The sermon preached at Solemn Evenson and Benediction on the Feast of St Frideswide by the Rt Rev’d Dom Aidan Bellenger, OSB, Abbot of Downside.
Frideswide, a wonderfully evocative name, is the patron saint of Oxford and although no longer a popular focus of pilgrimage nor, for that matter, a popular choice for the naming of girls – how many Frideswides do we know? – to have a saint among us, at the heart of this university city, is a great thing. As a Cambridge man I can claim no such patron. St Etheldreda’s great church at Ely is indeed nearby but few would see her as a patron for the fenland university.
My own college, Jesus, Cambridge, is dedicated to St Radegund, a Merovingian variant on the Frideswide model, buried far away in Poitiers, and like Christ Church was founded as the result of a pre-reformation dissolution, at Cambridge by the devout John Alcock, at Oxford by Cardinal Wolsey. Alcock chose Jesus as the name for his new foundation, Wolsey himself.
On this, the day of her heavenly birthday, it is good to remember and celebrate her. But is Frideswide anything more than a suggestive name? Like many Anglo-Saxon saints, the details of her life are obscure. Personal biography is not a strong literary form in the medieval world. Archaeological evidence – bones and names – suggest her historical veracity but her life is only known through twelfth century lives: two variant hagiographies and a summary provided, as early as 1125, by the Benedictine, William of Malmesbury. Some features of her life as celebrated in these accounts ring true, although (with different names and places) they could be the account of any virgin foundress. When all is said and done, it is a saint’s heroic virtue which matters rather than the details of their life.
Frideswide was of noble, even of royal blood, and she dedicated her life to good works through her vocation as a nun and presumably as abbess. She was pursued by a prince, no prince charming, Algar, a Mercian, who persisted in his hunt despite her hostility and was blinded on account of his bad intentions. He did not get his evil way. He may or may not have been cured by her intercession. He may or may not have become her community’s first patron. Either way Frideswide continued her monastic life, in a double monastery of uncertain rule but notable piety, probably on the site of Christ Church, and died there on this day, 19 October, possibly in 727. Her cult was revived by the Augustinian canons in the twelfth century and her relics were translated to new shrines in 1180 and 1289. The reconstructed shrine still stands in what became Christ Church Cathedral under Henry VIII and her bones (or some of them) remain within the building. James Calfhill, Canon of Christ Church in 1561, ordered the reburial of the exhumed wife of Peter Martyr, the Protestant reformer, with Frideswide’s bones, a scheme which would suppress ‘all foolish superstition’. So, after an address by Calfhill ‘telling the people the reasons for my choice, they were buried mingled and confused’ with the other bones ‘in the upper part of the church towards the east.’ This cannot be regarded, like the double burial of Mary and Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey, as an unconscious ecumenical act looking towards the resurrection. It sounds indeed, to use Calfhill’s word, ‘confusing’.
Frideswide’s life and her subsequent cult owed much to the miraculous and the healing miracles which were attributed to her intercession and relics were numerous – nearly a hundred were recorded by Prior Philip following her first translation. One can imagine his glee over the financial possibilities. Perhaps the Ordinariate’s financial problems could be resolved by a lucrative shrine. Rediscovering the miraculous in our everyday life, celebration of the intervention of God in our daily life, seeing the possibility of living a truly Christ-like life are all things that come immediately to mind when one reflects on the life of any saint. Frideswide, however, suggests to me three thoughts on this autumnal evening in this chapel of a community dedicated to the search of Veritas.
First, tradition, the handing down from one generation to another of a living body of truths, is a precious gift. Reductionism, attempting to pare down things to their bare basics is always a mistake. Once dismissed as an imagined personage the figure of Frideswide can now be seen as a historic figure who exemplifies Anglo-Saxon spirituality.
We need to re-enchant our lives and our liturgies and drink deep in the many beautiful texts and expressions of belief which give body to our faith and practice. A diversity of expression, an understanding of undercurrents and inherited richness, will enhance our prayer and our lives. Our emerging understanding of the life of Frideswide helps us to understand that process.
Secondly, rooteness, the way in which a local saint gives substance to a local church. Frideswide is Oxford’s own saint and this makes her very special here. The inheritance we all have in this country from our Christian past is made glorious by the English language which more than anything celebrates a common national identity.
The sound and cadences of our language, so clear in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, are part of a continuity which encompasses Frideswide and the liturgical writers and translators of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. In the great experiment which is the Ordinariate, I hope the great literary and spiritual gifts of Anglicanism will be given to the universal church.
Thirdly, unity, the way in which the cult of Frideswide unites us with the universal church. In the secular academy – and in the post Christian city – it is strangely reassuring that the patron saint is a nun whose witness to the world was her espousal of the evangelical counsels, living a life of chastity, poverty and community in a world as turbulent and violent as our own. She stands alongside the other great monastic women saints – with Scholastica, Radegund, Clare, Hildegard, Hilda, Teresa of Avila – who exemplified in their lives the holy wisdom which makes foolishness of worldly wisdom. In the unity of the Western church under the Vicar of Christ the local church makes most sense and shows the solidarity of all the blessed of the past in the communion of the saints. St Frideswide pray for the city and university of Oxford and pray for us.