‘We have to treat legends very differently from myths. Myths, as a rule, grow up around a shadow, while legends grow up around a substance’. James Parker, The Early History of Oxford, p101
The story of St Frideswide is recorded three times in the 12th century as legends. This was at the time when the Normans, having conquered Britain around 40 years before, were expanding the Christian faith in England under Henry I (1100-1135), King Stephen (1135-1154) and King Henry II (1154-1189).
The Normans were devout Christians and maintained the hierarchy of the English church with its archbishops and bishops. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury 1093-1109, was a militant churchman and he encouraged the monarchy to support reform of the English church, and re-establishment of the monasteries. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anselm_of_Canterbury).
The 12th century was a time of re-founding of many of the beleaguered Saxon monasteries and churches and the building of new monasteries and churches all over the country.
These reforms and restorations were implemented by the bishops and Roger, Bishop of Salisbury from 1102-1139, was instrumental in re-founding St Frideswide’s Monastery as the Augustinian Priory of St Frideswide.
Aware of the many Saxon saints still revered across the country, religious scribes, such as William of Malmesbury, started to visit the old monasteries and record their stories.
Many of the minor Saxon saints were lost at this point but the recovery of St Frideswide’s story led to two further accounts by members of the monastery.
These have been transcribed and analyzed by Prof John Blair in his article ‘Frideswide Reconsidered’ in Oxoniensia 52, 1987, and he called them Life A and Life B.
Please see the separate pages for a description of, and extracts from, each legend.
It would have been most helpful if the Legends had told us the unequivocal dates of Frideswide’s life, but the Malmesbury Life does not mention them, Life A suggests she died in 727 and Life B that she was born in 727. No other date is mentioned in the historic documents, so we can only speculate that she lived in the early 8th century AD.
In the early 8th century, the pre-Oxford area was in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia. King Ethelbald of Mercia reigned from 716 to 757, so he must have been king while Frideswide was in her monastery whether 727 was her birth or death. A glance at his lifestyle is very reminiscent of Frideswide’s importunate, kingly lover and will be discussed under the page about the Malmesbury legend.
The legends are discussed in more detail in the pages William of Malmesbury, Life A and Life B on this website, but it may be useful to pull together what the legends say about the early monastery.
William of Malmesbury: He just states that she established a monastery at Oxford.
Life A extracts
Section 4. At Frideswide’s instigation her father, King Dydan, built a church for her in the city of Oxford. It was dedicated to The Trinity, the Virgin Mary and All Saints.
Section 5. Frideswide wished to become a nun, so her father arranged for Orgar, bishop of Lincoln to consecrate her with 12 of her friends to the service of God.
Section 5. Dydan built accommodation suitable for a community of nuns, including a dining hall, dormitories and cloisters and provided dedicated men to serve them.
Section 5. Dydan also gave the farms and villages of St Mary, and a third of the town of Oxford, as income for the support of the nuns.
Life B extracts
Section 4. Dydan, grieving for his wife and urged by his daughter, built a church within the city boundary and dedicated it in honour of the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary and All Saints.
Section 5. Dydan asked the bishop of the neighbouring diocese to consecrate her as a nun with twelve companions.
Section 5. Buildings appropriate for the religious uses were constructed beside the church through the king’s generosity.
William of Malmesbury: He just states that she ended her days in the monastery.
Life A extracts
Section 24. She was buried in St Mary’s church, on the south side…
Life B extracts
Section 24. She was buried in the basilica of the spotless virgin Mary, on the south side, next to the river Thames. The site of the basilica remained thus until the time of King Ethelred, who after the burning of the Danes who had fled there, enlarged the perimeter of the basilica as he had previously vowed. It certainly happened like this, because the grave, which had previously been on one side, came henceforth to be in the middle.