Buildings

Medieval Bridge in Exeter, a Very Rare Relic


The Old Exe Bridge, a medieval arch bridge now in ruins, is situated in Exeter, south-western England. Its construction started in 1190 and was finalized by 1214, making it the oldest bridge of its size to still exist in England and the first bridge in Britain to still have a chapel on it.

This bridge was constructed to replace a series of basic crossings that had been sporadically used since the Roman era. The initiative for the bridge came from Nicholas and Walter Gervase, a father and son duo who were prominent local merchants.

They traveled across the country to fundraise for this project. Unfortunately, no records of the bridge’s builders have survived. The finished bridge spanned at least 590 feet (180 meters), likely featuring 17 or 18 arches, and it extended the road diagonally from the city’s west gate across the River Exe and its expansive, marshy floodplain.

Content

History

Constructed concurrently with the bridge, St Edmund’s Church served as the bridge chapel, and St Thomas’s Church was erected on the riverbank.

What sets the Exe Bridge apart among British medieval bridges is the addition of secular buildings, including timber-framed shops with residences above, from the early 14th century onwards, covering most parts of the bridge except for its central section.

Remains of medieval Exe bridge, Exeter
Remains of medieval Exe bridge, Exeter

Over time, as the river accumulated silt and land was reclaimed, a protective wall emerged from the side of St Edmund’s, guarding a series of homes and shops known as Frog Street.

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Walter Gervase also initiated the construction of a chantry chapel opposite the church, which was utilized from 1257 until the Reformation in the mid-16th century.

Throughout its history, the medieval bridge experienced several collapses and reconstructions, with the first notable rebuild occurring in 1286. By 1447, it had significantly deteriorated, prompting the mayor of Exeter to seek funding for repairs.

Despite its structural challenges, the bridge remained in use for nearly 600 years until a new bridge was erected in 1778, leading to the demolition of its river-crossing arches. This replacement was itself superseded in 1905 and then again in 1969 by a pair of modern bridges.

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The construction of these twin bridges revealed and restored eight and a half arches of the medieval structure, some of which had been concealed for almost two centuries. The area around the unearthed sections was transformed into a public park, with more arches remaining hidden beneath contemporary buildings.

Roman Bridge

After their initial conquests, the Romans established a 42-acre fort, resembling the shape of a playing card, around AD 55 at what is now Exeter.

This fort served as the headquarters for the 5,000 members of the Second Augustan Legion (Legio II Augusta) for the next two decades before their relocation to Isca Augusta (present-day Caerleon in Wales). Both Isca locations also accommodated the legionaries’ families, with civilian settlements likely developing outside the fort’s gates, particularly towards the north-east.

Medieval bridge ijn exeter
The bridge was lined with timber framed houses that were built in the 1600s

The fort’s infrastructure, including barracks, granaries, and workshops (fabrica), primarily consisted of timber, with the foundational trenches unearthed during excavations in the 1970s ahead of the Guildhall shopping centre’s construction.

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The exception within the fort was a stone-built military bathhouse, which was fed water from a natural spring through an aqueduct that entered via the fort’s rear gate (porta decumana). Excavations uncovered the bathhouse’s hot room (caldarium) and a section of the warm room (tepidarium), alongside an external exercise area (palaestra) that featured a cockfighting pit in one corner.

The Second Augustan Legion, which had participated in the Claudian invasion of Britain in AD 43 under the command of the future emperor Vespasian, engaged in military campaigns against the Durotriges and Dumnonii tribes.

Dolphin-Shaped

Evidence of the legion’s presence in Exeter includes a dolphin-shaped roof fitting (antefix) found within the bathhouse, dating to around AD 60. This antefix is believed to have been made using the same mould as one found at the legion’s subsequent base in Caerleon, where the legion moved around AD 75.

medieval bridge in exeter
The bridge in today’s setting

Before this move, the legion had experienced a defeat at the hands of the Silures in southern Wales in AD 52. The legion’s arrangements in Britain were later reorganized following Suetonius Paulinus’s victory over the Boudiccan rebellion.

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Additionally, a smaller fort existed at Topsham, serving as a logistical outpost along the route between the Isca fortress and Topsham. Excavations at the former St Loyes college site on Topsham Road in 2010 suggest it was contemporaneously occupied with the Isca fortress around c. 55–75. In 2019, another Roman fort was discovered beneath the coach station near Bampfylde Street.

A Medieval Bridge is Very Rare

Bridge construction was relatively rare in England throughout the Early Middle Ages, the period after the Roman Empire’s decline up until after the Norman conquest of England in the late 11th century.

Construction of the Pont d’Avignon in Southern France commenced in the 1170s, around the same period work started on London Bridge, spanning the River Thames on the opposite side of England, which was completed in 1209.

This era saw the construction of several similar bridges across England, with those in Exeter, London, and the Dee Bridge in Chester being among the largest.

Unique for its time, the Exe Bridge featured a chapel dedicated to St Edmund the Martyr, a common practice for medieval bridges to have chapels for travelers to pray for safe journeys.

In Devon, only one other bridge from this period survives, located at Clyst St Mary, just east of Exeter, with another at Yeolmbridge, which, although historically part of Devon, is now in Cornwall.

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Up until the 12th century, the Exe was crossed by a ford, known for being perilously unreliable and was supported by a ferry service for pedestrians. John Hooker, the chamberlain of Exeter, penned a history of the city in the 16th century, around 400 years after the bridge’s construction.

He noted the existence of a basic timber bridge at the site, which was particularly hazardous in winter when the river flooded. Hooker recounted how on multiple occasions, pedestrians were swept off the bridge and carried away to their deaths by the swift currents.

Bridge Construction

The initiative for a stone bridge was spearheaded by Nicholas and Walter Gervase, a father and son duo who were notable figures in the local community. As affluent merchants, the Gervases held considerable sway in Exeter, with Walter serving multiple terms as the city’s mayor.

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He later chose to have his parents interred within the chapel on the Exe Bridge, although the precise dates of their deaths remain unclear; Walter himself passed away in 1252. While the exact timeline of the bridge’s construction is uncertain, it is believed to have commenced around 1190.

Given that stone bridges in the Middle Ages could require two decades or more to finish, the Exe Bridge likely reached completion around 1210.

A map of Exeter in 1563, showing the city walls and the medieval bridge at the bottom of the picture.
A map of Exeter in 1563, showing the city walls and the bridge at the bottom of the picture.

Walter Gervase dedicated considerable effort to fundraising across the country. John Hooker, chronicling the history, recorded that the Gervases managed to accumulate £10,000 from public contributions to fund the bridge’s construction and acquire land that would generate ongoing revenue for its maintenance.

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Unfortunately, no documentation exists regarding the architects and builders of the bridge. However, the appointment of a bridge chaplain in 1196 suggests, as W. G. Hoskins, a professor of English local history, proposed, that construction had made significant progress by that point. By 1214, the completion of the bridge was evident with the existence of St Edmund’s Church, constructed upon it.

The Medieval Bridge Spanned

Spanning at least 590 feet (about 180 metres) in length, with certain studies suggesting it could have extended to as much as 750 feet (approximately 230 metres), the bridge was comprised of an estimated 17 to 18 arches.

However, historical accounts indicate that the number of arches might have been as few as 12, with this figure fluctuating due to subsequent repairs and reconstructions over time. The structure traversed the River Exe diagonally from near the West Gate of the city walls, stretching across the flood-prone marshy banks.

Throughout its history, the bridge underwent numerous repairs and reconstructions, particularly after partial collapses during storms in 1286 and 1384, showcasing its vulnerability and the community’s commitment to its maintenance.

The bridge’s foundation was constructed from timber piles, which were reinforced with iron and lead and driven deep into the riverbed to ensure a robust base. In areas where the water was shallower, closer to the banks, the construction approach involved simply depositing rubble and gravel onto the riverbed.

After a section of the bridge was taken down in the 18th century, some of these foundational piles were removed. Remarkably, they were discovered to be jet black and exceptionally solid, a testament to their durability after being submerged for around 500 years.

Narrowing of the River Exe

The construction of substantial piers for the bridge and the subsequent land reclamation on the Exeter side significantly narrowed the River Exe, more than halving its width. This alteration intensified the water’s force against the bridge’s structure, leading to damage over time.

The bridge underwent numerous repairs throughout its existence. While the earliest repairs are difficult to pinpoint in time, significant incidents include a partial collapse during a storm in 1286 and another in 1384, which resulted in fatalities. It was reconstructed following both events.

Repairs conducted later were identifiable by the type of stone used—Heavitree breccia, a local stone that wasn’t quarried until the mid-14th century, around 150 years after the bridge’s initial construction. By 1447, the bridge was documented to be in a state of severe disrepair.

All that remains of St Edmund's Church is the ruined tower on the medieval bridge
All that remains of St Edmund’s Church is the ruined tower.

Richard Izacke, serving as Exeter’s chamberlain in the mid-17th century, described it as greatly decayed, with its stonework substantially compromised and the timber portions entirely eroded.

In response to this dire state, the mayor, John Shillingford, initiated a fundraising campaign for its reconstruction. He reached out to John Kemp, the Archbishop of York, who was a known associate and an executor for Henry Beaufort, the notably affluent Bishop of Winchester who had recently passed away.

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Kemp agreed to donate, but Shillingford’s unexpected death in 1458 impeded the fundraising efforts. A critical collapse of one of the bridge’s central arches occurred in 1539, necessitating repairs with stone sourced from St Nicholas’ Priory, yet a comprehensive refurbishment of the entire bridge remained unaccomplished.

Post-Medieval Repairs

Funding for the repair and maintenance of the bridge came from land purchased by the Gervases when the bridge was initially constructed. These funds were managed by bridge wardens, who oversaw the bridge’s upkeep until 1769.

At this point, the responsibility shifted to the Exeter turnpike trust following an Act of Parliament. The trust was dissolved in 1884, with the oversight of the bridge and its associated estate transferring to Exeter City Council.

Anonymous 18th-century watercolour depicting St Edmund's and houses resting on the bridge parapet
Anonymous 18th-century watercolour depicting St Edmund’s and houses resting on the bridge parapet

The bridge wardens meticulously documented their activities on parchment rolls, with the majority of records spanning from 1343 to 1711 still intact. These documents constitute the most comprehensive historical records for any British bridge, London Bridge being the only exception.

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The bridge estate expanded significantly, evidencing leases for 15 shops located on the bridge itself and more than 50 other assets across Exeter, including mills and farmland, all contributing financially to the bridge’s maintenance and repairs.

Tragic Fire in December 1775

Additionally, tolls were levied on carts crossing the bridge from outside Exeter, although city residents were exempt. By the late 18th century, the area around the bridge was plagued by congestion, prompting legislative action in 1773 that authorized the trustees to either repair or rebuild the bridge.

However, these plans were preempted by a tragic fire in December 1775 at the Fortune of War, a pub situated on the bridge.

The blaze not only destroyed the pub but also a neighboring residence. The pub, known for providing inexpensive lodgings to local homeless individuals, was thought to have housed around 30 people at the time of the fire, with at least nine casualties recovered once the fire had been extinguished.

The construction of the bridge’s piers and the reclamation of land on the Exeter side significantly reduced the width of the River Exe, affecting the flow and force of the water.

Consideration was given to expanding the medieval bridge, yet this idea was ultimately not pursued. Instead, the sections spanning the river were taken down following the construction of a new bridge with three masonry arches, completed in 1778 by Joseph Dixon.

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The construction of this replacement began in 1770 but encountered significant difficulties in 1775 when floodwaters destroyed much of the structure under construction and compromised its foundations. This new bridge was positioned slightly upstream from the original, crossing the river in a straight, shorter path.

London’s Tower Bridge

By this time, land reclamation efforts had reduced the expanse of marshland, confining the river to a width of 150 feet (approximately 46 metres). The medieval arches on the Exeter side were preserved, either becoming buried over time or integrated into adjacent structures.

This 19th-century bridge was itself replaced in 1905 by a three-hinged steel arch bridge, a project overseen by Sir John Wolfe Barry, the engineer also known for designing London’s Tower Bridge.

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Barry’s bridge served for about 65 years before it was replaced by a pair of reinforced concrete bridges, completed in 1969 and 1972, marking yet another chapter in the evolution of bridge construction at this historic crossing.

The Medieval Bridge was Hit by Bombs

Sections of the medieval bridge were unearthed following a German bomb detonation nearby during the Exeter Blitz in the Second World War, and additional arches came to light with the construction of modern bridges.

Engineers from the 20th century took care to position the new bridges and their access roads away from the medieval bridge’s trajectory.

As a result, a portion of Frog Street, situated along the riverbank, was forsaken. In the course of these developments, an old brewery along with several adjacent structures on the street were razed to accommodate a new roadway that would link with the dual bridges.

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A notable incident from this period involved a timber-framed house, thereafter dubbed “the House That Moved,” which was literally relocated to avoid demolition.

The clearance efforts exposed five of the medieval arches, and subsequent digging brought to light an additional three and a half arches, representing roughly half the bridge’s original span.

Exeter City Council enlisted local masons to refurbish the stonework and transformed the surrounding vicinity into a public park to exhibit these arches, which, despite being buried for about 200 years, were found to be in remarkably good condition.

The foundations of several destroyed arches remain within the riverbed, and approximately 25 metres (82 feet) of the bridge lies beneath Edmund Street and the contemporary Exe riverbank.

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The remnants of the bridge stand as the oldest of its magnitude still existing in England and the oldest to still feature a chapel in Britain, granting it status as a scheduled monument and a Grade II listed building. This designation affords it protection against alterations or demolition, preserving its historical significance for future generations.

Original Length of the Medieval Bridge

Approximately half of the bridge’s original structure is still visible today, comprising eight and a half arches that stretch over 285 feet (87 metres). Additionally, three and a half arches, covering 82 feet (25 metres), remain hidden beneath the surface.

The spans of these visible arches vary, ranging from 3.7 metres (12 feet) to 5.7 metres (19 feet), with two serving as the crypt for St Edmund’s Church, the bridge chapel.

Originally, the bridge extended diagonally in a north-westerly direction from the current Exeter city centre towards St Thomas—a suburb now, but historically outside the city limits—and ended near St Thomas’s Church, which was constructed around the same period.

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The bridge had an average width of 16 feet (5 metres), and its roadway was about 12 feet (4 metres) wide between the parapets at its widest point, allowing two carts to pass each other—a feature quite remarkable for a medieval bridge. Although the parapets are no longer present, portions of the medieval paving, as well as later additions, have been preserved.

By the late 18th century, the bridge was replaced by a newer structure, leading to the demolition of the spans across the river. However, eight and a half arches of the medieval bridge were uncovered and restored during the construction of modern bridges in 1969, with these remains now integrated into a public park, preserving the legacy of Exeter’s medieval bridge for future generations.

The arches that remain stand up to 20 feet (6 metres) high, with the piers rounded on the downstream side and equipped with cutwaters—or streamlined brickwork designed to lessen water impact—on the upstream side. Above the cutwaters, triangular recesses originally served as refuges for pedestrians to allow carts to pass.

Dendrochronology

The arches’ faces were constructed with local trap stone, backed by gravel and rubble contained within a framework of wooden stakes driven into the ground and riverbed.

The construction also utilized other materials such as sandstone and limestone from East Devon, and Heavitree breccia for subsequent repairs. Dendrochronology has dated the oldest of these wooden stakes to trees felled between 1190 and 1210.

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Architecturally, the bridge features a combination of Norman-style semi-circular arches and the later pointed Gothic arches, all underpinned by ribbed vaults. The introduction of pointed arches around the time construction began led to speculation that their inclusion was due to repairs.

However, 20th-century archaeological studies have confirmed the original design incorporated both styles. The pointed arches are distinguished by five ribs, each approximately 1 foot 6 inches (46 centimetres) wide and spaced between 3 feet (91 centimetres) and 3 feet 6 inches (107 centimetres) apart, while the rounded arches have three ribs with varying dimensions, contributing to the bridge’s distinctive medieval engineering and architectural style.

Medieval Bridge Chapels

Bridge chapels, often found on or near medieval bridges, are among the most picturesque yet overlooked aspects of medieval urban infrastructure. These small ecclesiastical buildings served a range of spiritual and practical purposes, reflecting the deeply religious nature of medieval society alongside its growing urban sophistication.

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The origins of bridge chapels can be traced back to the early medieval period, with a significant increase in their construction during the 12th and 13th centuries. This era witnessed a surge in bridge building across Europe, facilitated by technological advances and the growth of trade and pilgrimage routes.

Bridges were crucial in connecting cities and towns, fostering commerce, and aiding the movement of pilgrims to sacred sites. It was common belief that rivers and crossings were places fraught with danger, both physically and spiritually. As such, bridges were not only seen as engineering feats but also as liminal spaces needing divine protection.

On the Exe Bridge, a church was constructed over two of its arches, dedicated to St Edmund the Martyr. This church, built concurrently with the bridge, was seamlessly integrated into its structure, featuring an entrance from the bridge and potentially another from beneath.

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The earliest mention of a bridge chaplain dates back to 1196, indicating the church’s possible completion by then. By 1214, the church was acknowledged among Exeter’s ecclesiastical buildings, alongside St Thomas’s Church. It was designed with a rectangular layout, measuring 54 feet (about 16 metres) in length and 16 feet 6 inches (about 5 metres) in width, with its south wall perched atop the bridge’s north side.

Construction of a Bell Tower

In the 17th century, the bridge arch beneath the aisle was sealed, suggesting that by then, the river no longer flowed directly under the church. Shortly after its inauguration, a seal depicting St Edmund’s Church, flanked by houses, was created for the bridge wardens, the earliest use of which appears in documents addressed to the Exeter mayor around 1256 or 1264.

Over its history, the church underwent several expansions. By the late 14th century, silt accumulation allowed for land reclamation on the Exeter side, positioning the church’s west wall on solid ground.

Consequently, the north wall was partially dismantled to add an aisle, extending the church’s width by 7 feet (about 2 metres). The construction of a bell tower commenced in 1449, spurred by Bishop Edmund Lacey of Exeter, who offered indulgences for financial donations—a typical medieval practice for funding bridges.

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The 16th century saw further enlargements as more land was reclaimed, and some bridge arches became landlocked. By then, the church’s under-arches likely saw water flow only during winter floods.

A lightning strike in 1800 necessitated a significant rebuild in 1834, and a fire in 1882 led to repairs that preserved much of the original stonework.

Another fire in 1969 rendered the church ruinous, and a partial demolition in 1975 removed many later additions while conserving the medieval masonry. Despite its ruined state, the tower remains intact, standing as the sole survivor of the church’s original structure.

Remained Active Until at Least 1537

Situated on the opposite side of the bridge was a smaller chantry chapel, established by Walter Gervase and devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This type of chapel was designed for the employment of a priest to conduct prayers over a specified period following someone’s death, assisting in their spiritual journey to heaven.

Upon his passing in 1257, Gervase endowed the chapel with 50 shillings annually to ensure a priest would conduct three weekly services for the souls of himself, his father, and their family. The chapel remained active until at least 1537 but met its end in 1546 amidst the widespread dissolution of the monasteries, leaving behind only remnants of its foundation.

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John Hooker records that Gervase and his wife were interred in a different chapel connected to St Edmund’s Church, which featured a “handsome monument” commemorating Gervase.

However, this chapel was repurposed as a private residence during the Reformation, leading to the monument’s removal and desecration. By the 19th century, only the chapel’s base remained.

St Thomas Becket

At the bridge’s western extremity (situated on terra firma) stood St Thomas’s Church, constructed around the same era as the bridge. While its precise build date is uncertain, it was named after St Thomas Becket, canonised in 1173, with its earliest documented mention in 1191. By 1261, it served as the parish church for Cowick (presently known as St Thomas).

A significant flood in the early 15th century necessitated the church’s reconstruction at a site further from the river on Cowick Street, with the new edifice consecrated in 1412.

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It experienced considerable reconstruction during the 17th and 19th centuries, especially after being damaged by fire during the English Civil War. Today, St Thomas’s Church is recognized as a Grade I listed building, celebrating its historical and architectural significance.

In the Medieval Period

During the medieval period, bridge chapels were a familiar feature on bridges, unlike secular structures which were comparatively rare. During this era, approximately 135 major stone bridges were constructed across Britain.

While not every bridge boasted a chapel, the majority featured some religious establishment either directly on the bridge or nearby its approaches.

However, only 12 bridges are historically recorded as having been adorned with secular buildings, with Lincoln’s High Bridge standing out as the sole surviving example retaining its original structures.

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The Exe Bridge was notable for having timber-framed houses and shops from its early years, with the first documentation of such buildings dating back to 1319. At its developmental zenith, every arch of the bridge, save for six central river-spanning ones, bore the weight of buildings.

These constructions had their front walls mounted on the bridge’s parapets, while the remainder of the structure was supported by wooden stakes driven into the riverbed, until their eventual demolition in 1881.

By the late 13th century, silt accumulation on the Exeter side of the bridge facilitated land reclamation, making room for two buildings that faced what later became Frog Street, with their backs to the river. Archaeological findings hint at one of these structures possibly being a tannery.

Although these buildings were torn down in the post-medieval period, their foundations have been preserved. Adjacent to the bridge on the Exeter side, several buildings were erected, shielded from the river by a wall extending from the church’s western edge.