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Posts Tagged ‘Frideswide’

It is virtually certain that Oxford developed around a mid-Saxon monastic church (the predecessor of the present Cathedral) at a major crossing over the Thames, and that the first head of the church was a princess named Frideswide.

John Blair: “Saint Frideswide: Patron of Oxford”

Dear Readers,

As I mentioned in my last post (9/14/16) I have had an opportunity to visit London and Oxford. While in Oxford I toured the famous Christ Church. Harry Potter fans will recognize the Great Hall. The pictures in this post were taken by me during the tour.

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But even more exciting to me was the fact that the church gives credit for its original founding to a woman – St. Frideswide. Our tour guide emphasized St. Frideswide during our entire tour. Frideswide established the original monastery there around the turn of the eighth century.

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Most of the present cathedral was built at the end of the twelfth century as a priory church for the Augustinian Canons who lived there. More additions were completed through the centuries. Christ Church still functions as a college in Oxford.

This shrine to St. Frideswide was built in 1289 but broken up in 1538 when the Reformer’s criticized praying to saints. Parts of the shrine were discovered in a well in the nineteenth century and restored to the church. The beautiful chapel and shrine were finished as we see them in this picture in 2002.

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A beautiful stained glass window (by Edward Burne-Jones, 1858) graces the end of the Latin Chapel – the area in Christ Church commemorating Frideswide’s story.

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There is a special chair in cathedrals for the archbishop to sit in when he visits. Above this special chair is another memorial to St. Frideswide. The women seated to her right and left are St. Catherine and St. Cecilia – two women who were also well known for their faithful acts of piety and charity. Both were also persecuted for their faith. Notice below the women an image of an Ox crossing a Ford!

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Frideswide, (also called Frithuswith, or Fritha as she was known to family and friends), was born around 650 AD. She was born a princess to King Didan of Oxford and Queen Sefrida. Sefrida was a very godly woman, known for her charitable works. Her parents, Didan and Sefrida loved her very much.

Frideswide was carefully brought up by a governess, a holy woman named Elgitha. Frideswide began to love and honor God under Elgitha’s teaching and her life took a spiritual direction from an early age. She was a gifted student and within six months had learned the entire Psalter.

After her mother died Frideswide lived in Oxford with her father. She persuaded him to give her some land so that she could build a church.

The period between 650 and 720 was the age of the great monasteries. Many were founded by kings and princes, and in our story a princess. These were “double” monasteries, where men and women both lived and worshipped and served. At this time the monasteries were mostly self-governing. It would be many years before the monasteries were consolidated under the rule of the organized church.

Frideswide and twelve other women formed a convent. Her fame spread not only as a pious woman, but it was known that she was rich and beautiful. This attracted Aelfgar, the Earl of Leicester and he pressed his suit for her hand.

Here is where the story gets interesting. Frideswide refused to get married. She desired only to serve Christ for the rest of her life. This made Aelfgar angry and he decided to take Frideswide by force. He traveled to the forest where she was living. He was struck blind as he neared Frideswide! Only after he repented and asked for her forgiveness was his sight restored. In another version of the story, Aelfgar sent two messengers ahead with flattering words and his offer of marriage. Frideswide rebuffed them and they returned to Oxford to report to Prince Aelfgar. They were struck blind as they entered the city.

Like other “legends” the story is probably embellished, but no doubt there is a kernel of truth in the various accounts of Frideswide’s life. Something certainly happened to convince Aelfgar to leave Frideswide alone. God certainly blessed Frideswide and the community with her service to them.

Here is one account of the story according to William of Malmesbury (c. 1125) from John Blair’s book, “Saint Frideswide: Patron of Oxford” (p. 29, 30).

In old times there was in the city of Oxford a monastery of nuns, where rests the most holy virgin Frideswide. A kings’ 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 into 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 this thegns, 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. Thus it came about that kings of England are afraid to enter or lodge in that town: it is said to bring ruin, and they all shrink from the danger of putting it to the test. So the woman, secure in her maidenly victory, established a monastery there where she ended her days, submitting to her bridegroom’s call.*

In the time of king Aethelred, the Danes, doomed to be slain, fled into that monastery and were consumed by fire together with the buildings through the insatiable anger of the English. But soon the sanctuary was purified by the king’s penance, the monastery rebuilt, old lands returned, new possessions added. In our own time** only a few clerks remained there, who lived as they pleased so Roger bishop of Salisbury gave the place to Wimund, a canon of excellent learning and no mean holiness. He toiling fruitfully at the task entrusted to him, established there for God many canons to live according to the rule.***

*This “bridegroom” is the Lord Jesus Christ.

** c. 1125

***The canons lived under the rule of St. Augustine.

Frideswide lived happily at Oxford for many years. She eventually retired to Binsey, where she built a chapel. She prayed for water and a spring appeared. You can visit that site today. She eventually died on October 19, 727. She was buried at St. Mary’s church.

I was happy to be able to climb up the tower of St. Mary’s. Here is a view from there.

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