Oxfordshire Day

Oxfordshire.

Oxfordshire Day is October 19th, the Feast Day of the county’s patron saint, Saint Frideswide. Her Saxon name means “Peace-Strong” or “Bond of Peace”. She lived in the 8th century and was said to have been the daughter of a leader or king of the area around Oxford named Didan. Legend holds that an “Algar”, 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! Frideswide performed miracles and heals the sick, enabling the blind to see. After three years she returns to Oxford, again by boat, and lives in a monastery founded by her father, until her death on October 19th, 727. One account states that she went into hiding at Bampton, and the other that she did so at Binsey, where today people leave flowers,  and pilgrims with eye ailments came to bathe their eyes, hoping for a cure, and barren women prayed to conceive. She may have stayed at both sites.

The original monastery is thought to have been where Christ Church now stands in Oxford. 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. 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 her shrine is now located, 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.

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.

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.

This entry was posted in Oxfordshire. Bookmark the permalink.