Exeter began as a Roman town. The Romans arrived in the Southwest about 50 AD they built a wooden fort on a hill near the river Exe at the lowest point where it could be easily crossed. (Exe is derived from a Celtic word meaning 'the water'). However the local Celtic tribe put up little resistance to Roman rule and about 75 AD the soldiers moved on. A town was then created on the site of the fort. The Romans called it Isca.
Like all Roman towns Exeter or Isca had a rectangular space called the forum. This was the market place. It was also lined with shops and the basilica, a kind of town hall. There were also public baths in Roman Exeter. In Roman times people went to the baths not just to get clean but also to socialise. It was the Roman equivalent of going down the pub.
The Romans made Exeter the administrative centre of Southwest England. However Roman civilisation was skin deep in this part of the country. Further west it faded away altogether. In Roman Exeter rich people lived in houses of stone with mosaic floors and even a form of central heating but poor people lived in simple wooden huts. Roman Exeter does not seem to have been a particularly prosperous town.
In the 2nd century the Romans built a sturdy wall around Exeter, which lasted for centuries. However in the 4th century Roman civilisation began to decline. The populations of the towns fell. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407 AD and the Roman way of life slowly disappeared. People drifted away from the towns to the countryside and returned to a simpler way of life.
After the Romans left there may still have been some people living inside the walls of Exeter and farming the land outside. However it seems that Exeter ceased to function as a town.
Meanwhile Saxons from Germany invaded Eastern England in the 5th century. By the 7th century they had reached Devon. In 680 they built a monastery inside the walls of the old Roman town. The Saxons called each Roman town a ceaster. They called this one Exe ceaster. In time the name changed to Exeter.
Then in the 9th century Danes began to raid England. In 876 they captured Exeter and spent the winter inside the walls. The next year they marched off to invade another part of the country. Then late in the 9th century Alfred the Great created a network of strongholds across his kingdom called burghs. In the event of a Danish attack men from the surrounding area could gather together in the stronghold. Each burgh was also a market town with a weekly market. Each had a mint.
In Exeter a new main street (the High Street) was created with smaller streets leading off it. The land between the streets was divided into plots for building.
The new town at Exeter was a big success. It grew in size and prosperity during the 10th century. Then in 928 King Aethelstan repaired the walls of Exeter. The Danes besieged the town in 1001 but they left when an English army approached.
However in 1003 disaster struck Exeter. An official called a reeve ruled the town. At the time the reeve of Exeter was called Hugh and he was a traitor. He let the Danes in through a gate and they destroyed the town. However Exeter soon recovered. By 1066 it probably had a population of about 2,500. It would seem tiny to us but by the standards of the time Exeter was a fair sized town. In 1050 the bishop moved his seat there from Crediton and a cathedral was built at Exeter.