The Legend of St. Frideswide
by David Nash
Patroness of Oxfordshire or Berkshire?
Frideswide, or Fritha as she was known to her family and friends, was the daughter of King Didan of Lower Mercia and his wife, Sefrida. She was born at her father's palace in Oxford in the mid seventh century, and was brought up by a governess, a holy woman named Elgitha, at her father's estate named after him, at Didcot. This lady greatly influenced the young princess's life, teaching her that "Whatever is not God is nothing". Thus, from an early age, Frideswide inclined towards a spiritual life. After her mother's death, Frideswide returned to Oxford to live with her father. Soon she had persuaded him to give her a large parcel of land at the gates of the city where she could build a church. Here she took the veil with twelve companions, and Didan built them a convent adjoining the church. The ladies were not, however, bound by the strict rules of the cloister, but only by their love of seclusion and chastity.
Frideswide's fame spread far and wide, and as a beauty with plenty of money, she was seen as a rich prize. Aelfgar, the Earl of Leicester, a Prince of the Royal Mercian House, decided to press his suit upon the lady and sent her messengers asking for her hand in marriage. Though he greatly flattered her, Frideswide would not give in to his entreaties for she had taken a vow of chastity. Thus she refused the prince. Aelfgar was furious and decided on a plan to take Frideswide by force. Didan's spies, however, got wind of the plan and his daughter thought it best to flee to Oxford with two of her companions.
Down by the Thames, the three found a small boat tended by a white robed youth. Unbeknown to them, the young man was an angel in disguise who readily agreed to take them down the river to Abingdon. From here the ladies sought refuge in the deep oak forest which covered much of Berkshire at that time. They travelled many miles on foot to a place then called Bentona, now Yattendon. Here they discovered a small ivy-covered pig-sty where the swineherds brought their animals in autumn to feet on the acorns of the forest. Frideswide made the sty into a small oratory for the three companions and here they lived off the land for some three years, drinking from a well which appeared when Frideswide had prayed for water.
In the meantime, Prince Aelfgar continued to search for Frideswide. He sent his emissaries all over the heptarchy looking for her, but to no avail. In desperation he gathered a large force of men and marched on Oxford. At the city gates, he threatened to burn the city down if Frideswide was not delivered to him. Didan would not sacrifice his daughter, but the people of Oxford were frightened of loosing their homes. They opened the city gates to Aelfgar and revealed the princess's hiding place.
At a drunken party that night, Aelfgar declared he would take Frideswide for his pleasure, and that of his men too, whether she liked it or not. However, in the sober light of day, he felt more conciliatory, and hoped to win her round with an open display of his persistent affection. He sent two messengers into the forest with gifts and songs of love. Frideswide received the ambassadors with quiet reverence, and listened to what they had to say. Her answer, however, was as before. The two returned to Oxford, but as they entered the city gates to report to Aelfgar, they were both struck blind.
The prince was furious at the second rebuff. He jumped on his horse and rode off into the forest to confront this defiant woman. She was going to be his wife whether she liked it or not. His men chased after him, and barely managed to keep up. Near Frideswide's oratory, her two companions were out gathering berries when they heard Aelfgar's approach. They ran to their mistress to warn her. Frideswide's body, however, was weak and her spirit broken. She had tried to outwit her pursuers, but now it seemed she was cornered at last. She would not give up her chastity, but she knew the alternative all too well. She resigned herself to joining the Almighty. Then suddenly she remembered Saints Catherine and Cecilia, who had also had to defend their virtue at the price of life, and she prayed to them for help. Just as she became within grasping distance of Prince Aelfgar, he was suddenly struck blind, just like his emissaries before him.
The prince fell to the ground, stumbling around in the mud and crying out for help. He pleaded forgiveness from Frideswide and swore to his repentance. He would leave her be, if only he could see again. Having pity on this pathetic sight, Frideswide took Aelfgar by the hand and led him to her well. Here she bathed his eyes and prayed for his sight to be restored: and it was. Frideswide now decided to return to her nunnery at Oxford. She, however, refused Aelfgar's offers of a ride home, and travelled on foot.
On her way back through the lanes of North Berkshire, she and her companions were accosted by a hideous leper. Her friends were repulsed, but when he asked her to kiss him, Frideswide overcame her natural revulsion. She made the sign of the cross and gave the man a sisterly kiss on the lips. At once his leprous skin fell away, to reveal his flesh to be as smooth as a baby's bottom once more. He was cured. It was a miracle.
Frideswide lived happily at Oxford for many years. She eventually retired to quiet seclusion in Thornbury Wood where, at Binsey, she built a small chapel. She prayed for water once more, this time to St. Margaret, and a spring appeared to feed her for the rest of her life. She eventually died on 19th October 735 and was buried in her nunnery's church in Oxford. Many pilgrims visited the holy lady's grave and so many miracles occurred there that she was soon proclaimed a saint.
And what of her little oratory and well left deep in the Berkshire forest, near Yattendon? This too became a place of pilgrimage, and a small village grew up around them. They called it Fritha's Home or Frilsham.
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