There was a Celtic settlement, possibly in the north-west quarter of the city, in the Bartholomew Street area. The High Street is an ancient route, dating from the Iron Age, following a ridge from the Fore Street/Bartholomew Street area, along Sidwell Street and up to Stoke Hill and beyond.
When the Romans arrived in 49AD, the local Celtic name for Exeter was Caerwysc, meaning 'the fortified town on the Exe'. During the siege by Vespasian to capture the settlement, they called it Caer-pen-huel-goit, 'the fortified town on the hill near the high or great wood', The wood was probably in the Duryard area to the north. They established a settlement, including the High Street trackway and the Early British settlement, although it wasn't for 60 years before they created the city grid layout with baths, basilica, market place and the raised city wall.
Soon after capture, the settlement became Isca Dumnoniorum - Dumnoniorum is 'capital city of the Dumnonii', after the Celtic tribe that inhabited the south-west from Lands End up to Somerset. The Isca is from the Celtic word, Eisca, meaning a river full of fish, although some sources say it just means 'water'.
From Whiskey to Exeter
I have long held an interest in malt whiskey and was aware of the root of the word whiskey as the Gaelic Uisge beatha, which literally means water of life or in Latin aqua vitae. Uisge is pronounced in a similar way to Isca. So it may be that Isca has the same route as the Celtic Gaelic Uisge. I'll have to open an Exeter distillery using Exe water of course!
After the Romans
From about 450 the settlement was known as 'Moncton' due to the large number of monks based in the area. It was King Athelston in about 928 who is credited with changing the name of the fledgling city to 'Exancaester'.
Other names for Exeter over the years have included:
Exonia (Latin form) - Excestre (the medieval form) - Uxela Exoniensis - means 'of Exeter' hence Johannes Exoniensis Exonian - someone from Exeter
The Bishop of Exeter traditionally signs his name as forename Exon eg Michael Exon.
The River Exe was especially noted for salmon and in ancient times, there were probably as many salmon in the river as there can be found in present day Alaskan rivers. It was noted that in 1993 about 1,600 salmon were caught, while during 2003, only 143 were taken by rod fishermen. Commercial net fishing is still carried out at Topsham, with ever diminishing returns.
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