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The First Lady of Oxford

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, February 5, 2020


Illustration of the First Lady of Oxford by Jim GodfreyThe earliest known human remains in Oxford are those of a Saxon woman which were discovered in the Cathedral Garth (graveyard) in the summer of 1998


Oxford's beginnings

Oxford was first settled by the Saxons, as its original name ‘Oxenaforda’ suggests. The first documentary evidence for the town comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of AD 911, where it appears as one of 33 ‘burhs’ or settlements fortified against the Vikings, established by Alfred the Great and his son Edward the Elder. Indeed, Oxford’s early shape and street-plan is very similar to other late-Saxon ‘planned’ towns created in the 10th century.

However, there is now growing evidence of an earlier settlement at Oxford, dating from sometime between the 7th and 9th centuries. Archaeological proof for such mid-Saxon activity is almost exclusively restricted to the southern edge of a gravel spur that runs down through the centre of the city from Summertown, ending just above Christ Church Meadow. The spur, which lies between two adjoining rivers (the Thames and the Cherwell) provides ideal conditions for an Upper Thames Valley Saxon settlement, allowing arable farming on the gravel terrace, and pasture on the flood plain. The site is also conveniently above flood level, and well defended on the east, south and west by the two rivers and their frequently water-logged meadows.


The early women of Oxford

The earliest tradition of an important settlement at Oxford is contained in the legend of St Frideswide, a Saxon princess said to have founded a monastery at the beginning of the 8th century. Frideswide is mentioned in a charter of Ethelred II in 1004 which refers to the ‘monasterium’ in which she was buried. An early 11th century Anglo-Saxon list of saints also states that her body lay at Oxford. The late 7th to early 8th centuries were a great period of monasticism, when many nunneries in England were founded for noble ladies.

Although no structural evidence has ever been found for Frideswide’s monastery, the current consensus of opinion is that it is likely to have been located in the same place as the later Augustinian priory (now the Cathedral), i.e. on the southern edge of the gravel spur, overlooking the floodplain, on what would then have been a fairly steep drop to the Thames channels below.


Archaeological evidence

The most compelling archaeological evidence for such early activity comes from graves found in the vicinity of the Cathedral, which suggest the presence of a large cemetery from the 10th century, but also probably earlier. Burials have been excavated in four locations at Christ Church since the 1960s. Graves found by David Sturdy in 1963 beneath the Latin Chapel probably date from the 12th century, but two burials recorded by Tom Hassall in Tom Quad in 1972 suggest a possible mid-Saxon date of between AD 680 and 1160. A third excavation, which took place in the cloister in 1985, gave radiocarbon results dating broadly from the late 8th to 10th century.

A fourth excavation at Christ Church was carried out on the south-eastern side of the Cathedral, just outside the Lucy Chapel, in the Cathedral Garth. It took place in 1998 under the direction of Angela Boyle for the Oxford Archaeological Unit. Thirty-seven skeletons were discovered, of likely late-Saxon date, mostly men but including at least three women.

A series of bone samples was taken from three of the burials and submitted to the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory in New Zealand for high precision radiocarbon dating. The results were consistent with those of the cloister burials, having a broad range of dates between the 8th and 10th centuries. One burial, however, gave a very surprising result, with a date range of AD 620-690. This is the earliest radiocarbon determination yet obtained for Saxon Oxford, and the first to give an unequivocal 7th century date.

The skeleton was in a fair condition (though the skull was missing), and is of a woman around the age of 40. It is estimated that she would have been around 5 feet tall, and her body was positioned on an east–west axis, indicating that she was a Christian. The discovery of this body (which, after the dig, was re-buried in the Cathedral Garth) strongly suggests that Oxford’s earliest history is to be found on the site of the Cathedral, in a location overlooking the original oxen ford. Moreover, it provides the strongest evidence yet discovered that the legends attached to Frideswide may well be rooted in historical fact.