ST FRIDESWIDE’S PRIORY
|Before the Reformation, the ground on which Christ Church now stands was occupied by the Augustinian Canons’ priory of St Frideswide, and the building which is now the cathedral of the Anglican diocese of Oxford was their church. The roots of the foundation lie deep in history, so deep that we have here the oldest religious institution in the town.|
We are told that, in the reign of that stout pagan Penda of Mercia, a daughter was born to a local ealdorman named Didan and his wife, Saffrida. She was baptized Frideswide and she is the patron saint of Oxford. Her story is typical of many Anglo-Saxon maidens of high rank. Wishing to consecrate her life to God, she avoided a marriage arranged for her by her parents with a Mercian noble named Algar. He did not take his dismissal readily, and Frideswide fled to a remote spot on the upper Thames which was then known as Thornbury but is now called Binsey. The legend has it that he followed her there and laid hands on her. There was a clap of thunder and the lightning flash blinded Algar. The saint was sorry for him and prayed to St Margaret of Antioch and St Catherine of Alexandria. They appeared to her, and told her to strike the ground with her staff. Water flowed and Frideswide’s maidens washed the eyes of the unhappy man. He recovered his sight and returned to Oxford much humbled, and that was the end of him so far as she was concerned. After her mother’s death, her father gave up the idea of forcing her to marry and set her up as the superior of a community of twelve like-minded maidens on the site of the later priory. This first house was dedicated to Our Lady and All Saints. The most probable date for her death is 735, a year which also saw the passing of St Bede the Venerable. Her course had been tranquil and undisturbed after the first battle was won, and her body was laid to rest beneath the tower of the church which she had built.
After she died, we hear no more of the maidens over whom she had presided. The shrine was tended by secular canons until shortly before the Norman conquest. In 1002, some Danes, trying to escape the massacre of their countrymen ordered by Æthelrede II, took refuge in the tower. Their pursuers set fire to it in an attempt to dislodge them and accidentally burned the whole church to the ground. The king directed it to be rebuilt.
Sometime between 1111 and 1122, when Henry I granted them their charter, the Canons Regular of St Augustine took charge of the place and, inspired by the reconstruction which was going on everywhere at the time, they put up a larger and finer church in the prevalent Norman style. The eastern part was finished by 1181 and the body of St Frideswide was translated to a new shrine in it. The church had a chancel of five bays, flanked by aisles of four bays each. There was a north transept of three bays, with a small chapel opening out of the northernmost. The south transept was identical, but the cloister occupied its western aisle and there was a chapel opening out of the middle bay on the east side. A passage ran across outside its southern end. The central tower was lower than the present one, and there may have been two west towers. The exact length of the nave and its aisles is not known, but there were probably seven bays, that is to say, it was three bays longer than it is now.
Since that time, there have been the following alterations. In the first quarter of the thirteenth century, another stage and a spire were added to the central tower. About 1250, a Lady Chapel was built alongside the old north aisle and, in 1289, St Frideswide’s relics were moved to a new shrine which had been erected in it. In 1298, a parish church, dedicated also to St Frideswide, which stood somewhere within the precincts of the priory, was pulled down and its parishioners handed over to the priest of St Edward’s Blue Boar Lane. In 1316, or thereabouts,. the chapel at the north end of the north transept was replaced by the existing chapel of St Catherine. About 1330, St Lucy’s Chapel in the south transept was extended a little to the east. The three windows at the east end of the presbytery were added during the same period. The remodelling of the clerestory and the vaulting of the chancel roof date from the end of the fifteenth century.
The church is overcrowded with stalls, because it is now the chapel of the college as well as a Protestant cathedral. The position of St Frideswide’s shrine is clearly marked in the Lady Chapel and there are indications of a richly painted roof above it. Some parts of the feretory[i] have been reassembled in the eastern bay on the south side of the chapel. There is an elaborate chantry with a watching-chamber above it at the east end of the Lady Chapel on the north side. On the same side are three tombs. The eastern-most belongs to Elizabeth Mountford, wife of Thomas, the second Lord Montague, who married Thomas Lord Furnival after her first husband’s death. In the middle is that of Prior Alexander Sutton. The tomb at the west end of the row is probably that of Sir George Nowers who lived in the fifteenth century.
The church played its part in the tragedy of Cranmer, for it was here that he was degraded from his orders and stripped of his pontificals by Bishop Bonner of London and Bishop Thirlby of Ely. Between the south choir aisle and St Lucy’s Chapel is the tomb of Robert King, the last abbot of Osney and the first bishop of Henry VIII’s new diocese of Oxford. As he retained his see in Queen Mary’s reign and died just before her, he may be claimed as the only Catholic occupant of the bishopric. Dr Pusey, the High Church leader, and his wife are buried in the choir.
Outside the church, three walks of the old cloister remain. The west cloister was destroyed when Wolsey was trying to adapt the church to the plan of his proposed college. There is also a fine chapter-house off the east walk. It consists mostly of thirteenth-century work, but the doorway is older and dates from the second half of the twelfth century. The dormitory, though much altered, can still be seen over the east cloister and parts of the refectory have survived on the south side of the garth. The rubble foundations in the middle of the cloister are most probably connected with Wolsey’s plans for buildings on the site.
By 1524, the fortunes of the canons were at a low ebb, and Wolsey obtained permission from Rome to move the few who remained and to suppress the monastery as redundant. In the year before this took place, the net value of the house was £148 16s. 3½d. (From Goulder, Pilgrimage Pamphlets: Oxford & Cambridge, 1963)
Christ Church Cathedral contains some medieval stained glass which survived the general destruction, in the Latin Chapel and St Lucy’s Chapel, where St Thomas Becket is shown, although his depicted head, like his actual one, has been destroyed by royal command, and replaced by a pane of clear glass.
 King of the Mercians 626-655.
 A virgin martyr who probably suffered death in the persecution under Diocletian (Roman emperor 284-305. Gains Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus).
 A virgin martyr who suffered death in the persecution under Maximinus (Roman emperor 308-313. Galerius Valerius Maximinus).
 The well, which tradition connects with this miracle, is still to be seen in the churchyard of the church at Binsey. It is a charming place well worth a visit. It is reached by way of Walton Street, Walton Well Road and the path along the upper Thames.
 Lived 673-735. A monk of Jarrow and author of some thirty-eight works including the famous Historia Ecclesiastica.
 King of all England 978-1016.
 Reigned 1100-1135.
 Also called the Latin Chapel, because the Anglican communion service is celebrated in Latin on the first Sunday of term.
 A guardian sat here to see that pilgrims behaved themselves and that nothing was stolen from the shrine.
 Died 1354.
 Died 1319.
 Died before April 18th, 1332.
 Prior of St Frideswide's 1294-1316.
 Bishop of Hereford 1538-1539, of London 1539-1569. He was deprived of his see and imprisoned twice-first, under Edward VI, secondly under Elizabeth I. He died in the Marshalsea prison in Southwark.
 Bishop of Westminster 1540-1550, of Norwich 1550-1554, of Ely 1554-1570. Deprived by Elizabeth and imprisoned.
 Bishop of Osney c. 1541-1545, of Oxford 1545-1557.
 Henry VIII established six new sees-Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Osney (moved to Oxford in 1545), Peterborough and Westminster. The cathedrals for the new dioceses were adapted from existing monastic churches. Bristol and Osney (also Oxford) belonged to the Austin Canons, the rest to the Benedictines.
 Lived 1800-1882. A close associate of Newman and Keble. He remained in the Church of England. Edward Bouverie Pusey.
 Bishop of Lincoln and archbishop of York 1514-1530, bishop of Bath and Wells 1518-1523, of Durham 1524-1529, of Winchester 1529-1530. He was also appointed to the see of Tournai in 1513, but never took possession. Cardinal 1515. Plurality on this scale was considered shocking even in the sixteenth century.
[i] A (portable) shrine containing the relics of a saint; a small room or chapel in which shrines were deposited (Oxford Shorter English Dictionary).