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St Frideswide

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, August 1, 2018


Pen Portrait of St Frideswide by Jim GodfreySt Frideswide is the patron saint of the city, the university and the diocese of Oxford. An Anglo-Saxon, she is credited with founding the first church in the city on whose site the Cathedral now stands


The Early Legend

Virtually nothing can be said with much certainty about Frideswide, except that her name, which means Peace (frithes) Strong (withe), is a genuine mid-Saxon name and might possibly imply that she was related to Frithugyth who married King Aethelheard of Wessex in the 730s. Frideswide herself is said to have been born in 680 and to have died on 19 October 727, though the earliest written accounts of her life date only from the twelfth century, the first being that of William of Malmesbury in c.1125. A summary of his account reads:

“In old times there was in the city of Oxford a monastery of nuns, where rests the most holy virgin Frideswide. A king’s daughter, she spurned a king’s bed, avowing her chastity to the Lord Christ. But the king had set his heart upon marrying the virgin, and when prayers and flatteries had been spent in vain he prepared to take her by force. Frideswide learnt of this, and fled to a wood. No refuge could be secret from the lover, no coldness of heart could deter him: he followed the fugitive.

So once again, when the young man’s frenzy became plain, with God’s help she entered Oxford at dead of night by means of hidden ways. By morning the persistent lover had hastened there too, and the girl, now despairing of flight and too weary to go any further, prayed to God for protection for herself and punishment for her persecutor. As he passed through the town gates with his men, a heaven-sent blow struck him blind. Understanding the wrongfulness of his persistence, he placated Frideswide by means of messengers and recovered his sight as quickly as he had lost it”.

Two later versions of her legend were written at the end of the twelfth century, adding more detail. Her parents are named as King Didan and Queen Sefrida, and her suitor as King Algar of Leicester. She is accompanied on her escape by two companions, and goes first to Bampton before hiding in a swineherd’s hut in a wood called Binsey. Here Frideswide’s prayers bring forth a spring of healing water, known locally as the Treacle Well, from the Middle English word ‘triacle’ meaning a healing balm. Interestingly, the Treacle Well features in Alice in Wonderland where the Dormouse speaks to Alice about it during the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.


Frideswide the Saint

As well as Bampton and Binsey, Benson and Abingdon also claim links with Frideswide, and Frilsham in Berkshire has a twelfth century church dedicated to her, and a holy well in nearby woods. Reading Abbey held some of her relics and, perhaps most surprisingly, Bomy in northern France has a shrine, hermitage and holy spring dedicated to her (she is known there as Frewisse).

After her death, Frideswide’s body was buried in the floor of her Saxon church where it lay until 1180. It was then exhumed and placed, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, on a shrine inside the newly built St Frideswide’s Priory (now the Cathedral). This shrine was subsequently replaced by the present one in 1289 which, although of only local importance, did witness a visit by Henry VIII’s Queen, Catherine of Aragon. She came in 1518, accompanied by Cardinal Wolsey, to pray for the birth of a healthy son. It was the failure of her prayers to be answered that led, ultimately, to the English Reformation.

In 1538 the shrine was destroyed, along with all the other shrines in the country, on the grounds that they were superstitious (i.e. Catholic) monuments. Her relics then disappeared for many years, only reappearing in 1561 during the burial of a Protestant woman, Catherine Martyr (wife of Peter Martyr, a Canon of the Cathedral). At the service Frideswide’s relics and Catherine’s body were placed together in the floor of the Cathedral. The site of this double-grave was, however, left unmarked.


At Christ Church the earliest images of Frideswide are the carvings on her late thirteenth century shrine, and the mid-fourteenth century stained glass in the Latin Chapel. She also appears in the centre boss of the Chancel Vault and as the central figure in the upper half of the Diocesan Arms. Burne-Jones’s wonderful St Frideswide window of 1859 and Peter Eugene Ball’s modern statue in the Latin Chapel are more recent images of her.