Today is the principal feast of our patroness, St. Frideswide, so it seems appropriate that I should tell all of you a little bit about her since she is not particularly well-known in most quarters today. She was born about A.D. 665 and died on this date in A.D. 735, both in Oxford which was at that time a part of the Kingdom of Mercia. She is commemorated by the Church as a holy virgin, not a martyr, having lived a life of holy service an abbess.
Her father was Didan, sub-King of the area around Oxford under the King of Mercia. From her earliest years, she was resolved to be a monastic, and she persuaded her father to build her a church and convent at the edge of Oxford. There she and twelve other noble women formed a convent with the support of Didan.
Soon Aelfgar, a minor prince of Mercia, took an interest in Frideswide, having heard of her great beauty and the fact that she was an heiress as well. She listened politely to the messenger that he sent but told him that she had taken a vow of celibacy. Aelfgar made plans to take her by force, and she had to flee down the Thames valley some distance where she hid for a period of three years. When she eventually returned to Oxford, Aelfgar laid siege to the city. Just as she was about to fall into his hands, she prayed to St. Catherine and St. Cecilia, and Aelfgar was struck blind as a result. With their leader blinded, his men broke off the attack and Frideswide was saved. She agreed to restore his sight only on his earnest repentance. For centuries after this, no English king would enter Oxford for fear of being similarly struck blind. Henry III was the first to disregard this tradition, and there were plenty of people willing to suggest that his subsequent misfortunes were attributable to this presumption.
Abbess Frideswide presided over a double monastery, composed of both monks and nuns for many years. This included the founding of a school that some consider the origin of Oxford University. She was widely known for great holiness and for working many miracles. After her death, she was buried in her monastery, and a significant cult following developed. Her monastery and the records were burned by the Danes (Vikings) in 1002. The monastery was reestablished as a house of Austin Canons in the early 12th century, and her relics were translated in A.D. 1180. She was named a patron of Oxford University in the early 15th century. Her monastery was suppressed by Cardinal Wolsey in order to divert funds for his Cardinal College, which is now Christ Church College, Oxford.
When we look at the life of St. Frideswide, there are a number of things that are immediately noteworthy. Perhaps the most prominent is her dedication to chastity and Christian service from an early age, and her willingness to go to any lengths to maintain this. This was no passing fancy, nothing entered into lightly that could be easily cast off when a better offer came a long. No, this was a seriously committed life with no reservations, no holding back, no provisions for changing her mind. And while it was a decision she made early in life, it is also a decision she held firmly to through her entire life.
The fact that she was chosen to rule over the double monastery, composed of both monks and nuns, shows that she was evidently a person of great wisdom and sound judgment. Her monastery would not have prospered had this not been the case, because the prosperity of the monastery were strongly dependent on the wisdom of its leadership. New members would not be attracted to a house that was failing for poor leadership.
She was clearly a person of strong faith. Her legend is replete with stories of miracles of various sorts worked as a result of her prayers. Her own escape from her suitor Aelfgar is only one of many miracles that she is said to have worked by prayer.
Although we think of Frideswide as long, long ago, she certainly saw herself as already heir to a great Christian heritage. She did not hesitate to call upon the saints who had come before her for their aid in her trials. So, likewise, we should remember Frideswide as an example in our daily lives as one who faced all manner of obstacles to her Christian calling and yet persevered and triumphed in the end.
Let us offer the Collect for St. Frideswide:
Hear us, O God of our salvation, that as we rejoice in the feast of thy virgin, blessed Frideswide, so of thy mercy we may be taught the spirit of devotion; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.