The parish is named after Saint Sativola, Exeter's patron saint, about whom there are various possible traditions. The most probable one is that she was a Roman or Romano-Briton who lived towards the end of the fifth century, sister of St Pol de Leon (492-573). Even though she has been traditionally associated with a holy well, this is not considered an explanation for the name. The position of the church can probably be explained by the Roman tradition of placing cemeteries outside the walls of their cities, with shrines and monuments erected at the side of major roads. In 1222 it was appointed to be one of the parish churches of Exeter, though without the walls. The church was rebuilt in Gothic style at the beginning of the 15th century and consecrated by Bishop Edmund de Lacy in 1437. It has had a colourful history over the centuries, bearing the brunt of every attack against Exeter since, being outside the walls, it stood unprotected. At the time of the Prayer Book Rebellion and great siege of Exeter in 1549 it was in the hands of the insurgents and became a prison. Amongst the inmates was the father of Sir Walter Raleigh, imprisoned in the tower "on account of his reformed opinions". During the Civil War it was again used as a prison and a store for explosives. In the nineteenth century the church attracted nationwide attention with the Surplice Riots of 1845: the use of the surplice instead of the preaching gown in the pulpit led to local protest and scandal! The parish registers are well-preserved in the Devon Record Office and date back to 1569. One of the more famous people to be christened in the church was Sabine Baring-Gould, clergyman, author and hymn-writer (including "Onward Christian Soldiers"), on 4 March 1834.
In "Devon and its People" Hoskins quotes the diary of Joseph Farington concerning the atmosphere at St Sidwell's church one Sunday morning in October 1810: The curate was nearly eighty years old, and read the service in so feeble a voice that he could hardly be heard. The organist had stayed away without giving any notice, and there was no singing... The congregation were as bad as the parson. Farington noticed many people sitting during the prayers "with as much cold indifference as their posture could indicate".
From White's 1850 directory:
"St. Sidwell's Church stands without the Walls, in the north-eastern part of the city, and from its populous parish the new district parish of St James, has been lately taken...(St James had been separated from St Sidwell's parish in 1838). The original church was a very ancient fabric, dedicated to St. Sativola, or Sidwell, a virgin, who is said to have been beheaded with a scythe, about the year 740, and to have been buried here. It was rebuilt in 1812 and '13, at the cost of more than 2200 pounds, except the tower, which was repaired and surmounted by a handsome octagonal spire, in 1823, at the cost of about 500 pounds. It is now a beautiful edifice in the pointed style, and in its lofty tower are eight musical bells, hung in 1768. The interior consists of a chancel, and a nave, with two side aisles, neatly pewed and having three large galleries. It will seat more than a thousand hearers, and the nave and aisles are separated by the clustered columns of the original church, supporting six arches, studded with rosettes. Each capital is divided into eight compartments, four containing angels supporting shields, and the other four small figures of St Sidwell. The east window is enriched with a beautiful representation of the Ascension, in painted glass. The pulpit is richly carved, and supported by flying arches rising from four buttresses. The font is octagonal, and large enough for immersion. The organ is a fine toned instrument, and in the church are several handsome monuments."
After being much damaged over the centuries, and rebuilt in various stages, Billing's Directory of 1857 goes so far as to say that "St Sidwell's church is a handsome pile of building possessing the finest specimen of architecture of all the city churches".
Information provided by James Brannan - last changed 4 Jan. 1997