Ian’s Saint of the Week! St Frideswide

St Frideswide
St Frideswide hides from King Algar amongst the swine. Stained-glass window, Christ Church Oxford: Edward Burne-Jones (1833 – 1898)

St Frideswide is this week’s saint of the week.  Her death in Oxford in 727 is commemorated on 19th October and she is primarily associated with the city.  She was born into a royal Mercian family, the daughter of a sub-king Dida of Eynsham who held lands in Oxfordshire and the Upper Thames region.  She was destined to take up a religious life from an early age, and with the help of her father, became the founding abbess of the double house in Oxford, which has since been incorporated into Christ Church College.  Her remains were translated in 1180 to a new shrine by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, a ceremony that was attended by King Henry II, and this site became and remains the cathedral church of Oxford to this day.

There are a couple of slightly differing versions of her life which were written in the twelfth century, thus coinciding with the translation of her relics.  They both tell the story of how she was chosen by another Mercian king, Algar, to become his wife, but, since she had pledged herself to a life of celibacy, she spent three years trying to evade his advances by escaping and hiding out in and around Oxford.  It is here that the accounts diverge: in one, Algar only gave up his hunt for her when he was blinded by a bolt of lightning while in the other his quest ended when he was killed by falling from his horse and breaking his neck.  Either way the message is clear: Frideswide’s marriage to Algar was not going to happen!  There are striking similarities to the story of St. Æthelthryth, an East Anglian princess of the same period, who was also forced to flee in order to keep her virginity intact and who also subsequently founded a priory, this time in Ely in Cambridgeshire.  The symbolism of a royal princess succeeding in maintaining her celibacy despite severe pressure to marry and then actively demonstrating this through the establishment of a religious house shows how important this was to the Anglo-Saxon church, and the comparisons with the Virgin Mary are clear to see.

Chapels at Binsey in the north of Oxford – apparently on the site of a pigsty, hence the image of her hiding amongst the swine in Burne-Jones’s stained glass window, above – and at Bampton, another of her hiding places, became pilgrimage destinations, and miracles were recorded at both of these sites.  She is also recorded as curing lepers by kissing them and restoring sight by bathing the afflicted’s eyes in holy springs when she was still alive.  She lived happily to the ripe old age of seventy-seven, thus demonstrating the benefits of a good and holy life.  Let that be a lesson to us all!

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