Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Frideswide

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FRIDESWIDE, FRITHESWITH, or FREDESWITHA, Saint (d. 735?), was, according to the earliest account, a king's daughter, who having chosen a life of virginity, refused marriage with a king. Being persecuted by her lover she fled from him, and at last took shelter in Oxford. Her lover pursued her thither; she invoked the help of God; the king was struck blind as he drew near the gates of the city with his company; he repented, and sent messengers to Frideswide, and his sight was restored. Hence the kings of England, it was believed, feared to enter Oxford in later days. The saint preserved her virginity, established a convent at Oxford, and died there (Gesta Pontificum, p. 315). William of Malmesbury, who was alive when Oxford University was in its first infancy, also speaks in his 'Gesta Regum' (i. 279) of a record in the archives of St. Frideswide's church dated 1002. This record is probably represented in an Oseney cartulary, Cotton MS. Vitell. E. xv. f. 5, late thirteenth century, quoted by Dugdale (Monasticon, ii. 143), which says that the saint was the daughter of Didanus, king of Oxford, who built for her a monastery there, that she obtained a place then called 'Thornbirie,' and afterwards 'Binseye,' where she had a holy spring,and that she worked miracles (Parker, p. 91). There are also two twelfth-century manuscript lives, Cotton MS. Nero E. 1, and Bodl. MS. Laud. Misc. p. 114, which, taken together, though they differ from each other in several points (these differences are fully noted by Parker), make the saint the daughter of Didanus and Sefrid; she was brought up by a matron named Algiva (Ælfgifu), was given a nunnery by her father, and was persecuted by Algar (Ælfgar), king of Leicester, whose messengers were struck blind, but restored to sight at her prayer. She fled by water to Benton (?), and abode there. Meanwhile Algar entered Oxford and was struck blind for the rest of his life. Frideswide went to Binsey or Thornbury, and founded a nunnery, and had a holy spring there. She worked miracles. The circumstances of her death are part of the common property of hagiology. She was buried in the church of St. Mary at Oxford, on the south side (ib. pp. 95–101). There is a fourteenth-century life in Lansdowne MS. 436. It is not improbable that St. Frideswide, a member of the royal house of Mercia, should have founded a monastery at Oxford in the eighth century (Boase, Oxford, p. 5). The belief that English kings feared to enter the city is curious, for Oxford was a favourite place for holding meetings of the witan in the eleventh century, and King Harold died there in 1040. It lingered late, for it is noted that Henry III ‘defied the old superstition which was commonly repeated’ by worshipping at the saint's shrine in 1264 (Wykes, iv. 143), and it was said that Edward I refrained from entering Oxford in 1275 from fear of the legend (ib. p. 264). The relics of St. Frideswide were translated on 12 Feb. 1180 (ib. p. 39). Wood says that Henry II was present at the ceremony (Annals, i. 166, comp. Hardy, Descript. Cat. i. 460); the church was within the walls. A second translation was performed on 10 Sept. 1289 to a new and splendid shrine erected near the old shrine (Ann. Osen. iv. 318). Probably at a later date the shrine was removed to the north aisle. The shrine was destroyed in 1538. Some bones, said to be those of St. Frideswide, were in the church in the reign of Mary, for in 1557 Pole considered that wrong had been done to the saint by burying Catherine Cathie, once a nun, the wife of Peter Martyr, near the virgin's sepulchre. Catherine's bones were accordingly cast out. In Elizabeth's reign Catherine's bones were reburied and were mixed with the relics of the saint, both being laid in the same receptacle, with the epitaph, ‘Hic jacet religio cum superstitione’ (Monasticon, ii. 141; Froude, vi. 36–8). St. Fridewide's monastery came into the hands of secular priests or canons probably during the Danish wars of the ninth century, and was held by them when the Domesday survey was made (Domesday, f. 157 a). The condition of the house was in bad repute, and in 1111 or 1121 Roger, bishop of Salisbury, established there a convent of regular canons of St. Augustine under Guimund as the first prior (Gesta Pontificum, p. 316). The convent was suppressed in virtue of a bull obtained by Wolsey from Clement VII, and bearing date 15 Sept. 1524, which was confirmed by the king 5 Jan. 1525. In July Henry granted the site and lands to Wolsey for the foundation of ‘Cardinal's College.’ The society was refounded by the king in 1532 under the name of ‘King Henry VIII's College in Oxford.’ Lastly, in 1545, the collegiate church was made cathedral, and called the church of ‘Christ and the B. Virgin Mary,’ and was again founded in the November of the next year as the ‘Cathedral church of Christ,’ the old college becoming the house of Christ Church. St. Frideswide's day is 19 Oct., on which she is supposed to have died (Leland, Collectanea, i. 342), and for which there is an office in the Sarum Breviary. Under the year 1268 Wood observes that after the translation of the saint it was the custom for the chancellor and scholars in the middle of Lent and on the festival of the Ascension to go in procession to the church of St. Frideswide as the mother-church of the university and town, and there worship (Annals, i. 272).

[Parker's Early Hist. of Oxford, pp. 86–104 (Oxf. Hist. Soc.); Acta SS. Oct. viii. 533 sq.; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum, p. 315 (Rolls Ser.), and Gesta Regum, i. 297 (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Ann. de Osen., Chron. T. Wykes, Ann. Monast. iv. 39, 143, 264, 318; Robert of Gloucester, ii. 545 (Hearne); Dugdale's Monasticon, ii. 134–75; Leland's Collectanea, i. 342 (Hearne); Wood's Annals, Hist. and Antiq. of Oxford, i. 166, 272 (Gutch); Hardy's Descript. Cat. i. 460 (Rolls Ser.); Leonard Hutten's Antiq. of Oxford, Elizabethan Oxford, pp. 51–61 (Oxf. Hist. Soc.); Boase's Oxford, pp. 4, 9, 38 (Historic Towns Ser.); Froude's Hist. of England, vi. 36–8 (ed. cr. 8vo); Dict. of Christian Biog. ii. 563.]

W. H.