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The Shrine of St Frideswide

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Friday, October 5, 2018

Behind the scenes header image


Shrine of ST Frideswide'Frideswide' is the name of a Saxon princess and healer who became the Patron Saint of Oxford. Her name is still familiar in modern-day Oxford: home of the recently transformed Frideswide Square, St Frideswide's Church on the Botley Road, and the girls' choir Frideswide Voices. Her name means ‘Peace’ (frithes) ‘Strong’ (withe) and the legend associated with Frideswide certainly lives up to her name.

The story tells of Frideswide as a young woman, having become a nun and vowed chastity to Christ, being propositioned by King Algar of Leicester. The King was determined to marry her despite her refusals and she fled the city to avoid him. After a lengthy chase and Frideswide’s increasingly desperate attempts to stay hidden from Algar, Frideswide prayed to God for protection and God struck the King blind. Finally understanding the wrongness of what he had done, the King asked Frideswide for forgiveness and she granted it, after which his sight was restored. Frideswide went on to have a reputation as a healer and a beloved figure of great piety and prayerfulness.

In the Cathedral, various representations of Frideswide can be found and details of these, as well as a fuller account of the historical development of Frideswide’s legend, can be found in the Pen Portrait of St Frideswide.

Following the completion of St Frideswide’s Priory (now the Cathedral) the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1180 transferred her remains into a shrine. These were later placed in the present shrine in 1289. Though destroyed in 1538 at the English Reformation, fragments of the shrine base were recovered in the 19th century and include beautiful stone carvings.

The Shrine of St Frideswide is the oldest monument in the Cathedral, though what we refer to as ‘the Shrine’ is in reality only the platform on which the actual Shrine rested. The remaining fragments of this platform are covered in naturalistic foliage carvings: a very unusual decoration for the medieval period. Representations of the natural (read: sinful) world were generally rejected in favour of symbolic representations of the faith. The foliage decorating the Shrine platform likely includes an element of this: for instance the presence of a vine symbolising the Eucharist, or Columbine as a symbol of the Holy Spirit (because the back of the leaf resembles a cluster of doves).

Detail from Shrine of St FrideswideThere are also faces amidst the foliage believed to depict Frideswide and the two companions who fled into hiding with her in one early account of her life. Three faces appear on the South side, of which the central face is believed to be Frideswide’s and the others the nuns who accompanied her. A fourth face existed on the North side but was badly damaged, presumably when the shrine was destroyed in 1538. Perhaps this face was another carving of Frideswide, or perhaps some other character in the story- it is too mutilated to identify.

It is interesting that the Shrine would depict this moment from the story of Frideswide’s life: a moment of such fear and trial. Jackie Holderness, Education Officer, reflected on this depiction and the wider lessons from Frideswide’s life and legend. She writes: “Frideswide’s story reminds me of the mysterious way in which God brings about his kingdom on earth. It offers us a parable of trust and triumph over adversity, inspired by trust in God’s will and dedication to His purpose. Frideswide hid in a tree to escape from King Algar and a worldly life. Surrounded by leaves, her face reflects her fear, her need for patience and her hope. The face and foliage show fine medieval craftsmanship but this is a part of the Cathedral that was nearly lost forever, because the shrine was damaged by iconoclasts, and its broken pieces thrown down a well.


With thanks to Jim Godfrey for the use of his research and Reference File.