Arrival of the Anglo-Saxons
After the Romans left, the city declined in importance and lay dormant for 300 years. Dumnonian Britons lived inside the city walls and farmed the surrounding land, especially the St Sidwell’s area where there was a scattering of dwellings.
The Anglo-Saxons arrived towards the end of the 7th Century. They built the first St Sidwell’s church in the 8th Century and it became a pilgrimage site for St Sidwella throughout Anglo-Saxon and medieval times.
A medieval catalogue of relics in the Cathedral archives records that King Æthelstan , who ruled the English 924–39, visited the city and gave religious relics to the local minister, which later became the Cathedral. These included relics of St Sidwella, perhaps from the local shrine.
The Minster itself was founded in what is now Exeter’s Cathedral Close and the Devon saint St Boniface, later patron saint of Germany, was educated there c. AD 680. A statue of St. Boniface, dating from 1888 can be seen here at St Sidwell’s.
The legend of St Sidwella
Saint Sidwella is the patron saint of Exeter. Much of her story revolves around the village and fields outside of the Roman city walls that became known as St Sidwell’s and she is said to be buried here.
Sidwella’s rich land-owning father Benna died leaving his daughter in the care of a cruel stepmother, who was jealous of her beauty and virtue and her inheritance.
The stepmother plotted Sidwella’s death and paid two corn reapers to creep up on her as she knelt in prayer in a field and cut off her head with a scythe. The legend tells that a spring of pure water appeared from the ground where her head came to rest. For the next three nights, the spot was illuminated by a heavenly shaft of light. On the fourth night, she was seen walking in the fields with her head miraculously reattached to her body.
St Sidwell’s Well is situated near the corner of York Road and Well Street inside the building at Number 3, Well Street.
Attack by Viking Danes
The city – and the St Sidwell’s area, close to the city walls – started to thrive again in the late Anglo-Saxon period. But these were tumultuous times with the threat of invasion and rebellion never far away.
In AD 876 the city was attacked and captured by Viking Danes. King Alfred the Great drove them out the following year. In 894 the city held off another siege by the Danes. During the reign of Æthelred ‘the Unready’ (978–1016) attacks started again: a first one was repulsed in 1001, but in 1003 the city fell. Luckily the Vikings were only looking for plunder, however, and soon departed.