The Legend of St. Frideswide of Oxford

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Saint Frideswide hiding among the pigs – Public Domain

Frideswide

Frideswide was the daughter of Didan the king of Lower Mercia and Selfrida, his wife.  She lived in the middle of the 7th century and was born in the royal palace in Oxford.  She was brought up at what is now called Didcot which belonged to her father and was named after him.  Frideswide was known as Fritha to her family and friends and placed under the guidance of a holy woman named Elgitha, or Algiva, who was her governess.  Elgitha came to have a tremendous influence on Frideswide teaching her that, “Whatever is not God is nothing”.  So it was that she grew up in a spiritual environment and was a very quick and enthusiastic student, especially with her Christian studies.

When her mother died she moved back to Oxford to be with her father and managed to persuade him to give her a substantial plot of land to build a church on which was situated at the city gates.  Along with twelve companions, she took the holy vows and her father built a convent next to the church for them.   Although they were bound by rules of chastity and seclusion they were not bound by the rules of the cloister which was consecrated by Edgar the bishop of the diocese and her father gave generous lands and farms to the convent and church.

Frideswide and the Devil

Frideswide was a very beautiful young woman.  Word of her beauty spread far and wide and as a royal princess, she would come with a rich dowry.   Consequently, she was seen as was a highly desirable prize by neighboring princes and royals and had many suitors.  Nevertheless, Frideswide was dedicated to her faith and had no wish for marriage, instead she intended to devote herself to God and Jesus.  According to legend, Satan was jealous of the peace she found in her life and was jealous of the rewards she would surely be given in the afterlife for her devotion and good works.

Although he knew she would never directly be tempted by him and what he had to offer he tried to deceive her by devious means.  He caused her to have a dream where he visited her in the guise of Jesus urging her to follow him.  Frideswide saw straight through the deception and called upon her Lord who drove him from her presence.

Aelfgar

Although Satan failed he had not given up and reverted to other means.  One of his servants on earth was Aelfgar, a Prince of the Royal House of Mercia and Earl of Leicester.  He reveled in drunkenness and debauchery and committed many acts of sin.   Encouraged by Satan, Aelfgar decided that he wanted Frideswide for his wife and sent messengers to her asking for her consent in marriage.  Aelgar was the type of man who used to getting what he wanted by any means and he had ordered his messengers to bring back Frideswide either willingly or by force.

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Frideswide in window in the Lady Chapel at Gloucester Cathedral – Weglinde – CC BY-SA 3.0

Frideswide made it clear to the messengers that although she was greatly flattered by Alfgar’s  proposition she had made a solemn vow of chastity which she would never break and was dedicated to her Lord Jesus . The messengers as they had been instructed by Aelfgar warned her of their intent  and approached  to take her under their control.  Frideswide fearing their intent remembered the ordeal of St Agnes for strength.  She told them that she would withhold consent and though her body may be stained her heart would remain pure.  She prayed to God and like the persecutors of St Agnes, the messenger of  Aelfgar were struck blind.

When the people of Oxford heard of these events they feared the wrath of Aelfgar and went to Frideswide and begged her to give the messengers back their sight. Being a kind Christian soul she prayed to the Lord and the messengers were given back their sight.   So glad were they to regain their vision they got down on their knees and begged her forgiveness and gave thanks to her and God.  They then returned to Aelfgar to make their report of her rejection and their alarming experience.

Aelfgar ignored the event completely as if it had never happened and his passion for Frideswide grew.  He refused to believe anyone had the strength of will and courage to oppose his will and in a temper, he rode to Oxford intent on subjugating  Frideswide to his will by any means.

Escape by the River Thames

It was the practice of Frideswide to sometimes spend the night in peaceful and quiet prayer and in such a moment an angel appeared to her and warned her of the approach of Aelfgar.  The angel told her to go  with two of her sisters down to the nearby River Thames where they would find a boat.  Upon that boat was another angel who would take them down the river to safety.  She followed the heavenly instructions and she and her sisters found the boat and were taken about ten miles downstream to be put ashore near a place called Abingdon. From there they traveled on foot through the forests coming to a place that was then known as Bentona and today is called Yattendon.

They found a small building that had been used by local swineherds to keep their pigs in during the autumn when they brought them to feed on the abundant acorns in the forest.  The pigsty had become overgrown the foliage of many plants  but the three friends tidied it up and made it into a tiny oratory.  There in that humble place, they lived for the next three years living off the forest and drinking from a well that had sprung forth after Frideswide had prayed for water.

Aelfgar’s Wrath

Aelfgar had not forgotten Frideswide and searched throughout the land for her sending his emissaries to seek her but to no avail.  Angry and desperate he gathered an army and marched on Oxford.  Arriving at the city gates he threatened to burn down the city unless Frideswide was brought to him.  King Didan was prepared to fight to the death for his daughter but some of the citizen’s of Oxford did not want their homes burnt down and opened the city gates to give Aelfgar entry into the city.   Frideswide had been in contact with her father to reassure him of her well being but news of her whereabouts fell into the wrong hands and she was betrayed.

That night Aelfgar held a party and the drink flowed freely.  Drunkenly he boasted that he would take Frideswide by force and take his pleasure on her regardless with or without her consent.  However, when morning came he thought better of his boasting and decided to try a less forceful courtship.  He thought an open, persistent and less  threatening display of his love for her might change her mind.

Choosing fine and expensive gifts he sent two of his messengers to deliver these to her along with romantic messages, love songs, and poems.  Frideswide patiently and respectfully listened to the messages, love songs, and poems and looked at and admired the fine presents. She then carefully and quietly and with great reverence and respect declined the offer of marriage.  The two messengers took back her answer to Aelfgar but as they were passing through the city gates of Oxford they were struck blind but still gave the news to their prince.

Aelfgar was furious and humiliated to be rejected again and called for his horse which he rode furiously into the forest to confront Frideswide with his men desperately trying to keep up with him.  As he neared the place where Frideswide and her friends had made their oratory her two friends who were out foraging for berries and food heard his approach and ran to warn their mistress.

Frideswide was dismayed.  Her strength was sapped and her resolve gone.  She realized there was no escape now but she had vowed to keep her chastity and she intended to do so whatever the cost to herself.  Fully aware of what Aelfgar would do when he caught her she prepared herself for what she had to do.  As she  resigned herself to meeting God she remembered St Catherine and St Celia whose defense of their chastity cost them their lives and she prayed upon them for strength and help.

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Church of St Frideswide, Frilsham, Berkshire – Michael FORD CC BY-SA 2.0

Struck Blind

Aelfgar arrived and furiously jumped from his horse and moved to take hold of her.  Just as he was about to lay his hand on her he cried out in fear and froze in motion for a second.  He had been struck blind just as his messengers had been and he fell to the ground groveling and crying in the mud.

He begged her for help promising that he would never trouble her again if only he could have his sight back and begged for forgiveness saying that he truly repented his behavior towards her.  Being a naturally compassionate person Frideswide led him by the hand to the spring where she washed his face and eyes in the water and prayed to God for the restoration of his sight.  Her prayers were heard and answered and his sight was miraculously restored.

After this Frideswide decided she would return to the convent at Oxford but politely refused the horses that Aelfgar offered insisting that she and her companions would return on foot together unescorted by him or his men.

The Leper

As she and her companions made their way through the lanes and forest tracks they came across a leper whose disease had left him deformed and hideous.  Seeing the three women he approached them and asked them for a kiss.  The two companions of Frideswide were repulsed by this request but she made the sign of the cross and in the way that a sister would kiss her brother she kissed his lips.  Immediately his scarring and deformities healed up and his skin became fair and as healthy as any man’s and was miraculously cured.

Canonization

Frideswide lived in the Oxford convent for many happy years and eventually chose to retire in seclusion to Thornbury Wood at Binsey where she built a small chapel.  Once again she prayed for water but this time to St Margaret and a spring miraculously bubbled up out of the ground and was sufficient for all her needs for the rest of her life.  She died on 19th of October 735 and was buried in Oxford at the convent.   Many pilgrims have visited her grave and many miracles were said to have occurred and she was eventually canonized.  The oratory in the forest near Yattendon also became a place of pilgrimage and a small settlement grew there that evolved into the village of Frilsham.

© 23/11/2016 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 23rd, 2016 zteve t evans

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