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From the Archives: St Sidwell’s Day

Photo by William Finnigan

Sidwell is Exeter’s very own saint, venerated on 2nd August each year. She was an 8th century Christian martyr who, it is told, was beheaded by her father’s scythe-men at the insistence of her jealous stepmother. A holy well is reputed to have sprung up at the place where she died, in the area now known as St Sidwell’s.

Whether or not that story is true, the natural springs in the area, and the level ground suitable for road-building leading through it into Exeter, had made it a strategically important location since at least Roman times. St Sidwell’s also lies just to the east of Exeter – beyond the walls – which enabled it to develop a character distinct from the medieval city itself. For a time it had its own taxation system, as well as a guildhall, pound, fairs, and a number of shops and inns which catered to travellers passing along what was one of the main routes into the city. Largely rebuilt after the Second World War, Sidwell Street is still home to a number of independent shops and cafes, and in 2022 the new bus station and St Sidwell’s Point leisure centre opened.

Exeter Cathedral has a long association with St Sidwell’s, and the Cathedral Archives contains many documents recording the area’s history. St Sidwell’s had once been in the possession of Leofric (the first Bishop of Exeter, 1050-1072), and passed through several bishops. In the document shown here – dating from c.1225 – William Brewer, the Bishop of Exeter, grants St Sidwell’s (written in the Latin form ‘Sativole’) and several other churches and lands in Devon and Cornwall to the Dean & Chapter of the Cathedral, who remained lords of the manor there for many centuries.