The first account is by a monk and scribe called William of Malmesbury, 1095-1143, said to be the foremost English historian of the 12th century. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_of_Malmesbury)
He ‘may well have been the most learned man in Western Europe’ and he travelled widely in England to record the history of the abbeys and bishoprics as well as the lives of saints in his De Gestis Pontificum Anglorum (The Deeds of the English Bishops) from around 1125. He became acquainted with Roger, Bishop of Salisbury (who re-founded the Frideswide monastery in Oxford) around this time.
The legend of St Frideswide is from this collection and William maintains that he visited St Frideswide’s monastery and talked with the old monks who remembered the story of the Saint as it had been passed down in oral tradition. He recorded what they said as accurately as possible and from this we get the first and most succinct account of the life of St Frideswide.
James Parker’s translation of Malmesbury’s text is in his Early History of Oxford p94.
‘There was anciently in the City of Oxford a Convent of Nuns, in which the most holy virgin Frideswide reposes. She, the daughter of a king, despised marriage with a king, consecrating her virginity to the Lord Christ. But he, when he had set his mind on marrying the virgin and found all his entreaties and blandishments of no avail, determined to make use of forcible means. When Frideswide discovered this, she determined upon taking flight into the wood. But neither could her hiding-place be kept secret from her lover, nor was there want of courage to hinder his following the fugitive. The virgin therefore, having heard of the renewed passion of the young man, found her way, by the help of God, through obscure paths, in the dead of night, into Oxford. When in the morning her anxious lover hastened thither, the maiden, now despairing of safety by flight, and also by reason of her weariness, being unable to proceed further, invoked the aid of God for herself, and punishment upon her persecutor. And now, as he with his companions approached the gates of the city, he suddenly became blind, struck by the hand of heaven. And when he had admitted the fault of his obstinacy, and Frideswide was besought by his messengers, he received back again his sight as suddenly as he had lost it. Hence there has arisen a dread amongst all the kings of England which has caused them to beware of entering and abiding in that city since it is said to be fraught with destruction, every one of the kings declining to test the truth for himself by incurring the danger. In that place, therefore, this maiden, having gained the triumph of her virginity, established a convent, and when her days were over and her Spouse called her, she there died...’
Could this legend have any truth in it or is it merely a story (or myth) as some might argue?
The main points are:
1. The city of Oxford had an ancient convent of nuns and a saint, Frideswide, buried there.
2. St Frideswide, the abbess, was the daughter of a king.
3. She refused to marry a king, preferring to dedicate her life to God. The kingly lover refused to take no for an answer and decided to kidnap her.
4. The virgin discovered his plot and escaped into a forest, but he followed her persistently.
5. She managed to get back to Oxford, by secrets paths at night but her importunate lover heard this and hurried back to Oxford the next morning.
6. She was too weary to escape him so prayed for God to aid her and punish her persecutor.
7. On approaching the city, he was struck blind by the hand of God.
8. He realized the error of his ways, begged Frideswide for forgiveness, and his eyesight returned.
1. An ancient convent of nuns in Oxford? Answer: Very likely.
Archaeological investigations in the cloisters in 1985 are reported in Oxoniensia 53 1989, which suggest (p62) that the finds ‘demonstrate the existence of a 9th - 10th century community and may imply the existence of a contemporary religious foundation… almost certainly associated with the pre-Conquest minster’. One burial gave a significantly earlier date. A further dig in 1972 in Tom Quad also found burials with a mid-Saxon date.
The Archaeology of Oxford in Twenty Digs by David Radford also refers to human remains found in the garden outside the Lucy Chapel. Mostly male, they dated from 8th - 10th centuries, but one female skeleton was dated to the 7th century.
No evidence has been found for the Saxon church, which would have been under the present structure, but parts of the cathedral appear to respect earlier structures.
2. A high-ranking female of the early 8th century was the abbess of a monastery. Is this likely? Answer: Yes indeed.
The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society by John Blair suggests monastery building was at its height in Wessex and Mercia between 660 and 750, many of them being double houses ruled by influential, royal women some of whom were made saints after their death. He mentions that the Saxon minsters at Thame, Aylesbury and Bicester were founded by King Wulfhere of Mercia and members of his family in the late 7th century. At Thame, Frithuwold was married to Wulfhere’s sister. Another sister, Eadburh, was at Bicester and, Osgyth his niece was connected with Aylesbury. Also, Werburgh his daughter is remembered at Chester, and Eormenhild his wife was at Ely. Frideswide was continuing in that tradition and may well have known of these women, so it is highly plausible that a Saxon minster in Oxford should be ruled by the daughter of one of Wulfhere’s sub-kings.
3. Frideswide’s refusal to marry a king, and his refusal to take no for an answer? Answer: Very possible.
This might seem unrealistic to our modern ears but we forget the feudal nature of Saxon England where powerful kings expected submission and used power to get it. In Henrietta Leyser’s book Medieval Women (p48) she recounts how in 1046 Earl Swein, brother of Earl Harold, later King Harold II, raided Wales and ‘ordered the abbess of Leominster to be brought to him and he kept her as long as he pleased and afterwards allowed her home.’ That this was a sexual encounter is discussed in Harold, the Last Anglo-Saxon King by Ian W Walker where (p26) he suggests Swein kept the abbess for over a year and wanted to marry her. For this and other unacceptable behavior he was sent into exile, but it sounds like a direct equivalent to what is recorded for Frideswide.
We should also look at the life of King Ethelbald of Mercia, 716-757, a Christian king and a founder of monasteries. St Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon missionary to Germany, wrote Ethelbald a stinging letter in 746 rebuking him for his many sins such as ‘stealing ecclesiastical revenue, violating church privileges, imposing forced labour on clergy, and fornicating with nuns…’ (Wikipedia: Ethelbald of Mercia) With an example like that before him any sub-king under his command might be tempted to do the same.
But why did this king wish to have Frideswide for his wife? Was it for her beauty, her prestige, or something else?
Answer: His reason was probably political.
E F Jacob in his booklet The Frideswide Papers article St Frideswide Patron Saint of Oxford (available in Oxford central library) gives a hint. ‘The story of the king of Leicester may represent the attempt of one of Ethelbald’s lieutenants to make sure of, in order to utilize in defence or campaigning, the valuable town on the southern border of Mercia. A charter of 736 describes Ethelbald as king of the southern English, and the twenty years preceding this may have witnessed a steady pressure southwards from the southern Mercian plain into Hampshire and Wiltshire. In these circumstances Oxford may have been a desirable stronghold in the forward movement, and the hand of its leading daughter may have bene regarded by the midland commander as the best means of securing its loyalty.’
A more mundane reason for his rough wooing is therefore likely: to take control of the town of Oxford and appropriate the riches of the monastery for his war efforts. Henrietta Leyser (above) goes on to say that 'a conqueroring lord might express territorial victory by demanding sexual submission form an abess or her nuns.'
However, it continues, ‘On the other hand, the repudiation of a noble suiter by a high-born lady piously determined on a life of chastity and self-mortification is by no means unfamiliar in hagiography, and we should not make too much of the tempter from the midlands.’
4-5. Did Frideswide discover the king’s plot to kidnap her and escape?
Answer: Frideswide’s escape is very reasonable.
Later legends attribute this to a miracle, and her way of receiving it may well have been one, but a powerful king, who has been thwarted, is not likely to keep quiet about his intentions, and it could easily have got back to her. However, the place she escaped to is interesting. In later legends two places are named, Bentone and Binsey. Bentone has not been identified, but Abingdon and Bampton have both been suggested. Abingdon is 10 miles along the Thames from Oxford and Bampton more than 14. She would have needed a strong boatman or a miracle to get her as far as that at night. But the Malmesbury legend mentions only a wood, and Binsey would be perfect for that. It is still a location in the Thames flood plain a couple of miles north of Oxford with a chapel and a holy well.
Binsey: Oxford’s Holy Place, edited by Lydia Carr points out that the chapel is located within an oval Iron Age enclosure, and (p58) that the 15th century cartulary asserts that ‘…the possession called Binsey… was given to the said monastery from the time when Frideswide was alive in the body’. The chapel is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, but a 1323 reference (p59) maintains that ‘the chapel built at Binsey was in honour of St Frideswide and St Margaret.’ It also notes that far from being the remote place it is today (p60), Binsey was close to a medieval route from Eynsham across Wytham Hill, crossing the Thames at Binsey Ford, then through Walton to St Giles, crossing University Parks to the King’s Mill on the Cherwell, then via Cuckoo Lane to the London Road.
6-8. The miracle of blindness and then healing. How likely was that?
Answer: something remarkable must have happened.
It happened in a public place, at the gate of the city (or more likely, the gate of the monastery, as Oxford would have been too small to be called a city at that time, and the monastery would have had a boundery with a gate). It was also seen by everybody. That it had a profound effect is obvious from the striking about-turn of her lover and the adoration she received from the people. The other legends go on to record several more miracles effected by her prayers which resulted in an early following, and pilgrimages to her grave after her death.
There is no doubt that the people thought what had happened was genuine. It must have been of serious significance to maintain her early cult through the tumultuous years of the Viking invasions, and to be worthy of being re-established in the 12th century under a different monastic system, when so many Saxon saints dropped into obscurity.