Celts to the Creche: St. Frideswide of Oxford

Icon of St. Frideswide

Icon of St. Frideswide, unknown writer

Celts to the Creche: Day 27

St. Frideswide, Abbess of Oxford

c665-October 19, 727 or 735

On this 27th day of our Advent pilgrimage with the Celts to the Creche we journey with Frideswide whose name in Anglo-Saxon means “strong peace.” She is the patron saint of Oxford University and of the town of Oxford in England.

Frideswide was born about 665 to Didan (Dydda) possibly the King of North and West Berkshire, and his wife Safride. She lived near the Thames-Cherwell confluence overlooking the “ox-ford” which carried long distance travel from central Mercia to Southampton, hence the name Oxford. Frideswide built a monastery/convent upon that land that later became Oxford University.

Stained Glass of the Abbess Frideswide with her staff and the Bible in Church of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford (with Christ Church cathedral behind her)

Stained Glass of the Abbess Frideswide with her staff and the Bible in Church of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford
(with Christ Church cathedral behind her)

Early Life: As a child, Frideswide’s parents committed her to the care of a holy woman named, Ælfgith, but, after her mother’s death, Frideswide returned to live with her father. According to legend, she grew up with great piety  wearing a scratchy hair shirt and only eating barley bread, a few vegetables, and water. It is said that she would always lay prostrate when she prayed on the bare ground and that her father was grateful that she was filled with the Holy Spirit.

Life: Frideswide persuaded her father to build her a church at the gates of Oxford where she took the veil by the consecration of Bishop Orgar of Lincoln along with twelve young women of nobility. Her father gave a third of the town of Oxford along with several villages and estates to the community of nuns to provide food for them. He also assigned religious men to look after the nuns’ needs. This convent was where Christ Church now stands. Oxford was founded largely around her abbey and church.

There seems to be an almost formulaic story in the lives of Celtic/Anglo-Saxon nuns and abbesses, in which the female saint  has to fend off the advances of  an aristocrat who tries to harm them when they don’t fall for their unmerciful advances. We see this same story- line in the life of Frideswide who was saved from the pursuit of a Mercian aristocrat, Ælfgar, Earl of Leicester, by fleeing Oxford. A mysterious white-robed stranger, who was said to be a disguised angel, led Frideswide to a place of refuge perhaps near Frilsham (some say Binsey, others say Bampton), where a holy well appeared near a pigsty she converted into a chapel.

St. Frideswide's Church, Frilsham likely built over the pigsty/chapel where she hid

St. Frideswide’s Church, Frilsham likely built over the pigsty/chapel where she hid from Aelfgar for 3 years

When Frideswide returned to Oxford after three years, Ælfgar who was not one to have his  advances thrawted  continued his pursuit of her and beseiged the city. Yet, just at the point of victory he was struck blind. Not long after that, Frideswide felt compassion for him and while in Binsey she prayed to St. Margaret of Antioch and St. Catherine of Alexandria (some say St. Catherine and St. Cecilia), who instructed her to tap the ground with her Abbess’s staff and a well sprang forth.  Ælfgar repented of his pursuing Frideswide and was cured of his blindness  with water from the well. Frideswide then gathered around her both nuns and monks that developed into a double monastery where she became the Abbess.

St. Frideswide's Well at St. Margaret's Church, Binsey

St. Frideswide’s Well (Treacle Well) at St. Margaret of Antioch Church, Binsey

There is a story that one day as Frideswide was on the way back to her monastery at Oxford, she met a leper and she shrank back at horror. The leper asked her to kiss him in the name of Jesus the Christ.  Trying to overcome her fear, she kissed him on the lips and the leprosy immediately left him.

We know of Frideswide mainly from three sources. John Blair who is an expert on Frideswide believes those three sources  are from: the English historian William of Malmsbury; Robert of Cricklade, the Prior of St. Frideswide’s Priory; and another unknown biographer.  It is likely that all those 12c. biographers drew on an earlier 8th century Life of St. Frideswide that has been lost over the centuries.

Place of Resurrection: Frideswide was well known in her lifetime for effecting miraculous cures. A holy well at Binsey  where she later retired as a hermitess became known as a place of healing. She even predicted her own death on October 19 and so she had her grave dug on a Saturday so that no one had to work on Sunday.

Just as she predicted, she passed away at Binsey on October 19, 727 or 735. It is said that at her death, she asked for her last Communion and then St. Catherine and St. Cecilia whom she had a special reverence for appeared to her. Some who were with her at her death, heard Frideswide say, ” I come my Ladies I come.”  Then the whole house was filled with heavenly light and a sweet odor filled not only the house, but also the whole town..On the way to her grave a paralyzed man with crutches called out for her help and he was healed. Frideswide was buried in her monastery at Oxford or at St. Mary’s Church on the south side of the Thames River.

St. Margaret of Antioch Church, Binsey. 12th century church likely built over place where Frideswide died

St. Margaret of Antioch Church, Binsey. 12th century church likely built over place where Frideswide died

Frideswide’s Legacy Continues: In 1002 a fire destroyed most of the records of her monastery. In 1122, an Augustinian priory  was refounded on the lands of St. Frideswide’s monastery that followed the Rule of St. Augustine.  The monks excavated her grave and and rediscovered her  relics which in turn revived her cult. In a great public ceremony in 1180 the Archibishop of Canterbury translated her relics to a rebuilt shrine in the church. Many miracles followed and  pilgrims flocked to her shrine until the 16th century’s English Reformation. Even Catherine of Aragon, one of Henry VIII’s numerous wives visited Frideswide shrine in 1518.

Frideswide's Shrine at Christ Church Cathedral. photo from Ashmolean.org

Frideswide’s rebuilt Shrine at Christ Church Cathedral. photo from Ashmolean.org

Christ Church College, Oxford was originally founded by Cardinal Wolsey as Cardinal’s College when he took over the site of St. Frideswide’s Monastery in 1524. When Wolsey fell from power in 1532, the College became the property of King Henry VIII. In 1538, the reformers destroyed her shrine and desecrated her relics by mixing them with those of others that are still buried together in Christ Church Cathedral. Henry re-founded the College in 1546 and appointed the old monastery church as the cathedral of the new diocese of Oxford.

Frideswide’s shrine was partly reconstructed in the 19th century.  On the floor of Christ Church there is a black marble slab placed in the vicinity of Frideswide’s tomb imprinted with a single word, “Frideswide.” In the Latin Chapel of Christ Church, the major events in Frideswide’s  life are portrayed in stained glass windows designed  by E. Burne Jones in the 1850’s. They portray her as a healer, teacher, mystic, benefactor of the poor, and as the leader of a monastic family and community.

Each year on October 19 there is a procession and liturgical celebration in Christ Church Cathedral. In 1972 and 1985 there were excavations in the Tom Quad and the cloisters of Christ Church revealing an 8th and 9th century cemetery.

Christ Church, Oxford. Likely built upon Frideswide's Priory that was built upon her original Anglo-Sa xon monastery

Christ Church, Oxford. Likely built upon Frideswide’s Priory that was built upon her original Anglo-Saxon double monastery.photo from Ashmolean.org

St. Frideswide Pilgrimage: There is a St. Frideswide pilgrimage to Binsey that begins  at her shrine in Christ Church Cathedral and  continues by walking out of Tom Quad, up St. Aldates to Queen’s Street, and along Queen’s Street and Park End Street. Go past the station and down Botley Road until you come to Binsey Lane on the right. Then go down Binsey Lane and continue past the village until you come to St. Margaret of Antioch Church.

Meditation

Feast Day October 19

St. Frideswide praying at the pigsty turned into a chapel. Stained glass at Christ Church, Oxford

St. Frideswide praying at the pigsty turned into a chapel. Stained glass at Christ Church, Oxford

It is captivating to consider how the Spirit of our living and loving God can turn the pigsty’s in our life into chapels with wells of living water as was done for St. Frideswide.  It reminds us of how a dirty, smelly, noisy  stable in Bethlehem became a creche for the birth of the King of the world. The Spirit is in the business of transforming the ugly, stinky, dirty places of our life into sweet soul sanctuaries for Christ to be born anew in our lives. Oh Spirit, come and remold and remake my life into a sanctuary for Christ to live and work.

This hymn to St. Frideswide is sung to Handel’s March from Judas MaccabeusHail the Conquering Hero Comes.

Frideswide our patron, clear our clouded sight;
Help dissolve our darkness, bring us God’s own light.
Child of royal parents, courted by a king,
Sought a crown of glory, spurned a wedding ring.

Frideswide our patron, clear our clouded sight;
Help dissolve our darkness, bring us God’s own light.

Powerful and peaceful, vowed to God alone,
Frideswide chose a heavenly, not an earthly throne.
Prayer and meditation raised her soul above
All this world’s attraction; Jesus held herlove.

Frideswide our patron, clear our clouded sight;
Help dissolve our darkness, bring us God’s own light.

Algar of Leicester planned to do her wrong,
Sent his men to seize her, Frideswide’s faith was strong –
In an instant blinded then his sight restored,
They knew both the wrath and mercy of the Lord.

Frideswide our patron, clear our clouded sight;
Help dissolve our darkness, bring us God’s own light.

Wonders of healing Frideswide’s prayers obtained –
Crooked limbs were straightened, speech the dumb regained.
Through her intercession may the grace be ours
For God’s use to offer all our gifts and powers

Frideswide our patron, clear our clouded sight;
Help dissolve our darkness, bring us God’s own light.

Light filled the city as she passed away
Journeyed through death’s shadow into endless day,
There we hope to join her, by the truth set free,
Where we have our treasure, there our hearts shall be.

Frideswide our patron, clear our clouded sight;
Help dissolve our darkness, bring us God’s own light.

—————————————-

Some Resources:

Christ Church, Oxford.

Curran, Jane. St. Frideswide: Oxford’s Patron Saint. BBC. December 9, 2009.

Davies, Mark. The Women of Oxford’s Waterways. BBC. June 3, 2010.

Eckenstein, Lina. Women Under Monasticism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Frideswide” in Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 20.

Horstmann, C. The Lives of Women Saints of Our Country of England. London: Early English Text Society, N. Trübner  & Co.1886. reprint by Kessinger Publishing Legacy Reprints.

“The Legend of Frideswide of Oxford, an Anglo-Saxon Royal Abbess” in Reames,  Sherry L. ed. Middle English  Legends of Women Saints. Kalamazoo, MI: Western Michigan University, 2003.

“St. Frideswide” at David Nash Ford’s Royal Berkshire History. 

St. Margaret of Antioch Church, Binsey, Oxfordshire, England.

Parbury, Kathleen. Women of Grace. Boston: Oriel Press, 1985.

Rader, Rosemary. “St. Frideswide: Monastic Founder of Oxford” in Medieval Women Monastics: Wisdom’s Wellsprings by Miriam Schmitt and Linda Kulzer, eds. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996.

Yorke, Barbara. Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses. London: Continuum, 2003.

About pastorpilgrim

Pastor Pilgrim is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) clergy. I am married with two grown sons, a Hurricane Rita gift cat, and two Maine Coons. My interests include illuminated manuscripts, pilgrimage, Franciscan and Celtic spirituality, Shakers, Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian abbesses and their double monasteries, comfy cute shoes, Native American spirituality, and genealogy. I am a "Dancing Monk" with the online Abbey of the Arts (known as the Disorder of Dancing Monks!). Join me as we travel with the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon saints in an Advent devotional entitled, "Celts to the Creche" at www.saintsbridge.org. I also write of some of my pilgrimages, musings, and another Advent devotional, "Pilgrimage to Bethlehem" at www.pastorpilgrim.wordpress.com
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