An enterprising and energetic Dean, by the name of Henry Liddell (1811-1898), arrived on the scene in 1855 and things began to happen to the neglected Christ Church Cathedral, the former church of St Frideswide. It was over 300 years since the destruction of the shrine and suppression of the Cult of St Frideswide and knowledge of her had faded through the years even perhaps to the point that some may have questioned her existence.
One of the first things the new Dean did was to install a new window in the east end of the Latin Chapel in 1858. It was created by a young artist found by the cathedral architect of the time, Benjamin Woodward. He, and his friends William Morris and Gabriel Rosetti, had been painting murals on the interior of the Student Union building. He was 26 and called Ned by his friends, but he went on to become the great pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones. This was only his third stained-glass commission and the theme chosen was the legend of St Frideswide.
This decision must have needed the approval of the Dean and Chapter, but why the beleaguered Frideswide, about whom little was known, and who may not even have existed, was decided upon, is probably buried deep in the Chapter minutes never to be seen again.
The window follows, more-or-less, the theme of the recorded legend so Burne-Jones must have had access to the legend, possibly as recorded by the Antiquary William Dudgale in his Monasticon Anglicanum, copies of which are available in many Oxford college libraries. A pamphlet about the window is available from general at palmcrosspublications.co.uk or from the cathedral shop in the Visitor Centre on Broad Walk, Oxford.
Besides this innovative window, the cathedral buildings needed a lot of work. Percy Dearmer in Oxford, its Cathedral and See quotes on p22 from a paper of 1847, ‘…the present state of the cathedral is more deplorable than can be imagined… it remains in a condition that would disgrace the meanest hamlet..’ The writer criticises the ‘wretched and irreverent’ nature of the wooden stalls, the ‘meanness’ of the episcopal throne, the crowdedness of the choir, the inconvenience of the organ position which blocked the view of the nave, and the ‘offensive’ nature of the screens erected by Dean Duppa in the 17th century to close the entrances to the Lady and Latin chapels.
Dearmer continues to explain (p23) that Dean Liddell began the restoration in 1856, only a year after he had arrived, with a architect called Mr John Billing, who repaired some walls that had become unsafe and removed some of the most hideous seating. But a great deal more work was required and in 1870, Dean Liddell hired the best and only George Gilbert Scott, who created (p24) ‘one of the most judicious and successful works of restoration that this impeccable age (19th century) has produced.’ In doing so he found the most important evidence we have that St Frideswide was revered and believed in by many people long ago, and that was the Shrine.
Scott worked very hard. He repaired stonework, rebuilt and reshaped windows, repaired the tower and spire, re-arranged the pews to face inwards, designed the ornate metal screen behind the pews, the canopies in the choir and the Dean and sub-Dean’s seats.
He moved the organ to the west end of the nave. He rebuilt the East end which had become very perilous, removed the large gothic east window and replaced it with a round window above two round-headed windows. He made this major transformation because indications in the stonework suggested this might have been the arrangement in Norman times.
He transformed the former verger’s residence in the south transept above the former slype into the sacristy and upper office. He closed off the slype, which had allowed entrance to the garden, and it became a storeroom. He also raised the wooden vaulting in the cloister above the chapter house door, so it was fully visible.
He opened up the internal floor of the church tower lantern from which the bells had been rung, and in 1878 removed the bells from the tower as their vibrations had made the tower unsafe. They were placed in a new tower and belfry built over the hall staircase by Mr Bodley in 1880.
Not least of all the changes was the re-arrangement of the entrance to the cathedral. Thomas Wolsey had cut three bays, about 50 ft, off the west end of the nave to make the largest quadrangle in Oxford, amputating the nave at the point where the organ case is currently sited, and building his eastern wing of the quad across in front of it.
This meant that for centuries the entrance to the cathedral was through the south door from the cloisters (built for that purpose around 1529), and a narrow, open-air gap, one archway wide, existed behind the east range of the quad, between it and the abrupted nave. Dean Liddle decided to restore a west-end entrance by gutting the ground floor of one of the Canon’s residences to provide a passageway, and building across the gap behind it, where the entrance lobby is now.
In the open space was a fresh-water well serving the residences, and this had to be capped. They began to take down the masonry of the walls of the well's surround, and as they did, beautifully carved pieces of masonry began to appear, including carvings of three faces of nuns.
The only thing it could possibly had been was the 1289 shrine. Just imagine the elation! They put it together like a jigsaw puzzle, along with other pieces found later, and placed it between the first and second columns to the south side of the Lady Chapel, between it and the north choir aisle (Bell chapel).
Quoting from Oxford, the Cathedral and See by Percy Dearmer 1899 p84:
‘ the coffer or shrine, which was made for the translation in 1289 (its base being therefore the most ancient monument in the cathedral), was knocked to pieces at the Reformation (1538) and, being of wood, must have entirely perished. But gradually, and from various places, fragments of the base were brought together: first, several pieces of delicately carved marble were discovered in the sides of a square well in the yard southwest of the cathedral; then a part of the plinth on the south side was found to be used as a step, luckily with the carved portion turned inwards; then a spandrel was detected by Mr Francis, the head verger, in the wall of the cemetery, and last of all a piece of the plinth was found in the wall of Tom quad.’
It continues p85…’though the base of St Frideswide’s shrine is only a collection of fragments, these fragments are of remarkable beauty and interest. It is of forest marble, measuring seven feet by three and a half, and consists of an arcade of two richly cusped arches at the sides and one at each end. On the top of this was fixed the feretrum, containing the jewelled casket that held the relics themselves. The spandrels are filled with wonderfully carved foliage, unusually naturalistic, and preserving still the traces of colour and gilding to remind one of its former glories. The plants have been identified by Mr Druce of High St, a well-known Oxford botanist…. The choice of this foliage was doubtless made for symbolic reasons, referring first to St Frideswide’s life in the oak woods and next to her care for the sick and suffering… the sculptor chose plants which are famous for their healing virtues…’
Since then a few more pieces have been found in the cathedral storerooms including a piece of marble column, now the middle column on the north side of the shrine, which showed how tall the arches were. This enabled a further reconstruction in 2002 when additions were made in resin to complete the arches. There is more about the shrine in The Shrine pages on this website.
During the process of creating the west entrance, the west wall and window that Thomas Wolsey had inserted were removed and a new solid west wall was built above a new, very large, west doorway, now the glass doors.
It is thought (though this is not known for certain), that there was some old stained-glass illustrating saints and angels in the window that was taken down. This was found to be medieval glass from the 14th century and among the saints was an enigmatic figure with the letters Sta Fridieswida underneath.
Dean Liddle decided to fill three of the four plain windows in the north wall of the Latin chapel with these images, the fourth he filled with a Victorian image of St Frideswide to complement the medieval one. This glass is still in those same Latin chapel windows.
Percy Deamer includes a long quote from Dean Liddell (p 86) about the finding of the shrine which is worth repeating here, not least because it tells us, in the voice of the Dean himself, what was known 150 years ago.
This is from ‘two sermons preached in the Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford’.
‘It is a strange story. It is well known that, before the Reformation, the Church of St Frideswide and her shrine enjoyed a high reputation as a place of sanctity. Privileges were conceded to it by royal authorities. Miracles were believed to be wrought by a virtue attaching to it; pilgrims from all parts resorted to it, – among the number we find the name of Queen Catherine of Aragon (also referred to as Katharine), whose visit to the shrine shows the veneration in which it was held. Twice a year the Vice-Chancellor and principal members of the University visited the church in solemn procession, being considered, as we are told, the mother church of University and town – there to pray, preach and offer oblations at her shrine.
These practices and privileges not unnaturally seemed to the zealous Reformers of those times to call for summary interference. The old superstitions, which certainly gave rise to many abuses must, they thought, be abated at once; nothing but strong measures would avail to withdraw the minds of the people, nurtured as they were in absolute belief in these superstitions, from belief in them. Accordingly, we cannot be surprised to find that this famous shrine was doomed to destruction, and was actually destroyed… the fragments were used either at the time, or not long afterwards, to form part of the walls of a common well; and there we found them. The reliques of the Saint, however, were rescued by some zealous votaries, and carefully preserved in hope of better times.'
'Meantime Catherine (the wife of Peter Martyr, a foreign Protestant theologian of high repute, who had been appointed Regius Professor of Theology here) died, and was buried near the place lately occupied by the shrine. Over her grave sermons were preached, contrasting the pious zeal of the German Protestant with the superstitious practices that had tarnished the simplicity of the Saxon Saint. Then came another change. The Roman Catholic church under Mary Tudor recovered a brief supremacy. The body of Peter Martyr’s wife (one regrets to learn) by order of Cardinal Pole, contemptuously cast out of the church, and the remains of St Frideswide preserved, as I said, by the piety of her devotees, were restored to their former resting place. But it does not appear that any attempt was made to restore the shrine. Party zeal still prevailed. Angry contests continued between the adherents of the two parties even after the accession of Elizabeth.'
‘In consequence, the Queen (Elizabeth I), soon after her accession, ordered Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Grindal, Bishop of London, to look into this and other matters in dispute between the two adherents of the Roman Catholic Church and those of the Reformed Faith; and these eminent ecclesiastics commissioned the authorities of this House to remove the scandal that had been caused by the inhuman treatment of Catherine Martyr’s body.'
'The matter was conducted by James Calfhill, lately appointed to a stall in this church, and then acting as sub-Dean. In a letter to Bishop Grindal he gives an account of the ceremony that took place. He was resolved, if we may judge from his action, not to give triumph to either party. On Jan 11th 1561, the bones of the Protestant Catherine and the Catholic St Frideswide were put together, so intermingled that they could not be distinguished, and then placed together in the same tomb. This solution of the difficulty could not have been displeasing to the great Queen who had been consistently endeavouring rather to win over her opponents by conciliation than to crush them by persecution. We may well suppose that she approved of the act of our Dean and Chapter. Death is the great reconciler; enmities should at all events be buried with the dead.’
A painting of Pietro Martire Vermigli used to hang in side rooms at Christ Church Cathedral and is now in storage in the Christ Church Picture Gallery. It can be viewed on request to the gallery manager.
Henry Liddell was Dean from 1855-1891, and famously was the father of Alice Liddell who was immortalised by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland. His real name was Charles Dodgeson, and he was a maths lecturer at Christ Church.
In the later part of the 19th century Canon William Bright had a brass plaque placed in the floor of the Lady chapel near to the tomb of Elizabeth Montacute.
It had this Latin inscription (translated courtesy of Francis Goldie in The Story of St Frideswide, available from the Oxford central library):
In loving memory of Blessed Frideswide,
Who in the course of the eighth century after Christ
Of this ancient monastery
Was the foundress and abbess.
Her relics in 1180 from this tomb
Were solemnly translated
Into this church, then but lately built.
Again in 1289, they were placed in a new shrine
Erected on this very spot.
Finally, they were buried here beneath.
The fruit of justice is sown in peace, to them that make peace.
This brass was laid down by the orders of Canon WB.
Canon William Bright was an exceptional man " In 1868, he was appointed Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford, and canon of Christ Church in succession to Arthur Penrhyn Stanley. He was proctor in convocation for the chapter of Christ Church from 1878; examining chaplain to Edward King; and sub-dean of Christ Church from 1895.
He died unmarried at Christ Church on 6 March 1901, and was buried in the Christ Church portion of Osney Cemetery, by Oxford. Bright wrote a number of works and hymns."
At least 10 of his hymns are contained in the hymnbook Ancient and Modern. He must have had the plaque made after he became sub-Dean in 1895. With considered research it is likely that its original position was not so far from where the 1289 shrine originally stood, probably where the altar now stands in the Lady chapel.
Until the re-constructed shrine was erected in the Latin chapel this stone was used as a focus on the feast day of St Frideswide. The stunning Shrine, an exceptional example of medieval craftmanship, now fulfills that purpose. There is more about the shrine in The Shrine pages of this website.