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Page last updated at 13:26 GMT, Thursday, 3 June 2010 14:26 UK
The women of Oxford’s waterways
By Mark Davies
BBC Oxford contributor

An image from H. R. Robertson's 1875 book Life on the upper Thames
Women feature evocatively in tales of the River Thames in Oxford

In the early history of the River Thames in Oxford, it is women who tend to feature most evocatively.

The waterway itself - as a trade route, a source of food, and a defensive barrier - may been the almost exclusive domain of men.

However, of the notable ancient landmarks on the river upstream of Oxford - Osney Abbey, St Margaret's Well at Binsey, and Godstow Nunnery - it is women who have left the more permanent reminders.

The earliest of these remarkable women is St Frideswide, who was born in about 675. There are several versions of her life, and of the incidents which led to her sainthood, all of which must be treated with some caution, as even the earliest was composed more than four centuries after her death in about 735.

However, the consistent themes are that Frideswide was the daughter of an Oxford nobleman, and that when King Algar of Mercia sought her hand in marriage she fled by boat up the Thames.

At Binsey she established a religious retreat and gained a reputation for miraculous cures, including the restoration of Algar's sight after he had been struck blind by lightning.

As a consequence, the water of the well at Binsey, which Frideswide dedicated to St Margaret, gained a reputation for healing properties, and attracted medieval pilgrims and penitents in great numbers.

More than a thousand years after Frideswide's death another Oxford female unwittingly rekindled the memory of her once-famous well. This was Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, and the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

The book contains many veiled references to real Oxford people, places, and incidents, and when the Dormouse refers to a 'treacle well' at the 'Mad Tea-Party', it is the Binsey Well he has in mind.

The notion of a treacle well seems at first nonsensical, yet is based on an early meaning of the word as a healing liquid or medicine. So there was indeed a treacle well at Binsey, and the fictional Alice - who at first declared: 'There is no such thing!' - was wise eventually to admit that 'I dare say there may be one'.

A little farther upstream from Binsey lie the ruins of Godstow Nunnery. This was founded in about 1138 by Editha of Winchester, who was directed to Godstow - 'God's place' - by a vision. But the Nunnery is most associated with one of its novices, Rosamund Clifford, who became the youthful mistress of Henry II.

There are many variants on the tale of their love affair, most famous for the impenetrable sanctuary Henry is supposed to have constructed in the grounds of his palace at Woodstock - 'an house of wonderful working, so that no man or woman might come to her, but he that was instructed of the king', according to one account.

After Rosamund's death - some say she was murdered by Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine - in about 1176, her fame and popularity grew.

She was interred in Godstow Nunnery until 1191, when the corpse was removed on the order of the Bishop of Lincoln who said, according to the contemporary historian Roger of Hoveden, "Take this harlot from hence, and bury her without the church, lest through her the Christian religion should be scandalised, and that other women, warned by her example, may refrain from unlawful and adulterous love."

By no means everyone agreed. Some accounts say that her remains were immediately re-interred, in defiance of the Bishop, and there is no doubt that she became a popular, romantic figure, affectionately known as 'Rosamund the Fair'.

The sixteenth-century historian, Raphael Holinshead, claimed that she was known by all for her "beauty, properness of person, and pleasing wit, with other amiable qualities, being verily a rare and peerless piece in those days".

Not everyone was so reverential, though. When William Combe visited Godstow Nunnery in about 1794, on a journey from the source of the Thames to its mouth, he noted a Latin inscription on one of the walls, which translates as:

Here Rose the graced, not Rose the chaste, reposes;

The smell that rises is no smell of roses.

A decade or so before Editha of Winchester had her vision at Godstow, another woman called Edith had been instrumental in the creation of a still more important and imposing religious structure, namely Osney Abbey.

The remains of Osney Abbey, which was built on account of Edith d'Oilly's curiosity about magpies, in about 1640
Osney Abbey was built because of Edith d'Oilly's curiosity of magpies

This Edith was the wife of Robert d'Oilly, the third Norman governor of Oxford Castle.

According to legend, when walking by the river to the west of the city she noticed a particular tree where magpies were always gathered together in apparent agitation.

Her chaplain advised her that these birds represented tormented souls in purgatory who were appealing to her charitable nature, and that the way to ease their suffering was to construct an extravagant monument to God on the exact spot.

Edith managed to convince her husband of this explanation, and the immense abbey was duly opened in 1129.

The women so far referred to have all played significant and obvious roles in Oxford's early riverside history. But it is less easy to select women who have had a similar impact on the canal in Oxford.

Indeed, it is a fictional female through whom perhaps the most can be learned. Sheila Stewart's creation, Rose Ramlin, is a thoroughly convincing portrayal of the life of a woman on the working canal boats of the middle of last century.

There is a reason for this conviction: the character of Rose, and the incidents that she and others experience, are all based on the actual oral memories of a number of Oxfordshire boatwomen, whose stories are combined in Ramlin Rose: the Boatwoman's Story into those of one composite character.

The book is an informative and enlightening means of understanding the pleasure and pain, the triumphs and tragedies, of the tight-knit communities who lived, worked, played (occasionally!) and died on our resilient canal.

Mark Davies is the author of Alice in Waterland: Lewis Carroll and the River Thames in Oxford

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