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St Frideswide: Oxford's patron saint
By Jane Curran
BBC Oxford contributor

Stained-glass window in Christ Church, Oxford
Frideswide hides amongst swine to escape from Algar

Once upon a time in the fair city of Oxford, there lived Princess Frideswide who was as good as she was beautiful.

The King, her father, ruled the people of his realm with clemency and justice, and she learnt the ways of the Church.

The motherless child was tenderly looked after by gentle nuns who taught her to read and write and to play sweet music upon the harp and lyre.

As she grew up, princes from neighbouring kingdoms sought her hand in marriage.

The King her father turned them away saying that his daughter was still but a child and too young to wed.

In time however, there came a handsome prince on a fine horse, with his retinue all attired in splendid silks and velvets, and the King listened thoughtfully as he pleaded his suit.

Princess Frideswide herself was alone in her room high in the tower of the castle, but her ladies were listening at the door of the great council chamber, and when they heard the King announce that Frideswide should indeed become the Prince's bride, they hastened to tell her that she was soon to be married.

The Princess wept bitter tears, for her one wish was that she might become a nun and devote herself to God, and she vowed that even if she had to disobey her father, no mortal man should ever be her bridegroom.

Then she gathered up some food, her missal, and a few belongings, and wrapped in a warm cloak of fur, she slipped out with her ladies in the darkness of night through a small gate in the castle wall, and together they rowed up the river until they came to a tiny hamlet.

Hiding the boat among the reeds of the riverbank, they concealed themselves in a byre among the beasts stabled there, and thus they passed the hours until dawn.

They shook with fear as they heard the stamping of many feet and the barking of dogs as the King's soldiers searched for them in the woods by the river, but at last the clamour of pursuit grew fainter and they knew they were safe and could travel onwards.

For days and weeks they journeyed, until they happened upon a group of devout women, who asked no questions and gladly gave them shelter, and there it was that Frideswide began to care for the poor and heal the sick.

As time passed, word reached her that her father the King was pining away with sorrow for the loss of her, his only child, and she determined to return to Oxford, come what might.

Hardly had she entered the gates of the city than the bells pealed joyously from the spires and steeples, the King rose from his sickbed, and the people sang and danced in the streets.

The news of her return soon came to the ears of the Prince, and he rode swiftly to Oxford to claim the Princess once more for his bride.

When she saw him, Frideswide prayed to God for succour.

At once there was a terrible clap of thunder, and a bolt of lightning struck the Prince, blinding him.

Weeping from his sightless eyes, he pleaded for mercy and forgiveness.

Frideswide took pity on him and prayed again, beseeching God to restore his sight but to destroy his desire for her, and at once water gushed forth from a healing spring, and her prayers were answered.

The Prince, his sight restored, mounted his charger and wheeling round, galloped away from the city, never to return.

Princess Frideswide's wish to become a nun was fulfilled, and close to the southern wall of Oxford she founded a great priory, where monks and nuns praised God and cared for those stricken by misfortune, and where her name lived on for ever.

ST. FRIDESWIDE - Some historical aspects

There are three historical accounts of the life of St. Frideswide, Oxford's patron saint, but all were written in the early 12th century, around four hundred years after the time in which she is supposed to have lived.

Two of them may include much older material and the story they relate, with several discrepancies, is roughly as follows.

In the early 700's, the area around Oxford was governed by a Saxon king who was a vassal of the King of Mercia. In one account, he is called King Didan, and it was he who had founded a monastery - possibly for both monks and nuns - which was ruled by his daughter, Frideswide.

Her name is a Germanic Saxon one, meaning Peace-Strong, or Bond of Peace.

Algar, the King of Leicester, sends envoys to bring back Frideswide for his bride, but she refuses to renounce her vows, and when they try to carry her off, they are struck blind.

They repent, their sight is restored, and they return to King Algar, who then sets out to seize her by force, but an angel warns her to flee, which she does, going upstream on the Thames.

Arriving at the gates of Oxford, Algar is also blinded, but being unremorseful, never regains his sight.

Meanwhile, Frideswide performs miracles, healing the sick, enabling the blind to see, and after three years returns to Oxford, again by boat, and lives in the monastery until her death on October 19th, 727.

One of the problems with the two main accounts is that one says Frideswide went into hiding at Bampton, and the other that she did so at Binsey.

Saint Margaret's Well by Steve Roberts
Saint Margaret's Well is said to be the healing spring

She may have stayed in both places, but there is a healing well in the churchyard of St. Margaret's church at Binsey, where even now people leave flowers, and where pilgrims with eye ailments came to bathe their eyes, hoping for a cure, and barren women prayed to conceive.

The original monastery is thought to have been where Christ Church now stands, and in the 1980's archaeologists found evidence of a graveyard there dating back to the late 7th century.

Tradition has it that this is where St. Frideswide was buried, and in 1180 the prior of the (by then Augustinian) monastery had her bones disinterred, and laid with great ceremony in a reliquary which was displayed in a shrine to which pilgrims flocked, hoping for miracles. They were not disappointed.

A later shrine (1289) was broken up during the Reformation in the 1530's, but many pieces from it have been found over the past hundred years or so, and it has been reconstructed in Christ Church Cathedral. It stands in the Latin Chapel, in front of a wonderfully detailed stained glass window telling the story of her life, designed by Edward Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, in the 1850's.

As for her bones, they were dug up in the reign of Mary Tudor, and kept in two silk bags.

A few years later, when the Protestants were again in the ascendant, and the veneration of saints severely discouraged, St. Frideswide's relics were deliberately mixed up with the bones of another woman who had been buried only recently in the Cathedral, and they were re-interred together in "the upper part of the church towards the east".

This is where the shrine is now, but a little to the south of it, in the Lady Chapel, there is also a dark paving stone in the floor carved simply with the name Frideswide, and it is here that the anniversary of her death is commemorated on October 19th each year.




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