Our knowledge of Frideswide (c.680-727) comes from three main interrelated sources: a brief narrative by the 11th Century historian William of Malmesbury and two, much longer, 12th century lives written in Latin. Whilst Malmesbury’s account has traditionally been the most highly regarded, John Blair has argued persuasively that the Latin accounts are based on earlier traditions rather than, as is often assumed, being mere elaborations of Malmesbury’s work. These three surviving accounts describe how Frideswide, the daughter of a king, renounced the prosperity of marriage in order to devote herself to Christ as a nun, steadfastly devoting herself to learning, fasting and prayer alongside a community of 12 other girls. After the death of Frideswide’s father, King Algar succeeded to the throne and attempted to force the saint into marriage contrary to her vows, desiring Frideswide as ‘partner for his bed and kingdom’. However God offered his protection, blinding, variously in the accounts, both Algar and the men he had sent to capture Frideswide. Whilst Malmesbury records how the blinded king recovered his sight through repentance and a change of heart, the Latin lives describe how Algar’s envoys recover their sight whilst the king himself ends his days in continued blindness. Despite the accounts’ disagreement on specifics, Frideswide’s later life is marked in each by healing miracles of some kind: the story, for example, of a leper who, making the ‘outrageous’ request of a kiss from the saint, is ‘to everyone’s wonder’ healed at the touch of their mouths and another of how, after attempting to hide away in the seclusion of Thornbiri, (which Malmesbury tells us later became Binsey) Frideswide is persuaded to cure a youth whose hand has somehow become stuck to his axe whilst chopping wood.
The minster in Oxford before the University
Geographically, the life of St Frideswide can be mapped around several locations in Oxfordshire. Firstly, Oxford itself: This is where Frideswide's family lived and ruled, where she was born and where she was consecrated to be a nun. The lives inform us that king Didan, Frideswide's father, constructed new buildings for the nuns within the city. This account is in agreement with the common Anglo-Saxon pattern of royal foundation and support for nunneries predestined for the highest-ranking women in the society.
After Frideswide's death her remnants were buried in St Mary's church, presumably, the minster, which was enlarged above the saint's grave and later transformed into the Christ Church Cathedral. In 1002 the fire destroyed the buildings of the monastic community along with all the records. The canons were refounded at that place only in 1122, now following the Rule of St Augustine. The Augustinians excavated Frideswide's grave in 1180 and translated her relics with great solemnities to a special shrine within the church. The cult of the saint was thus established: pilgrims started visiting the relics and miracles were recorded and publicized. Frideswide's association with Oxford was quite strong: in one of Chaucer's tales, John, the Oxford carpenter, invokes Frideswide as his patron saint. During the Reformation Firdeswide's shrine in the cathedral was destroyed and her relics desecrated.
Frideswide's nunnery outside the city
Another significant location is Binsey ('Byne's island'), one of the places where – according to the lives – the saint took refuge from king Algar and where she spent a period of her life performing miracles. The biographical account says that Frideswide went to Binsey for ascetic reasons, seeking solitude from the admiring crowds: “So they travelled swiftly by boat to the estate called Binsey near the city. Here they disembarked, and Frideswide decided to stay for a while in solitude; their sisters could come there easily, and it would be protected from the crowds of townsfolk”. Then the abbess built an oratory and other buildings for the nuns and opened a spring of water known as St Margaret's well. However, it is possible that the whole episode is a late addition and Binsey became associated with Frideswide as late as the 12th c. through the author of the life. It's not unlikely that the Binsey estate came into the possession of the monastery after St Frideswide's death. In any case, the accounts imply that the Binsey chapel had already existed for some time in the 12th century and was considered to be a place of special holiness. The Thames also plays an important role in the lives because Frideswide made several journeys traveling with her nuns from and back to Oxford by the river.
Connections to St Margaret
Interestingly, the story of St Frideswide and her nunnery is associated with the cult of St Margaret as the latter is the patron saint of the church in Binsey. Although the 12th century writer Robert of Cricklade, prior of St Frideswide's priory in Oxford and author of the saint's life, attributes the Binsey chapel to St Frideswide, other, later, sources speak of it as dedicated to St Margaret. A text dated 1323 refers to the chapel at Binsey in honour of St Frideswide and St Margaret. St Margaret of Antioch is celebrated as a virgin-martyr in Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Churches. She was one of the most important female saints of the English church in the 14th-15th centuries, having been a popular saint since the 9th century According to the legends, St Margaret was tortured around 2nd/3rd century AD by the Roman ruler Olybrius who wished to persuade her to marry him and to renounce Christianity. Miraculous incidents of her martyrdom include conquering a dragon through the power of the holy Cross. The parallels between Frideswide, the Western nun, and Margaret, the Eastern martyr, are obvious: they were both virgins who chose to serve Christ, renouncing marriage offered by an impious royal figure. The episodes in which royal suitors approach them and try to incline them into earthly love and marriage are common to many female saints lives of both East and West and record particular ideas that existed in the Christian church about female religious and social roles. At the same time, although St Frideswide herself was not a martyr, the ascetic toils and inner fight with the passions which she undertook during her life as a nun correlate in the church tradition with the sufferings typically associated with a martyr.
Binsey and us
Binsey, for us, has become a place of regular pilgrimage. The church provides a place of connection with the Christian traditions of earlier times, and with the devotion of Frideswide herself. The countryside and opportunities for meetings with different animals on the way to the church offer space for reflection on the journey away from Oxford’s busy city life, whilst the empty space of the building itself has become an environment in which we have been able to recreate traditions of Orthodox prayer in a place where they often remain silent. Whilst in many ways idyllic, Binsey is nevertheless a very human environment; the different devotional practices of visitors to the church frequently come face to face with those out to enjoy the beauty of the spot and the journey to the church is frequently taken alongside those setting out to the visit the local pub or to enjoy the pleasures of port meadow. Binsey remains, as it did for Frideswide, a place where heavenly and earthly realities interact and engage in both competition and cooperation.
Come, let us solemnly rejoice today, and let us laud the virtues and struggles of the most splendid luminary of the Western lands: Frideswide, great among ascetics, the most praiseworthy instructor of nuns, who watcheth over us from her dwelling-place on high; for the Lord hath truly made her wondrous among His saints. By her supplications may He save our souls.
See http://makemeanisland.co.uk/content/st-lide for discussion of Troparia.
Further liturgical material can be found in the Canon of St Frideswide (based largely on material from http://orthodoxengland.org.uk/servfride.htm). A canon is an part of Orthodox service that praises the saint. It has 9 odes based on 9 Biblical canticles,
Sources for further reading:
Lydia Carr, Russell Dewhurst, and Martin Henig (Editors), Binsey: Oxford's holy place—Its saint, village and people. Archaeopress and St Frideswide's PCC, 2014.
John Blair, Church in Anglo-Saxon society. Oxford University Press, 2005.
John Blair, 'Saint Frideswide Reconsidered', Oxoniensia 52, 1987. Pp. 71-127. (http://oxoniensia.org/volumes/1987/blair.pdf)
John Blair (Editor), Saint Frideswide's Monastery at Oxford: Archaeological and Architectural Studies. Gloucester, 1990.
Sherry Reames (Editor), Middle English Legends of Women Saints. Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2003. (http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/reames-middle-english-legen...).
And a forthcoming book by Juliana Dresvina on the cult of St Margaret of Antioch in Western Europe.