Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, October 19, 2015

Frithuswith, Princess and Patron Saint

Frithuswith (died 19 October 727)

An Anglo-Saxon princess, Frithuswith (or Frideswide) was probably born about the year 650, the daughter of Dida of Eynsham, a minor king (or sub-regulus) in Mercia (holding a territory near Oxford), and his wife, Safrida. 

Frithuswith, hiding from Algar,
detail from a stained glass window
by Edward Burne-Jones,
Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
There is a reference to Dida in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle and two accounts of St. Frithuswith in the twelfth-century South English Legendary, one a longer version of her life, the other shorter, the two varying in some details.  

According to these narrative accounts, Frithuswith was reared and educated by a holy woman named Elgitha.

After her mother's death, Frithuswith persuaded her father to build a priory, actually a double monastery, one housing both monks and nuns, and the young woman, along with twelve companions, entered into the convent as a nun, dedicated to a life of perpetual chastity. 

It's not clear that they followed one particular monastic rule, such as that of St. Benedict. Aristocratic women may have been devoted to the spiritual life and to chastity, but the Benedictine vows of obedience and poverty may not have been strict in an institution which housed women of Frithuswith and her companions' social status. 

(The double monastic community was not unusual in England--I'll be posting about Hilda of Whitby, the most well-known head of such an institution, next month.)

Having heard accounts of her (and her beauty and wealth), another Mercian prince/king, Algar (or Aelfgar) pursued her--and after she refused to marry him, he attempted to abduct her. She managed to elude him by fleeing to Oxford, and there the two twelfth-century accounts of her life differ. According to one version, Algar followed her but fell off his horse and broke his neck; according to another, he became blind. In this version, Algar lucked out, because he was sorry, asked Frithuswith for her forgiveness, she bathed his eyes, and his sight was restored.

According to legend, when the nuns at
Frithuswith's convent complained
about having to go too far for water,
Frithuswith prayed to Saint Margaret,
who answered Frithuswith's prayers
with this well, now to be seen at the
Church of St. Margaret, Binsey
Frithuswith returned to her monastery, where she died on 19 October 727. 

In 1180, her remains were "translated" (moved) to a new building, now incorporated into Christ Church College, Oxford. In 1440, she was declared the patron saint of Oxford. 

There are many online accounts of the stories of St. Frithuswith. For more about the religious context, I recommend Medieval Women Monastics: Wisdom's Wellsprings by Miriam Schmitt, Linda Kulzer, and Mary Michael Kaliher, three scholars and members of the Order of St. Benedict, an excellent account of the female monastic tradition.