Exeter Castle

Devon & Cornwall Notes and Queries vol. VI, (January 1910 to October 1911), illus. pp. 245-250.



Prepared by Michael Steer

Exeter Castle stands at the highest part of the city, within the north-east angle of the city walls. From the reddish colour of the volcanic rock on which it stood, it became known locally as Rougemont Castle. There are few remains of the very early buildings within the walls, its site being mostly occupied by the former Devon Assize Hall and Sessions House. There are still extensive remains of the boundary walls of the castle enclosure and early towers to East and West. The Note’s author, sheltering behind the pseudonym ‘Veritas’ delivers harsh criticism of Mr Elijah Chick’s booklet on the Castle’s history. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Note 223. EXETER CASTLE. - Mr. Elijah Chick has published in booklet form a history of Exeter Castle which has previously appeared in the Exeter press, and in the interest of the author and reader I feel constrained to make the following criticisms. To the author they will be of service should he contemplate writing again on a subject that demands the instinct and method of the trained historian; to the reader, should he suppose that either of these essential qualities are in evidence in the present work.

Mr. Chick begins with the assumption that one day an ancient British settler surveyed Rougemont with a "grunt of satisfaction," that "probably," his descendants were still here at the dawn of our written history, "and" - this is stated as positive fact - "they have left for evidence the very earth ramparts which we see around us in the Castle Yard ;"further on, the writer states that "the banks around the castle yard are full of human remains." That is thoroughly typical of one paragraph after another in Mr. Chick's work. He starts by a piece of pure conjecture for the truth of which there is not one iota of evidence; he then assumes that his conjecture is an historic fact and adds to this a blunder. The existing rampart could not possibly have been the work of an aboriginal. Why? Mr. Chick himself supplies the reason and so stultifies all that he has said before: "the banks around the Castle Yard are full of human remains."It was not the habit of the British or of any other race to bury their dead in the soil of their defensive ramparts; therefore these ramparts must have been thrown up at a date much later than that of the earliest occupation.

"We may consider these people (i.e., the earliest settlers) to have been similar to the Celts of Cornwall in more modern times." They were, of course, racially identical with the Celts of Cornwall. Does Mr. Chick suppose that in Celtic times Cornwall had an existence in any way separate from the rest of the country?

Refering to the British names given to Rougemont, the author says: "The natural appearance of the hill ... is reflected in the various names . . . borne by the place. These names would be doubtless given when it had far outgrown its original size." The writer has just stated that the original size is seen in the original rampart around the Castle Yard. Where, in British times, did the outgrowth take place?

The following passage is a fair example of Mr. Chick's tendency to start with a pure conjecture, and in the next sentence to assume that his conjecture is an historical fact, and so to explain existing features of the place. His argument has not the simplicity of a circle - it is an argumentative polyhedron. In the following the italics are my own: -

"Probably from A.D. 50 Roman soldiers were quartered here. During their stay the original earthworks were most probably extended; and it may be that some retaining walls were built. The single bank and ditch were supplemented by an outer rampart, the remains of which are still to be seen in the beautiful grounds of Rougemont." Analysed, the argument or statement comes to this: Roman soldiers may possibly have occupied Rougement although we have no evidence of their ever having done so?; the remains of an outer rampart are still in the grounds? ; therefore this rampart is evidence of Roman occupation.

"One other mark of Roman presence," continues the author, "is the well still existing." Why? "This well is said to have been deepened about the year 1205 by King ]ohn, who ordered payment to be made to William Briewer for work done." If the latter is the case, then the well was deepened - the phrase, "said to have been" exhibits an excess of caution almost amounting to timidity. The record, however, says that the well was made, or dug, on that occasion, "in pueto faciendo" a statement which effectually negatives the authenticity of this "other mark of Roman occupation. It is this confusion of thought and obscurity of diction that makes the reader long for something definite. He gets it in the next paragraph, which, although it has nothing to do with Rougemont, even then contains a blunder which is almost crystalline in definition, although even here criticism is disarmed by that blessed word "probable:" "It is probable that the halfway Hotel on the Sidmouth Road stands on the site of a Roman station. It is distinctly visible from the walls. " The hotel stands on the site not of a Roman station but of the married quarters of modern troops who were encamped there during the Napoleonic scare at the beginning of the last century.

Coming to the time of Athelstan, Mr. Chick describes the gate-house in a passage governed by methods identical with those just noticed. He starts with a supposition, an unsupported conjecture, which enables him to state, as an historic fact, that the Tower was completed in A.D. 931:- "the triangular headed loop-holes in the upper parts of the building seem to suggest Saxon work. . . . If names stand for anything [and they certainly do not] Athelstan's Tower at the entrance of the Castle points to the fortifying of this area as an inner citadel. This work was completed about A.D. 930." It will be observed that Mr. Chick, in his role of special pleader for the antiquity of the Castle, omits to mention that more of the prominent features of the tower are unmistakably Norman, and that the best authorities unhesitatingly assign to it a date fully a century later than that so definitely laid down by Mr. Chick. If the work were completed about 930, why does not Mr. Chick give us his authority for saying so; and if that authority exists - and we know that it does not exist - why should the fabric only "seem to suggest" Saxon work. It must have been the work of a Saxon, and of one, who, by some occult means, anticipated the main characteristics of architects yet unborn.

Mr. Chick says that Athelstan "surrounded the City with walls, a large part of which original erection probably remains to the present day." The author supports his appeal to probability by careless translation of the statement of the Chronicles, and then by wrongly interpreting that statement, even when thus amended. Sweyn, in the year 1003, captured Exeter. According to Mr. Chick, "a great part of the City wall was broken down, chiefly between East Gate and South Gate, probably not much on the Northern side." Why? Why should Sweyn, who could not possibly have known that Mr. Chick would want to prove the antiquity of the walls, leave any portion undismantled? The exact words of the chronicler are these:  "Murum ab orientale usque ad occidentalem portam destruxit." ("he demolished the wall from the East gate right up to the West gate.") Not a word is said of the South Gate, nor as to the side of the City on which the destruction took place. The phrase simply means total destruction, and was so interpreted by Oliver - "The fortifications utterly demolished, and the City reduced to a pile of ashes." A similar expression occurs in the Latin account of the Coronation of King Edgar: "From the rising to the setting sun went forth the imperial edict," i.e., throughout the breadth of the Kingdom, or, in other words, universally throughout the whole Kingdom. The chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, wrote plainly enough: "Urbem totam funditus destruxerunt" - "They utterly destroyed the whole City."

Speaking of the early custodians of the Castle, Mr. Chick says "The custody of the place passed by marriage from Baldwin de Brionne to his grandson de Brewere. This grandson was he who defied Stephen in 1136 for three months." He was nothing of the sort; the defender of the Castle on behalf of Matilda was Baldwin de Redvers, an entirely different person.

Some years ago a discovery of several skeletons was made on pulling down the old lodge. In connection with one of these, Mr. Chick makes a remark which is characteristic of his method: - "It was that of a man who was very tall, and he had evidently died from a violent blow which had smashed in his skull from behind. Strange to say the remains could be identified." According to Mr. Chick they were those of Will Petre who was murdered by Edward Drewe in 1611, and whose burial place "was lost sight of until his bones were disturbed in this unpoetic way." The skull as a matter of fact, exhibited what is known in surgery as a "punctured and penetrating wound of the occipital bone." Will Petre was slain by a blow from a short sword, which would produce a linear fracture or cleft in the skull. Petre belonged to a well known county family, and his murder caused a profound sensation in the district. It is hardly conceivable that his grave should have been " lost sight of," nor is it likely that he would have been buried, evidently in haste, only six inches below the surface. The skeleton discovered had the molar teeth missing, and the front teeth much worn - it was evidently that of a man of at least middle age. Will Petre was quite a youth. The skeleton was that of a man of huge stature: there is no record of Will Petre having been of extraordinary size.

Mr. Chick includes in his bibliography two authorities which, as he says, are not to be found in the Exeter Reference Library - Jenkin's History of Exeter (1806) and articles by Karl Cherry that appeared in the Flying Post in 1909. The first is to be found in the local collection, and the second is contained in the file of the paper for that year, and in the collection of newspaper cuttings, both of which are in the Reference Library.

In conclusion I may add that I am far from disparaging the value of reasonable conjecture in historical work, for such adventures act at least as a stimulus to further research. Theory, must, however, explain all the facts, and must carefully differentiate the possible from the probable. Mr. Chick first assumes his premises, and then draws from them conclusions by which he strives to explain an altogether different set of facts. Assume nothing - that is an elementary principle of all historical reasoning. Another elementary principle is this: - When Latin records are to be translated they should be - translated. They must not be, to put it mildly, "adapted" to meet the requirements of a preconceived and supposititious antiquity.                     Veritas.