St. Frideswide of Oxford, Virgin
Died c. 735; second feast day is February 12. Her maxim from childhood is
said to be: "Whatsoever is not God is nothing."
Little can be said for certain about Frideswide because the earliest written
account dates only from the 12th century, when her abbey became
an Augustinian foundation. William of Malmesbury recorded the legend from a
version attributed to Prior Robert of Cricklade. Nevertheless,
recent historical and archaeological research has clarified the background
and some of the details of the saint's traditional legend.
This account follows the archetypical miracles of God preserving His holy
virgins. The story goes that Frideswide was a Mercian princess,
the daughter of Didian (or Dida) of Eynsham, whose lands included the upper
reaches of the River Thames. Her father, a sub-king under the
Mercian overlordship, endowed minster churches at Bampton and Oxford.
Frideswide took a vow of perpetual virginity, but Algar, a local prince, (or
Aethelbald of Mercia) could not believe that she would not marry him.
Desiring to fulfil her vow, she fled into hiding at Binsey (near the current
Oxford), where she remained for three years as Algar continued to search for
her. Then Algar was struck blind. When he renounced his desire to marry her,
his sight was restored at Bampton upon Frideswide's intercession.
Eventually, Frideswide was appointed the first abbess of Saint Mary's double
monastery at Oxford, where she peacefully lived out the balance
of her life. The convent flourished becoming the site of Christ Church and
her name was not forgotten as the town of Oxford arose around the
Most of the early records of the monastery were destroyed in a fire set in
1002 while Scandinavians were inside the church in the attempted
massacres triggered by the notorious decree of Ethelred II. The existence of
her shrine is formally attested by 'On the Resting Places of the Saints' in
"Die Heiligen Englands" in the 11th century.
In 1180 in the presence of the archbishop of Canterbury and King Henry II of
England, her remains were translated to a new shrine in the
monastery church. A yet greater shrine was built nine years later.
Countless pilgrims visited her relics. Twice a year Oxford University held a
solemn feast in her honour and came to venerate her bones.
Then in 1525 Cardinal Wolsey suppressed Saint Frideswide's monastery. Two
decades later the monastery church became the new cathedral of Oxford. But
the shrine containing Frideswide's relics had been broken up by the impious
Protestant reformers to use in other buildings in
1538. Happily the saint's bones have survived.
Meanwhile Catherine Dammartin, the wife of the Protestant professor Peter
Martyr Vermigli, had been buried in the cathedral. About 1558-1561, in an
extraordinary burst of fanaticism James Calfhill, a Calvinist canon, dug up
her bones and mixed them with those of Saint Frideswide, adding the epitaph
"Hic jacet religio cum superstitione" ('Here lies religion with
Part of her shrine has been reconstructed from pieces found in a well at
Christ Church, where her remains are marked with four elegant candlesticks
in Christ Church.
It may be assumed that Frideswide was foundress and abbess of a religious
house at Oxford in the 8th century; her shrine was in the church of a
monastery there in 1004, on the site of Christ Church. It is unexplained how
this obscure saint, under the name of Frevisse, came to have a cultus at the
village of Bomy in the middle of Artois (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley,
In art she is a crowned abbess with an ox near her. Sometimes she is shown
being rowed down the Thames by an angel with her two sisters.
Frideswide is the patroness of Oxford and Oxford University
"When the Church in the British Isles begins to venerate
her own saints, the Church will prosper"
~ Saint Arsenios of Cappadocia
The church of Saint Frideswide in the Pang valley
and her healing well:
A recollection of an American monk's pilgrimage to venerate St. Frideswide's
St. Frideswide of Oxford. Only a few shattered bits of her formerly
magnificent shrine remain. I was a bit early arriving at the Oxford campus
for the Anglo-Saxon Conference this July 8. So I stepped into Christ Church.
I had a half hour to spend. As I entered, an Anglican official came towards
me and welcomed me, told me the early morning service was just over. "Are
the Relics of St. Frideswide still here?" I asked. "Yes, over on the left
side of the high altar." I went to the left side of the high altar. Smarmy,
neo-pagan burial monuments, overgrown with putti, arising from the original
stone structure like something indelicate birthed in a Petri dish. I found a
ragged old stone heap, which a plaque said was the remains of the original
shrine of St. Frideswide. But the Saint was not among the wreckage. The
shards of old stone, worn, broken, bleached by the violent act, were patched
together like the skeleton we once gathered around in high-school Biology
but with half the bones missing.
Searching further among the bric-a-brac I found the Saint of the Most High
God. There, in the middle of the floor, was a dark rough slab of
stone, not raised, about a foot across and two feet long. The inscription
read, "FRIDESWIDE." Not "Once Abbess of This Place," not "Saint," not
"Blessed," not "Righteous," not "A Good Woman, a Woman of
Prayer"--"FRIDESWIDE." I was embarrassed for the place and its people.
But the scandalous contrast--between the opulence of worldly folk's graves
and the grudging permission given this burgled Saint to lie naked
among them--only endeared her that much more to me. So for half an hour I
stood looking down upon the Saint who looked down upon me, praying for all
my family and my people, and shedding deserved tears for my sins. Truly,
this was the shrine of St. Frideswide, the dwelling place of the Holy
Spirit--one foot wide, and two foot long. And St. Frideswide has already
answered part of my feeble little prayers, for she is great before the
Throne of God.
(Acknowledgement to Fr Aidan (Keller) of Austin, Texas)
And further information to hand: "The comments about the
visit to St Frideswide's shrine in Oxford are now out of date. The shrine
has been sensitively restored (in 2002) and now attracts increasing numbers
of pilgrims. It is well worth a visit!
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