Frideswide’s forward story, from the time of her death to the present day, has been through some major highs and lows. We know little about her monastery after her death and no other abbess has been named.
Sir Frank Stenton, an authority on the Anglo-Saxon period, in his 1935 lecture gives some details of how he thinks St Frideswide’s actual monastery must have been and these are as follows. (www.oxoniensia.org/volumes/1936/stenton.pdf)
‘William of Malmesbury regarded it (Frideswide’s monastery) as a house of nuns…’
‘An isolated house of women was not a normal feature of the earliest English monasticism…‘
‘If Frideswide really lived in the first third of the eighth century, there is a strong presumption that any monastery which she founded was a joint establishment of men and women…’
‘Many of the most famous monasteries of this period were undoubtedly founded after this pattern…’.
‘Whitby, Repton, Much Wenlock, Ely, Wimborne, Coldingham, the original monastery at Gloucester, and Barking…. were all joint congregations of men and women under a woman’s rule…’
‘If St Frideswide’s monastery contained men as well as women, it is easier to understand the process by which her church came in time to be served by a group of secular clergy…’
‘It is at least possible that the ‘canons of Oxford’ of whom Domesday Book speaks may represent a community of monks which had once formed part of St Frideswide’s foundation.’
Sir Frank also gives us some background on the secular and ecclesiastical governance of the country in the 8th century.
The secular government:
‘In the eighth century the basis of local government, at least in central England, was not the shire but the tribe or folk; each tribe being responsible for a supply of a defined quantity of food for the support of the king, and the provision of a defined contingent for the army…’
‘The principal centres of local administration at this time were not towns, but royal villages, where the king’s food-rent was paid…’
‘…there is 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 late 10th century…’
The religious government:
In the early 8th century ‘although many upland churches had been built by individual nobles, great stretches of country containing many villages, were dependant ecclesiastically on minsters founded by kings or bishops on larger estates….’
‘In the eighth and ninth centuries any church served by a group of clergy living communally might be described as a monasterium (the Latin word from which minster is derived)…’
Because of the changes in diocese and county boundaries over the centuries, ‘the parish churches of ancient royal and episcopal manors may in fact be regarded as the only institutions in this part of England which connect the age of St Frideswide with the present day…’
And ‘it is possible to recognise the importance of the ‘Old Minster’ in the ecclesiastical organization of pre-Conquest England…’
Stenton remarked that ‘the dates of St Frideswide’s birth and death are fixed provisionally as 680 and 735’, but there is no precedent for this in the 12th century legends which mention only 727.
Unfortunately, Life A states 727 as the year of her birth and Life B as the year of her death so we are no nearer her life span.
However, these dates, of 680-735, have been mistakenly used as the true dates of her life in many places, including on a plaque in the cathedral at the entrance to the Latin chapel.
In actual fact, it is understood by historians that the dates 680-735 (660-750 John Blair) was the span of time in which the early monastery building in England was at its height, and so the time into which Frideswide’s lifespan would have fallen.
The legends suggest she was a young woman when her father installed her in the church, but there is no documentary evidence of how old Frideswide was when she died. However, the legend mentions so little about her life in the monastery after her return to Oxford that she may well have died young, before there was time to name or train a successor.
Anthony Wood in his Antiquities of the City of Oxford, p141, suggests that the nuns left the monastery in 740 and secular monks were brought in, which would account for the lack of details of her life. This date might, however, be disputed by historians.
‘…was a time of constant warfare…’
‘Paganism was by no means extinct…’
‘…the whole future of Christianity in England was still uncertain…’
‘…it coincided with the literary careers of Aldhelm and Bede, through whom the English church became for a time the greatest force in European scholarship…’
‘…it saw a rise in decorative scultpure…unparalled in the western world…’
‘…the bulk of Old English poetry first took place…’
‘…it was a period when the English church exercised the deepest influence on the learning and religion of western Europe…’
Nunneries were never as well-endowed as monasteries (as described in Medieval Nunneries by Mike Slater) and Abingdon Abbey, founded around the same time, was bigger and better supported.
Her monastery went through a deep dive in the Viking period, was revived by an input of monks from Abingdon in the 10th century, only to be completely destroyed by fire at the turn of the first millennium as an inadvertent result of an English king’s unwise command.
See page 1002 on this website for more details.