Sidwella

Saxon Christian girl beheaded by a scythesman and buried at St Sidwells

The legend goes that Sidwella was a Saxon Christian girl living in Exeter in the 8th century. Her father was a nobleman named Benna who was very rich and had one son and four daughters. The family lived in the walled city of Exeter and Sidwella regularly left the city to bring food to the villagers working the fields at St Sidwells (then farmland). She was reputedly beautiful and virtuous.  Her stepmother was jealous of her and wanted her killed, and paid a reaper to do the deed. When she came out to the fields one morning he cut off her head with his scythe. On the spot where she was martyred a spring of water miraculously appeared (near the corner of Well Street and York Road – a well is still visible in a shop there today) and her ghost was reputedly seen carrying her severed head and putting it back on her shoulders on the spot where she was later buried (here at St Sidwells). The townspeople buried Sidwella here at St Sidwells and vowed to keep her memory alive through a celebration once a year on St Sidwella Day (her saint’s day is either 31st July, August 1st or 2nd and has been mostly forgotten here in Exeter along with the legend).

Sidwella is regarded as Exeter’s only saint. The well of St Sidwell, revered for the miracle, and her shrine and church here at St Sidwells, were places of pilgrimage in Anglo-Saxon and Norman England. Some sources report her death as 740AD.

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 re-attached 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.

The Anglo-Saxon legend goes that 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. Her inheritance may have had something to do with it also! The evil step mother 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. Miraculously, 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 re-attached to her body: at that place a church was built, and named St Sidwell’s. Sidwell Street is named after her and it’s the only Sidwell Street in the world.