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The Legend of Frideswide of Oxford, An Anglo-Saxon Royal Abbess: Introduction

Little is known with certainty about the historical Frideswide except that she was the abbess of a well-endowed monastery at Oxford in Anglo-Saxon times and was being commemorated there as a saint at the beginning of the eleventh century. Although her legend says she lived in the early eighth century, the early history of her monastery is almost a total blank because a fire in 1002 destroyed most of the records. The nuns must have been displaced either before 1002 or by the fire itself, for the minster church was staffed for most of the eleventh century by secular canons, property-owning clerics who were not subject to any monastic rule. In 1122 the monastery was refounded as a priory of Austin Canons - a more disciplined community of clergy which followed the Rule of St. Augustine. In the ensuing decades these canons excavated the grave of St. Frideswide, rediscovered her relics, and revived her cult. In 1180 they had her relics solemnly translated to a new shrine within the church, in a great public ceremony performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Miracles followed - over 100 of them during the year after the translation - and were duly recorded and publicized, drawing new streams of pilgrims to the shrine.

Frideswide's cult retained some strength until the end of the Middle Ages, especially in Oxfordshire and a few other western counties. Some of her relics had apparently been distributed to other religious houses at the time of the translation, for her name appears in the inventories of relics claimed by Reading Abbey, Hyde Abbey (Winchester), Waltham Abbey, and the royal chapel at Windsor. These same institutions commemorated her in their liturgies from an early date, and so did Abingdon Abbey, Exeter Cathedral, and the diocese of Hereford. However, only two medieval English churches and a chapel are known to have been dedicated to her: the minster church itself, the parish church at Frilsham in Berkshire, about twenty miles away, and the chapel at Binsey, just two miles from Oxford, that is mentioned in her legend. She was so closely associated with the town of Oxford that Chaucer adds local color to The Miller's Tale by having John, the provincial Oxford carpenter, spontaneously invoke her as his patron saint (CT I[A]3459). Early in the fifteenth century Oxford University joined the town in claiming her officially as its patron. In 1434 Archbishop Chichele endorsed a petition from the clergy asking that her feast day (October 19) should be celebrated thenceforth throughout the Province of Canterbury; in most churches, however, this order seems to have elicited little more than the addition of her name to the calendar.

In 1525 Frideswide's monastery was closed by Cardinal Wolsey, who appropriated its buildings and revenues for his newly founded Cardinal College (now Christ Church) and rebuilt the minster church to serve as the college chapel. In 1546 it became the cathedral church of the newly founded diocese of Oxford. Frideswide's shrine, still located inside the church, was destroyed and desecrated during the Reformation but has been partly reconstructed in modern times.

Frideswide's legend has received conflicting verdicts from modern scholars. In 1935 F. N. Stenton dismissed it as a late fabrication which just embroidered the brief account in William of Malmesbury's Gesta pontificum, attempting, in Stenton's words, "to give some appearance of substance to one of the most nebulous of English monastic legends" (p. 226). In the 1980s John Blair reopened the case, identifying two Latin versions of the legend, one of them contemporary with Malmesbury (c. 1100-30) and evidently based on earlier sources. This version, which Blair calls Latin Life A, seems to have been composed for monastic reading and includes a number of authentic-sounding details about Frideswide and her historical context. Latin Life B is essentially a revised and elaborated version of Latin Life A, probably composed between 1140 and 1170 by Robert of Cricklade, a scholarly Austin canon who was prior of St. Frideswide's, Oxford, while the canons were attempting to revive the saint's cult. Prior Robert, who obviously knew more about Oxford and its surroundings than the author of Latin Life A, improves the narrative's references to local geography and traditions and also adapts it to a new audience by omitting some of the details about monastic life, placing more emphasis on Frideswide's dedication to the ideals of poverty and virginity, and paying more attention to the roles played by parents and by the recipients of the saint's miracles.

The two Middle English versions presented here are based, respectively, on the two Latin versions discussed by Blair. They are both found in manuscripts of the South English Legendary and share many features of that compilation, including its predominant verse form (septenary couplets), down-to-earth language, and fondness for humorous and satirical comments from the narrator. But the two versions seem to be quite independent of each other. The shorter SEL account follows Latin Life A, abbreviating and simplifying the narrative but retaining its generally monastic outlook, which takes for granted such values as literacy, asceticism, virginity, and marriage to God rather than an earthly king. The longer SEL account looks much more like a deliberate recasting of the legend for a lay audience. It departs from its source, Latin Life B, by deemphasizing virginity and provides clear lessons on good and bad conduct for laymen instead - most obviously in the cautionary tale about working on Sunday, but also in the way it presents Frideswide's father as a man who makes virtuous choices and the king as a man who yields to demonic temptation. Also interesting in the longer account are all the details which tie Frideswide specifically to Oxford and its vicinity, showing her as patron and protector of this place, recipient of the town's welcoming acclaim when she returns after an absence, and provider of healings that continue at particular local sites.

Among more than 40 surviving manuscripts of the SEL, the shorter account of Frideswide is found in just two, Trinity College, Cambridge MS 605 (c. 1400) and British Library MS Stowe 949 (late 14th century), plus a very fragmentary third copy. The edition here is based on Trinity, which tends to have the best readings. The longer account of Frideswide is found in four manuscripts, of which Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 43 (c. 1300-30) is the earliest and usually the most reliable. The other manuscripts, all of which have eccentricities, are Magdalene College, Cambridge MS Pepys 2344 (c. 1325-50); British Library MS Cotton Julius D.9 (early 15th cent.); and Bodleian Library MS Bodley 779 (c. 1400-50).

Go To Shorter South English Legendary Life of St. Frideswide
Select Bibliography

Indexed in

Brown-Robbins, #2900.


[shorter Life]Trinity College, Cambridge MS 605 [formerly R.3.25], fols. 247r-248v.

[longer Life]Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 43 (SC 6924), fols. 155v-157v.

Previous editions

None published.

Latin Sources

Saint Frideswide, Patron of Oxford: The Earliest Texts. Ed., trans., and intro. John Blair. Oxford: Perpetua Press, 1988.

Historical Background and Criticism of the Frideswide legend

Blair, John. "Saint Frideswide Reconsidered." Oxoniensia 52 (1987), 71-127.

Görlach, Manfred. The Textual Tradition of the South English Legendary. 1974.

Jankofsky, Klaus P. "National Characteristics in the Portrayal of English Saints in the South English Legendary." 1991. Pp. 81-93.

__________, ed. The South English Legendary: A Critical Assessment.1992.

Mayr-Harting, Henry. "Functions of a Twelfth-Century Shrine: The Miracles of St. Frideswide." In Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. H. C. Davis. Ed. Henry Mayr-Harting and R. I. Moore. London: Hambledon Press, 1985. Pp. 193-206.

Pickering, O[liver] S. "The Outspoken South English Legendary Poet." 1994. Pp. 21-37.

Stenton, F. M. St. Frideswide and Her Times.The St. Frideswide Papers 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953. Rpt. in Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England: Being the Collected Papers of Frank Merry Stenton. Ed. Doris Mary Stenton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970. Pp. 224-33. [Originally a lecture given on 19 October 1935 at the chapter house, Christ Church, on the occasion of the 1200th anniversary of St. Frideswide's death.]

Thompson, Anne B. "Shaping a Saint's Life: Frideswide of Oxford." Medium Aevum 63 (1994), 34-52.