b_960_960_16777215_00_images_landscape__0009_Development_1800s.jpgSlideshow: Click for Image GalleryBy 1400 Exeter was a significant centre for the trade in woollen cloth, but it was not yet a commercial powerhouse. Exeter was the regional capital, the South West’s major city, but within the woollen cloth trade it still had to compete with local rivals.

While Exeter may have accounted for a third of the county’s production of woollen cloth, other towns including Barnstaple, Crediton, Cullompton, Kingsbridge, Tiverton and Totnes all continued as sizeable local centres for the industry. For the export of Devon cloth, Topsham in its key location acted as the main port.

Pride and prosperity

In 1066 Exeter had a population of around 2,500 – tiny in comparison with a figure of 120,000 in 2011 and not much more than the size of a large modern village. But it still ranked tenth in the list of English cities by population.

The woollen cloth trade was the main economic force behind the city’s size and relative success. By the early 1200s it was firmly established as one of England’s leading producing towns.

Woollen cloth not only helped Exeter grow, it also helped it change. The city’s status as one of the most powerful in England began to be reflected in its public appearance. In 1112, the Norman foundations of today’s cathedral began to be built.

By 1200 the city could also boast 32 churches and chapels, while in the following decades the first stone bridge over the River Exe rose from its marshy banks. At 200m (700ft) long, with 18 arches, this bridge was a very public statement of Exeter’s status and its ambition to reach out to the wider world.

Age of prosperity

The trade in serges and the new markets in northern Europe combined to fuel an expansion in Exeter’s woollen cloth trade. Between 1610 and 1730, the city enjoyed an age of prosperity unequalled in its history.

Although a decision in 1667 by the French to impose high import taxes on woollen cloth from England threatened to kill the city’s trade, other opportunities opened up. Exeter’s merchants moved quickly to find growing markets in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. By 1700 Exeter was fourth in the list of the most powerful English cities in terms of its wealth and trade, and fifth in terms of its population size. London continued to dwarf all other English cities, but Exeter now jostled for position with Norwich, York, Bristol and Newcastle.

With over 400 master craftsmen, the city on the Exe accounted for more than a quarter of England’s woollen cloth exports.

The industry was said to employ eight out of ten of Exeter’s citizens. Within Devon, cloth production stood second only to farming as the county’s largest employer. So buoyant was Exeter’s woollen cloth trade that Devon’s sheep struggled to keep up with demand and fleeces had to be imported from Wales, Ireland and Spain.

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

History Links and Downloads