In the 11th century, St Frideswide’s monastery was still holding on, having gone through many changes in the earlier centuries, but it was probably very small and towards the end of that time may have been served by monks from Abingdon, but in the 12th century things began to improve.
The Antiquarian William Dugdale (1605-1610) in his Monasticon Anglicanum (a record of the monasteries of England 1655-1673), included a chapter on St Frideswide’s Monastery now Christ Church. He recorded ‘…in AD 1111 or 1121, Roger, Bishop of Salisbury placed in this church (St Frideswide’s) a convent of regular canons of the order of St Austin under the care of Guimond, or Wimund, a learned clerk and chaplain to King Henry I, who became the first prior.’
Dugdale goes on in the footnote to this, ‘Dr Leonard Hutton…says of St Frideswide’s monastery, “It was given by William the Conqueror to the abbott and monkes of St Mary the Virgin in Abbingdon, for a cell or grange, as they pleased to use it. But the abbott and monkes in Abbingdon perceiving it to be very ruinous, and that the charges of repayring it would rather by a burthen, than the church an honour to them, gave it to Roger, the Bishop of Salisbury, their ordinary, having first obtained leave of Henry the First soe to doe. Whereupon the bishop understanding that the king had already (as much as in him lay) given it to Guimundus his chaplain, a man very religious and excellently learned, gave presently the deposition to the king and the king to Guimundus.”’
From this we see that Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, a favourite of Henry I (1100-1135) who had previously been Chancellor of the Exchequer, decided in around 1111, to re-found and restore the ruined St Frideswide’s monastery under the guidance of Prior Guimund, the king’s chaplain. It took a few years to get things going again but, in 1122, Henry I issued a charter for a new foundation, a copy of which (in Latin) is found in the Cartulary of St Frideswide. It was to be called the Augustinian Priory of St Frideswide of Oxford.
Dugdale’s account ascribes the building of the present building, which is now the Cathedral of Christ Church, to Guimond, though ‘it was finished by his two immediate successors’. Guimond’s death has been recorded as 1130, or 1141, the later date being considered the most likely, as Anthony Wood records that he ruled for 19 years from 1122 (Antiquities of the City of Oxford p148).
the second Prior ‘Robert, surnamed de Cricklade, alias Canutus’ as being the second prior. It is suggested that Robert of Cricklade ruled from 1140 to the mid-1170s (Oxford Cathedral by Warner, list of priors), and Dugdale records him present there in 1157, and that he was actually ‘Chancellor of the University in 1159’, even though the university did not formally exist until the early 13th century.
The third Prior, Philip of Oxford probably dated from the mid-1170s to about 1205 (Oxford Cathedral by Warner list of priors). Dugdale mentions him in 1180 and 1188, and states that in 1180 ‘the reliques of St Frideswide were translated from an obscure to a more noted place in the church. At which solemnity the king, bishops, and nobles being present, divers miracles were wrought both on clerical and laical people, causing thereby the fame of the saint to spread far and near.’ He is referring here to the translation of the relics of St Frideswide into the first shrine on 12th February 1180, (see page on Shrine on this website).
These three priors were excellent men who established the priory, built the present church, discovered the bones of St Frideswide, and installed a shrine for her, as well as writing the three versions of her legend and recording over 100 miracles which re-established her cult. This was a great high point for restoring knowledge of and belief in the authenticity of St Frideswide. The Cult of St Frideswide brought in a large amount of funding from the offerings of pilgrims as well as more substantial donations and endowments. The massive new church (the present structure) with its shrine, became a focus for religious life and healing in this locality, and the priory was prospering as it served the people. The miracles are described and analysed in the page about the shrine in this website.
William Dugdale also records that ‘in 1190, the most part of the city of Oxford was burnt, together with the sacred edifice of St Frideswide’. There is evidence of fire on the lower portion of the Norman door of the Chapter House (the oldest part of the present site, possibly from as early as 1150), and the Chapter House dates from around 1225, possibly built on the foundations of an earlier building. Alexander Neckam, a visiting monk at the monastery of St Frideswide around 1190, preached a sermon in which he urges the people of Oxford to help fund the restoration of the church after the fire. (A transcription of his sermon in Latin available in Medieval Oxford by Henry Slater, from the Oxford central library.) The architecture of the cathedral also suggests that the East End, the sanctuary, choir, choir aisles and transepts, are Norman of pre-1190 date, but the crossing is transitional (from around 1200) and the nave has elements of both. The tower also has a Norman lower storey, but a transitional / Early English spire.
In 1289, during the time of Prior Robert of Ewelme, a new shrine was made for the bones of St Frideswide. Dugdale records ‘On the Sabbath day next after the nativity of the Blessed Virgin (10th September 1289) was the old shrine of St Frideswide of Oxon translated, and, with all honour that was meet for such a thing, was placed in a new and more precious shrine in the church bearing her name, near the place where the old one stood; which shrine had been several years before prepared. At this solemnity was present William, Bishop of Salisbury, Edmund Earl of Cornwall (nephew of Henry III and cousin to Edward I, who was king at the time), and many other persons as well religious as secular.’ There is more about the shrine on the relevant pages of this website.
From the 13th century many monastic groups came to Oxford and established houses for their communities, many of which also offered early schools and colleges. One major monastery was Oseney Abbey, also an Augustinian Priory, which was founded by Edith, the wife of Robert D’Oilly the younger (nephew of Robert D’Oilly William’s first constable), in 1229. Oseney Abbey played a significant part in the future of St Frideswide’s monastery.
Despite its portentous start, it was not long before the Priory of St Frideswide began to slide into problems. The Cartulary of St Frideswide documents the wrangling over rights and land, the questionable behaviour of the priors and canons, arguments with the town over the fair, dubious money dealings and of other things.
One such incident is recorded by William Dugdale from an account of the antiquarian Anthony Wood.
AD 1308: ‘On the Thursday after the feast of the Holy Trinity, in the first year of Edward II was St Frideswide’s chest (so called because it had been for about 68 years kept in the church belonging to the priory bearing that name) robbed of twelve marks in silver by John Sutton the porter and John Fykeys sub-sacrist thereof. The fact was committed at nine of the clock in the morning, but the theft being soon discovered the malefactors fled, and could not afterwards be found to suffer the law…’
The record goes on to explain that St Frideswide's Chest had been first set up by the Bishop of Lincoln (Visitor to the University) in 1209 after the unlawful hanging of three clerks, by the town, and a regular payment of 6 marks was made to it every year by the town as a penance, for the support of poor students. It had been moved to St Frideswide church by Dr Grosseteste (1175-1253) who became bishop of Lincoln in 1235, and the keys were held by certain canons chosen by the chancellor. Several substantial donations were made to the chest at different times.
Another major problem was a rivalry that developed with Oseney Abbey, which was better endowed than St Frideswide’s, and had land adjoining St Frideswide’s. It was not long before there were disagreements, and these became so bitter that court cases were held in the presence of high-ranking clergy. Many of these resulted in charters and are recorded in the Cartualry of St Frideswide. Bishops and prelates were in frequent attendance and in some cases even the Pope’s representative. These early judges brought their students and debated their cases in front of them, the accepted way of teaching at the time. This was the beginning of the study of Canon Law in Oxford, which contributed to the eventual establishment of the university.
Some historians suggest that the Cult of St Frideswide had a successful following for a long time, not only in Oxford, but across England. The miracles recorded by Prior Philip certainly suggest that people came from far and wide for healing. Even Chaucer’s carpenter, in the Miller’s Tale, exclaimed ‘Oh, St Frideswide bless us’… suggesting her powers extended well beyond the environs of her shrine.
In 1389 Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Lincoln and Visitor to the University, ordered St Frideswide’s Saint’s Day to be October 19th, the day of her death, and that it should be celebrated throughout the city and University of Oxford. (This is recorded in the Lincoln Diocesan Archives, Register 13, iv-2.) He also instructed that indulgences should be offered to all those visiting the shrine or supporting it with gifts on that day.
In 1434 Archbishop Henry Chichele ordered her feast to be officially observed as patroness of the University. (The Register of Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury 1414-1443, ed E F Jacob 46 (1945) III. 256.) In the St Frideswide Papers (available from Oxford central Library), edited by F L Cross, the paper by E F Cross entitled St Frideswide Patron Saint of Oxford, explains that ‘Archbishop Chichele passed through Convocation a constitution for observance of her feast throughout the Southern Province, calling her “the special advocate for the University of Oxford”. St Frideswide’s day was hence forth to be celebrated with nine lessons (lectiones) and ruling of the choir, according to the use of Sarum. These lessons would probably be the nine extracts from St Augustine and St Gregory described in the Sanctorale of the Sarum Breviary to be read as the Common of a Virgin not martyr.’ (see below)
In 1481 the pope officially sanctioned the Cult of St Frideswide, along with St Osmund and St Ethelreda. Her feast was also elevated to that of three nocturns (9 lessons) in the divine office, a confirmation of Archbishop Chichele. (Brevarium Ad Usum Insignis Ecclesie Sarum, eds F Proctor and C Wordsworth 1886 III 938-942.)
The St Frideswide Papers, edited by F L Cross, the paper by E F Cross, St Frideswide Patron Saint of Oxford (available from Oxford central library), explains …‘sometime in the course of the 15th century, when the Sarum office for her Depositio was drawn up, special readings for her were either devised from the legend of St Frideswide or borrowed from the Sanctorale of some other church, probably in France, which was commemorating her… It was in the March-April convocation of 1481 that the clergy, through the proculator, petitioned that the feast of St Frideswide, along with those of St Osmund and St Etheldreda, should be celebrated as a double, with ruling of the choir and nine lessons, throughout the province of Canterbury.’
Frideswide, who had been honoured by popular acclaim for 700 years, was finally given the official status she deserved. But it was not to last long. See the Henry VIII page on this website.
The account of William of Malmesbury records that a superstition prevailed after St Frideswide's death that no kings dared to enter Oxford for fear of going blind, as did Algar in the legend. Many kings did visit Oxford, particularly in the early 11th century when parliaments were held in Oxford by King Ethelred II, King Canute and King Edward the Confessor. So how can this be squared with Malmesbury’s account of 1125 that no king had dared entered Oxford?
An insight is obtained if we look at where the royal personage and his party might have stayed while visiting Oxford. Although Ethelred II had a palace in Headington (where his royal charter of 1004 was signed) which had been a royal manor and residence since the Saxon period, no royal hall has been found in Oxford itself.
But if we look at Oxford Castle, archaeology has found that both the motte and St George’s tower date to before the Conquest. Archaeologists now believe that Oxford castle started as a Saxon motte and bailey in the early C10th. The king may have either stayed with his troops in the castle or possibly at Oseney Abbey or his palace at Headington.
The castle, Oseney and Headington are all outside Oxford’s city walls, so he would not have needed to enter Oxford. It is also known that Henry II was present in Oxford at the time of the translation of Frideswide’s relics to the first shrine in 1180, and yet he did not attend himself. He was probably staying at Beaumont Palace, built by him outside the walls in 1130, where King Richard I was born in 1157 and King John in 1167, and indeed some sources suggest this was a deliberate choice as he was ‘afraid of the legend’.
The first king to visit the shrine is said to have been Henry III and it took a great deal of preparation. More is recorded of this in The Shrine page on this website.
This is Robert of Gloucester’s account in Middle English:
‘To Oxenforth he wende vorth, as his fader was tho,
And hs men bi the weye dude wel muche wo
The king sone in Leinte to Oxenford com,
As is in with his fole atte frere prechors nom.
About an thre wouke there he gan a bide
Ver to gaderi is ost, that isprad was wide.
Suththe Seinte Fretheswithe was me nuste king non,
That withinne the zates of Oxonford dorst ride ne gon.
The king was among the freres, and hii many on
Radde him vor to wenden in, and nameliche frere Jon of Balson…
And he wende to Sente Fitheswithe, as no king ne com er,
Suththe Seinte Fritheswithe was, vale hundred zer,
And well vaire is offering to the heye weved her.
And suththe ofte, wan he thuder come, he offrede ther.’
Translated by Phillipa White, Oxford Cathedral Succentor and specialist in Middle English, it tells us:
‘To Oxford he (Prince Edward, later Edward I) went forth,
since his father (Henry III) was there,
and his men along the way did a lot of harm.
Soon, in Lent, the king came to Oxford
and stayed at the inn with his fool as the brother preachers told him.
He stayed there for about three weeks so that
he could gather his army, that was spread widely around.
At that time the king did not know where St Frideswide was,
and he did not dare ride within the gates of Oxford.
The king was among the brothers, and many of them
advised him to go in, and by name Brother John of Balson...
And he went to St Frideswide, as no king had done before,
where St Frideswide had been for many hundred years.
And his offering to her high altar was very fair.
And since then, as often as he came to Oxford, he made offering there.’
A second royal visitor was Queen Catherine of Aragon in 1518 when she was pregnant for the last time. She had been staying with the King Henry VIII at Abingdon Abbey and visited the shrine on route to the palace of Woodstock.. Her purpose was to pray for a healthy boy child to be born. See the Shrine page in this website for more information about this.
If the Queen’s prayers on 17th April 1518 had been granted, England might have remained Catholic and a very different place from what it is today. How much hung on one little prayer to one obscure saint!
But this visit, attended by Thomas Wolsey, may have opened his eyes to future possibilities. It may also have led to the survival of the church of St Frideswide, when in 1546, Henry VIII had to decide between Oseney Abbey and St Frideswide’s as to which should be the Cathedral of the new diocese of Oxford. I suspect that Henry, being a devout Catholic, could not destroy the church of a saint to whom his wife had prayed, even though those prayers had not be answered.
At the beginning of the 16th century the monastic system of England had grown bloated and corrupt, and St Frideswide’s was no exception. However, this little monastery had caught the eye of the wealthiest and most influential man, after the king, in England, Thomas Wolsey, and change was afoot.