History of the Church
Interior of the church today
The first Christians in the Sid Valley
As far as we know there was no permanent Roman settlement in the Sid Valley and there is only indirect evidence of Christian worship in Roman Exeter, so Christianity probably arrived in Sidmouth with the West Saxons in the early 7th century. Prior to the Norman Conquest, the only church in the valley was at Sidbury, where remains of the Saxon crypt can be seen. The lands of East Devon were in royal hands, and around the time of the Norman Conquest they were given to different religious institutions: Sidmouth was part of the manor of Otterton, which was given to the monks of Mont St Michel, probably by Gytha, mother of King Harold, while Salcombe Regis and Sidbury were gifted to the new Cathedral at Exeter, possibly by King Athelstan and later confirmed by King Knut. By 1100, the valley was divided between two very different ecclesiastical landlords.
The first Sidmouth Church
Sidmouth church may have looked something like Studland Church (pictured) when first built, but probably had a thatched roof.
By 1200, Sidmouth had become a village of some local importance, as big as Sidbury and more valuable to the abbot of Mont St Michel than Otterton. The first reference to a market is in 1200, but prior to this, in 1175, a deed preserved in the Otterton Cartulary refers to the grant of a virgate (30 acres) of land to Gulielmas the vicar, presumably to provide an income as glebe land. Excavations carried out during re-ordering of the church in 2009 uncovered the foundations of this Church – big boulders from the beach. It would have been small, about the size of the central part of the present nave, but apparently included a tower. Although no record of the original dedication has survived, it was almost certainly dedicated to St Giles, on whose feast the annual fair was held.
The break with Normandy
Through the 14th Century, the Hundred Years War with France made life very difficult for “alien” priories such as Otterton. With the loss of his Norman possessions, Henry V made the final break in 1415 when Otterton Priory was removed from Mont St Michel and given to his new monastery at Sion in Middlesex. The 14th Century was also a period of big change for Sidmouth, with great prosperity from the wine trade in the early part of the century, coming to an end with the Black Death and with the shift of trade to Dartmouth and Plymouth. The 2009 excavations showed that there were three phases of rebuilding of the Church during this period, culminating in an extensive rebuilding during the 15th Century, which included replacement of the original Norman tower with the present one, and building of a north aisle, the arcade of which also survives in the present Church. The only other remains from this Church are a fragment of medieval glass depicting the Five Wounds of Christ, now in the north chancel aisle, and the piscina now placed high on the south wall of the chancel. At this time the church had three bells, one of which remains in use as the sanctus bell. An inventory of “the Church of St Giles at Sidmouth” in 1433 records an altar to St Nicholas, which may explain how the Church subsequently came to be associated with that saint.
The five wounds window from the Medieval East Window, now in the Lady Chapel
In 1540, Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries, including that at Sion. The manors of Otterton and Sidmouth were sold, passing through several hands over the next hundred years. Church and Manor were closely connected and in the early 1600s, came into the hands of the Mainwarings, a wealthy family from Cheshire. Randolph Mainwaring was followed as vicar of Sidmouth by his cousin John Minshull, whose monument is one of two from the 17th century that can be found in the south transept. When he died he left much of his fortune to the poor of Sidmouth, founding a charity which still exists.
The discovery of Sidmouth
In the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, Sidmouth began to be visited by gentry: invalids looking for cures, exiles from the American colonies during the war of independence, and those for whom the continent was closed during the Napoleonic Wars. A trigger for development of the town was the purchase of the Manor by Thomas Jenkins in 1787. His brother, William became vicar, followed by his son, another William, who died in 1856. As the town grew, the Church responded by reseating and adding galleries in 1786, 1789, 1797 and 1812, then a new south aisle in 1822. In 1836 a chapel of ease was created at All Saints: this eventually became a separate parish in 1997 when the parishes of the Sid Valley joined together to form a team ministry.
A Sketch of the medieval church by Peter Orlando Hutchinson prior to the 1860 rebuilding.
By the 1850s, the Church was once again too small so a committee was formed to extend it. Work on the new chancel started in 1859 and rebuilding of the nave was completed in just over four months in 1860 - a remarkable achievement. Short as it was, this gave timefor crystallisation of differences of opinion over how much of the old Church should be kept. In the event, the rebuilding was almost total, with just the tower and the two rows of pillars surviving from the old Church. The chancel of the old Church was salvaged by Peter Orlando Hutchinson, Sidmouth’s great Victorian historian, and rebuilt as The Old Chancel, which can be seen across the bowling greens. The glass was all new and included an east window given by the Earl of Buckinghamshire and a west window given by Queen Victoria in memory of her father who died on a visit to Sidmouth in 1820 when Victoria was just a few months old.
The Church was lit by gas in 1875 and a new organ installed in 1881: this continues to form the core of our current instrument. The town and church were severely affected by the first World War.
Electric light was installed in 1924. As Sidmouth grew towards the north, a congregation was established in Woolbrook, initially at the “tin tabernacle” and then in the new Church of St Francis, completed in 1936, which became a separate parish in 1978. The rood which hangs over the entrance to the chancel was installed in 1946 and an audio system was installed in 1961. The organ has been rebuilt and added to several times in its life and is now one of the finest Church instruments in the southwest. In the late 1960s, the peal of bells, which had increased to eight over the years, was recast and rehung. In 1990, following a bequest by Lady Olive Fleming, two treble bells were added to make a ten bell peal: one of the finest in the southwest. A major reordering was undertaken in 2009 to provide a nave altar, pave the floor, and replace the old pews with moveable benches, enabling flexible use of the nave for recitals, concerts, lectures and fairs. An unexpected bonus of the new floor was a greatly improved acoustic. In 2015 a new toilet suite was built in the north-west corner.
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