With the withdrawal of Roman forces in the early fifth century, Exeter seems to have gone into a steep decline but resurgence occurred in the seventh century when Saxon settlers occupied the town initially co-habiting with the native Britons. In AD 876 Exeter was attacked and occupied by Danish forces but were expelled the following year by Alfred the Great. It was he who converted the town into a fortified burh – a defended settlement – re-using and extensively repairing the Roman walls. These defences were sufficient to repel Danish raiders in AD 893 and further upgrades were made in AD 928 by King Athelstan who concurrently expelled the native Britons who were were driven into Cornwall by Athelstan, who fixed the River Tamar as their boundary. Exeter successfully repelled other Danish attacks in 1001 and 1003.
Athelstan also built a castle on the highest ground inside the wall, on the Red Mount, now known as the Norman, Rougemont Castle. It is thought that the only part of his castle to survive is a part of the ruins known as “Athelstan’s Tower”. The tower has triangular windows, a Saxon architectural feature, which are probably early Norman while the crenellated battlements are later. The gatehouse of Rougemont Castle also has Saxon style, triangular windows dating from the Norman build when some Saxon techniques were used by local builders. The tower is constructed from a mix of stone, some recycled, including the volcanic stone favoured by the Romans as a building material. The path leading up to the tower is nineteenth-century in origin.
The tower is the highest point in the city and commands a fine view over Northernhay Park and across the Longbrook Valley. The custom of having a trumpeter play from the tower, for the Remembrance Day service at the Exeter War Memorial, on the 11th November each year has been discontinued.
It was Athelstan who changed the name of the town from Monkton to Exancaester, the root of Exeter, in 940. He also established two mints in Exeter, where Saxon silver coins were struck.
Visiting Athelstan’s Tower
External Access only