The knowledge, understanding and acceptance of the authenticity of St Frideswide has been through some serious highs and lows over the thirteen hunderd years since she lived, and the finding of the shrine in the 19th century gave a major boost to her authenticity, but it didn’t last long.
The anti-Catholic attitude of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries persisted well into the 20th century and, with no physical evidence for St Frideswide or her church, it took very little to convince people that Frideswide was a myth. Even when the shrine had been found and re-assembled, the sceptical Oxford academics believed that, at best, Frideswide was a figment of Norman imagination, and some still do.
Perhaps the deepest of her denouements came on 19th October 1935 in the Chapter House of the Cathedral, and this was to fuel a reluctance to take her seriously for the remainder of the 20th century.
Sir Frank Merry Stenton, Professor of History at Reading University, had been asked to speak about St Frideswide. He was, a graduate of Keble College, an Anglo-Saxon specialist and had written books on the period. He was President of the Royal Historical Society for eight years, Vice-chancellor at Reading University, and was even knighted by King George VI himself: a person of stratospherical influence. His lecture is recorded in Oxoniensia Vol 1 1936 p103.
So what did he say? Or perhaps, what did they hear him say? I quote:
1. ‘In no part of the country are the origins of religious organisation obscurer than in the district along the middle and upper Thames….
2. ‘Under these conditions it is not surprising that St Frideswide is little more than a name….
3. ‘It (the name Frideswide) has been associated for more than 900 years with the site of Oxford, but it is unaccompanied by any genuine tradition or incident or personal relationships….
4. ‘No materials of her life were available to the first generation of Anglo-Norman hagiographers….
5. ‘There is no reason to think that these details (of the William of Malmesbury Life) represent any tradition. It is a meagre story…
6. ‘It (the legend) clearly stands for an attempt to give some appearance of substance to one of the most nebulous of English monastic legends….
Well, you can’t argue with greatness, and at this point the entire audience switched off. No more talk about St Frideswide, she was an embarrassment. If a great academic such as Sir Frank doubted her, how could any other academic disagree? Only… if you read the whole script (in Oxoniensia Vol 1 1936 p103) it seems he makes many points in her favour, 50% more in fact than those against.
1. ‘This does not mean that Frideswide herself should be regarded as a legendary figure…
2. ‘The fact that she was honoured as a saint at the beginning of the eleventh century raises a case for her historical existence….
3. ‘Ethelred’s charter of 1004 is a definite piece of evidence for her authenticity….
4. ‘No Anglo-Saxon church was ever endowed on such a scale as St Frideswide unless some basis of historical fact lay behind its traditions….
5. ‘The date of the endowments is unknown, but they prove that St Frideswide had been honoured as a saint long before the end of the 10th century….
6. ‘St Frideswide’s name, apparently unique, is compounded of two well-recorded Anglo-Saxon name-elements… There is a fundamental difference between a name like Frideswide and, for instance, the name of St Sidwell of Exeter, which is a deliberate and artificial creation….
7. ‘The very barrenness of her legend is evidence of her importance in the religious life of her time….
8. ‘The absence of any pre-Conquest record of her miracles goes far to prove that her cult was based on something real, not just a popular response to the wonders associated with her tomb….
9. ‘It is on the whole probable that William of Malmesbury’s statement that Frideswide founded a monastery at Oxford was correct…
‘In 735, the traditional date of St Frideswide’s death (not verified by the documents), the land on each side of the Thames at Oxford seems to have been under the direct rule of Ethelbald, king of the Mercians…
‘The fact that Oxford is never mentioned in connection with these (Mercian) wars suggest that as yet it was a place of little importance (in the 8th century)…
‘There can be little doubt that when Frideswide founded her church, the nearest centre of civil government was the royal village of Headington, from which her successors were receiving the tithe in the last years of the 10th century…
The religious governance of the pre-Oxford area was in great flux in the Saxon period, so Sir Frank summarises the changes of diocese around that time:
From 634 the pre-Oxford area was in the West Saxon diocese under Dorchester.
Before 660 it was transferred to Winchester.
Between 670-680, when the Mercia kings conquered much of the West Saxon region, they probably revived the see of Dorchester.
Towards the close of the 7th century much of Mercia came under Wilfred, the Northumbrian bishop.
During the late 730s Oxford belonged to the vast Mercian diocese of Lichfield.
In 737 it passed to the new Mercian see of Leicester, established by King Ethelbald.
Frank Stenton appears to have dismissed the Frideswide legend in the early part of his lecture as meagre and lacking substance in six points altogether.
The nine arguments of the later part of his lecture suggest that he believed in her authenticity as a real historical figure of the early 8th century and had no doubt that she established a church on her monastery site in Oxford.
His real opinion about the saint is now celebrated in Oxford Cathedral, the place where she lived and worked.
Her story is told again and again to visitors, adults and school childen alike, and her integrity, purity, resilience, determination and devotion to God and to others are as much a real inspiration to 21st century people as they were to people of the 8th century.