Discussion of the Legend of St. Frideswide
by David Nash
Folklore or Fact?
Frideswide is a Saxon name, properly spelt Frithuswith. In France, she was known as Frevisse. She was born around AD 665. Her father, Didan, or more properly Dydda or various other variations, appears to have been a real man, who did indeed give his name to Didcot: Dydda's Cottage. His wife should properly be Saethryth (Safrid is a man's name!). Didan appears to have ruled around the Upper Thames Valley, an area which changed hands several times during this period, between the West Saxons and Mercians. Didan's supposed Mercian connections ring true for his reign would line up quite well with a period of Mercian domination. He was probably a sub-King under the overlordship of King Wulfhere of Mercia. His Kingdom may have included the whole of Berkshire, for the southern boundary of the River Blackwater was known, at that time, as the Deadbrook, that is Dydda's Brook. Other sites possibly associated with Didan are Dydda's Valley, mentioned as being on the western bounds of Kingston Lisle in a charter of 963, and Dudebeorh or Dydda's Barrow in the Uffington Charters. This latter lies very near the Uffington White Horse and would appear to have been Didan's burial place, perhaps indicating that, unlike his daughter, he was not a Christian. Recent excavation has shown that the barrow was originally a Roman burial mound reused in Saxon times.
There are other known Royal and landed personages from this period whose names had the prefix, Frith. It was the Saxon custom for family members to have recurring elements in their names. So these people may have been related to Didan and Frideswide (Frithuswith). The most well known of such characters was Frithuwold, another sub-king under King Wulfhere and also his brother-in-law. He is usually referred to as King of Surrey. His Kingdom, however, was probably much larger than this, spreading way up into Buckinghamshire, for his daughter St. Osith was said to have been born at his palace in Quarrendon (Bucks). His Kingdom would thus have covered the Berkshire Province of Sonning and would have adjoined that of Didan. Frithuwold appears to have been somehow connected to one Frithuric, a landed gentleman from Leicestershire who signed several of the former's charters. Both may have been St. Frideswide's brothers. In a third character, Frithugith, who married King Aethelheard of Wessex in 730, may have been her niece.
It may have been through Frithuric that Prince Aelfgar heard of the beautiful Frideswide, for they both apparently lived in the same area. Aelfgar is portrayed as a powerful man, probably more so than Didan, variously described as King, Prince and Earl of Leicester or Mercia. He may have been a sub-King, like Didan, or more likely a younger member of the ruling House of Mercia, or possibly both. The term Earl is Norse and stems from the word Jarl, the equivalent of the Saxon Ealdorman (modern Alderman), but the office did not exist during this early period. The name Aelfgar does appear amongst the legendary ancestors of the 11th century Earl Leofric of Mercia (husband of Lady Godiva), and this may be from where the Prince sprang.
The identity of Bentona is the most controversial part of St. Frideswide's story. The traditionalists from Oxford claim it is Binsey, where our story says the saint retired. This lies just outside the city, not quite in Berkshire, where the county boundary departs from the Thames and follows, instead, the Seacourt Stream. St. Margaret's Church was St. Frideswide's pig-sty-cum-oratory, and her well, St. Margaret's Well. It was a great place of pilgrimage in the middle ages. Tradition says the deserted medieval village of Seacourt had twenty-two inns to house the vast numbers of pilgrims visiting Binsey (excavation has shown there was only actually one). But if St. Frideswide had prayed to Saints Cecilia and Catherine for deliverance, then why the dedication to St. Margaret? Though it seems unlikely that Bentona is related to Yattendon (Etingedene 1086, Gettendon 1195, etc.), Frilsham's parish church is dedicated to St. Frideswide and not far away is her holy well. This was still visited by loved one's, early last century, to see if the male partner was approved of by the well's spitting toad. If the man's intentions were not honourable he would be violently spat at! Also nearby is Kings Wood (King Aelfgar's wood perhaps), and Reading Abbey held some of Frideswide's relics. Place-name experts tell us that Frilsham means Frithel's Homestead. However, such a personal name is unrecorded elsewhere, and a diminutive form of Frithuswith seems at least possible. There are, of course, other claimants: Bampton and Benson, also in Oxfordshire, and Bomy in Artois across the Channel in France. This latter also has the obligatory chapel and well of St. Frideswide (Frevisse) and displays her bones. However, the legend never mentions the saint crossing the Channel, and, indeed, only the site at Frilsham is consistent with her journey down the Thames to Abingdon. The first rendering of the story in c.1125 by William of Malmesbury does not mention the place by name, and the slightly later life of St. Frideswide confusingly says she hid at Bampton, in a wood called Binsey. Unfortunately the two are nowhere near each other, and the writer was clearly confused. Later writers dropped Bampton, claiming the place was Binsey, in a wood called Thornbury. Recent excavations at Binsey have revealed an Iron-Age/Early Saxon enclosure surrounding St. Margaret's Church which is consistent with the name Thorn-bury, the Thorny Fort. Recent analysis, however, also indicates that Bampton was originally understood to be Bentona. There is a church and well here too, but any Frideswide association has long since been lost. Thus the later Binsey connection, as put forward by the Berkshire tale, is perhaps given some credence.
The Oxford version of the story also tells how during a lull in Aelfgar's searches, St. Frideswide returned home to Oxford. It was at this point that the Mercian prince descended, besieged the city, and eventually forced his way in to carry her off. Just as he entered through the city gates, he was struck blind! Ever since the superstition grew up that the same would happen to any monarch who entered the City of Oxford. Accordingly, the Kings of England stayed away until the reign of Henry III. Some say that all the ills of his reign were due to this presumption. Perhaps, if the kings had known the Berkshire version: that the people of Oxford were St. Frideswide's betrayers, not her defenders, then perhaps they would have visited the place sooner.
St. Frideswide's nunnery was destroyed by the Danes in 1002. The monastery was re-established for Austin Canons in 1122. The church was rebuilt in 1180 and St. Frideswide's body translated to a beautiful shrine. Many pilgrims visited her there, including Henry III, Edward I and Henry VIII's queen, Catherine of Aragon. In 1525, Cardinal Wolsey gained permission from Pope Clement VII to dissolve the monastery and transform it into Cardinal College, with the Abbey Church as the college chapel. In 1546, Henry VIII changed this to Christ Church College and the church became the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Oxford. St. Frideswide still lies buried there beneath part of her reconstructed shrine. However, she is not alone. In 1561, a religious fanatic named Caldiff, a canon of Christ Church and a commissioner of Elizabeth I, mixed her bones with those of one Catherine Cathie Dammartin, a former nun and latter wife of the Zwinglian Regius Professor of Divinity, Canon Peter Martyr Vermigli.
The Legend of St. Frideswide