been quarried before the mid-14th century. The western half of the bridge was demolished in 1778 following the construction of a new bridge which took a different alignment further upstream. St Edmund's Church, first recorded in 1214, formed an integral part of the bridge construction with its tower contiguous with the bridge. The floors of both the nave and chancel were supported above the river by the second and third bridge arches. The church was about 20m in length by 5.5m in width and it was entered from the bridge carriageway although archaeological evidence survives to suggest access could also be obtained from the river. It was rebuilt and extended on a number of occasions, principally in 1448-9 when a bell tower was added and around 1500 when a side aisle 12.6m long and 3m wide was built out from the north west wall. A final and extensive rebuild took place in 1833-4 although all ancient foundations were retained. In 1975 the church was partly demolished with much of the 19th century masonry removed, although all ancient walling was retained and the church stands with its tower surviving to its full original height. Only fragments survive of a chantry chapel of 1257 which stood opposite St Edmund's on the other side of the thoroughfare; it was suppressed in 1546 during the Dissolution. An accumulation of river-deposited sands against the riverbank on the north east side of the abutment and first arch of the bridge was used, by the 13th century, to provide reclaimed land for two medieval tenements. Excavation in 1975-9 revealed foundation walls of the rear parts of two houses which would have fronted onto Frog Street although it was not known by that name until the early 17th century. Both houses shared a rear river wall which would have provided some protection against flooding and both were shown to have a complex sequence of development from around 1240. The more completely excavated of the two was found to have been a rectangular hall-house with an internal side passage along its east wall. Its occupants appear to have been engaged in industrial activity, since in the late 13th century, two barrels were sunk into the house floor, the barrels probably having been used for soaking or tanning leather prior to leather working. The houses were finally demolished in the post-medieval period but the earliest foundations survive and comprise the medieval walls forming the property boundaries and room divisions of the two tenements. Documentary evidence for the bridge, church, and tenements, is extensive. The first known bridge chaplain is recorded in 1196 suggesting that the bridge had been erected by that date. St Edmund's Church on the east side of the bridge was certainly complete by around 1214 when it was mentioned in a list of Exeter Churches along with its companion Church of St Thomas Becket which stood at the western end of the bridge. The account rolls of the Bridge Wardens detailing the annual cost of repairs for the period 1343 to 1711 survive and they also include references to houses on the bridge which appear to have been of timber-frame construction. Study of these documents has shown that the Bridge Wardens paid for masons, carpenters, smiths, sawyers, labourers, and roofers, and for a multitude of various raw materials including brushwood which was made into wattling to protect the foundations of the bridge piers from the battering of driftwood and ice during winter. Supplementing the documentary evidence is the archaeological work which has confirmed that the bridge was standing by the early 13th century. The architectural detail and development of the bridge, St Edmund's Church, and the medieval tenements at the east end of the bridge, have all been detailed in a report by Stewart Brown. (Scheduling Report)

Gatehouse Comments

The east end of the bridge was the West Gate of the city defences. The west end of the bridge is now lost but is known to have had a chapel and was fortified with a battery in the Civil War. It may have also had a gate, although a gatehouse distinct from the chapel seems unlikely. Even without a gate the narrowness of the bridge, perhaps extenuated by houses on the bridge, will have made defending the bridge against attack feasible.

- Philip Davis

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

This is a Grade 2 listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSX916921
Latitude50.7190589904785
Longitude-3.53584003448486
Eastings291600
Northings92110
HyperLink HyperLink HyperLink
Copyright Paul Murray All Rights Reserved

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Books

  • Hoskins, W.G., 1969, Two Thousand Years in Exeter (Phillimore & Co) p. 28-31
  • Jervoise, E. and Henderson, C., 1938, Old Devon Bridges (A. Wheaton) p. 61-7

Antiquarian

  • Chandler, John, 1993, John Leland's Itinerary: travels in Tudor England  (Sutton Publishing) p. 120
  • Toulmin-Smith, Lucy (ed), 1907, The itinerary of John Leland in or about the years 1535-1543 (London: Bell and Sons) Vol. 1 p. 229 online copy

Journals

  • Webster, L.E. & Cherry, J. (1972) 'Other Sites', p. 204 in 'Medieval Britain in 1971' in Medieval Archaeol. 16, pg(s)147-212. Society for Medieval Archaeology.

Other

  • Bruce Watson, 2013 Sept, Gazetteer of fortified bridges (working list kindly shared with Gatehouse)
  • Brown, S. (1991) Excavations on the Medieval Exe Bridge, St Edmund's Church and Frog Street Tenements, Exeter, 1975-9 in EMAFU Report No. 91.52. Exeter Museums Archaeological Field Unit.