Rediscovered/Restored: Exeter’s St Sidwell’s Well
“So the Divine Pity, which hath distributed gifts of diverse kinds, not delaying to make clear the purity of virginal innocence and the merits of the virgin martyr, made to spring forth, where her blood fell drop by drop, a most sparkling spring. Where it flowed the butchers, alarmed when they could not hide what they had perpetrated by covering the fount with grass, tried to cover up the body.”
So speaks John de Grandison’s 1330 Legend of St Sidwell. Like many similar stories the titular saint was asked to do something by her stepmother only to find those butchers, some mowers lying in wait with scythes. A rather unpleasant death! Like similar deaths her martyrdom was revealed by a column of light. She is then said to have risen from her grave taking her head with her and walked to where a church was built in her honour where a shrine did exist by 1373 according to Roscarrock. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with similar legends associated with wells at St Walstan’s Norfolk and St Elthelbert’s Herefordshire.
The first official mention of the well comes from a grant by the then Dean of Exeter to St. Nicholas Priory in 1226 which records
“a third share in the waters of St Sidwell’s Well”.
Now whether this referred to a share in regards to water supply or money is not clear but similar endowments indicate it was the former. Certainly by 1267 repairs were needed as John de Douglys left money for:
“the repair and maintenance of St Sidwell’s Well, one acre, called Bromeacre, and half an acre called Stokisland, which latter was about forty-five feet from the well towards the north”.
Then at some point between 1150 and 1180 Exeter developed a conduit system. It drew water from a site called Headwell which appears to have been in the same location as St Sidwell that they may have been one and the same. The water being used to provide the Cathedral. However, the Cartulary of St John’s Hospital in 1498 records that:
“in Saynte Sydwylle is Paroche, ther as she was byhedded, ys a well, and the close that lyeth nexte aboff directely is called and named Hedwyllmede. The Prior of St John’s and his Brothers haff moste grounde yn that Hylde or close, and they be bound to repayre the wylle”.
Lega-Weekes (1924–5) recorded that the site was:
“the well that once existed near the foot of Devonshire Place… Mr William French, dairyman (aged about 65)… remembered, as a boy, not only seeing the old well shaft, but dipping water out of it, though it was then choked and muddy. It was very deep, and when fullest the water reached to within six or seven feet of the ground level”.
Roque’s 1774 map of Exeter indicates a Sidwell’s Well near St Sidwell’s Church of Lega-Weekes (1924–5a) in their piece ‘St Sidwell: I’ in Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries states that it
“ stood in Well Street, near the corner of York Road, in what is now a garden between nos. 2 and 5… opposite the Schoolhouse. From old inhabitant I learn that it was commonly known as St Sidwell’s well, and was sometimes also called “the Beehive Well”, from the form of the little circular hut of red Heavitree stone about 8 ft high by about 12 ft (?circumference) which sheltered the shaft that went down to a depth of 75 ft. There was a “sort of window” in the front, at which people filled their jugs”.
When the site disappeared is unclear but by the Lega-Weekes time it had clearly gone and largely forgotten!
Then in the development of 3 Well Street a remarkable discovery was made. The company working on the flat development stated on their website:
“The remains of the ancient holy well of St Sidwell have now been uncovered and our client is considering utilising the ground floor of the development as a tea room to allow public access for viewing of the well, fully supported by Exeter City Council. The holy well is said to mark where the ‘virtuous maiden’ St Sidwell, an Anglo-Saxon saint who gave her name to this part of the city, was cut down by haymakers’ scythes. Legend says a spring burst forth where she fell, and it then became a place of pilgrimage throughout the medieval period. Since at least 1226 the well supplied the cathedral clergy with fresh water, and was linked to the Cathedral by a piped water supply that later became part of the medieval underground passages that can be visited today. In 1347 however it was disconnected, and replaced by another well (Headwell) further along Well Street near St James Park. It probably still continued to be used as a local supply and place of pilgrimage.”
“This is an especially exciting find, as discovering the actual remains of a holy well is not common and we highly recommend a visit to the café when open. The high quality of the workmanship suggests that the medieval cathedral masons were involved in building it, and it also reflects the importance of the site as a place of pilgrimage. St Sidwell’s Well is clearly shown on this site on historic maps, and as a result the city council made it a condition of the redevelopment that any remains of it should be recorded and preserved within the new building.”
So St Sidwell’s Well returns!
Posted on March 19, 2018, in Devon, Folklore, Restoration, Saints and tagged antiquarian, archeology, Christian, Holy well blog, holy wells, Holy wells blog, Holy wells healing springs Spas folklore local history antiquarian, Holywell blog, Local history, Saints. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.