Friday 19 October 2012

The Feast of St Frideswide

St Frideswide in the church of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford
(with Christ Church cathedral behind her)

Today is the feast of another in the long line of Anglo-Saxon royal nun-saints: St Frideswide, who died on 19 October in the year 727.  Frideswide is the patron of Oxford, both city and university, and her shrine is here in Christ Church Cathedral, which stands on the site of the medieval priory which bore her name.  In outline her story is a familiar one: as legend has it, she was the daughter of a Mercian king, who chose the religious life but was sought in marriage by a wicked king named Algar; she fled his advances to a forest near Binsey, where she discovered the treacle-well, and was hidden there until Algar was killed by falling off his horse just outside the city gates and breaking his neck.

There was a superstition in the Middle Ages which said that because of Algar's fate, no king had entered the city of Oxford from the time of Frideswide until Henry III defied the ban in 1263; this is not literally true, at least of the pre-Conquest kings, but I suppose it might be true of the post-Conquest ones (the royal palace of Beaumont, near where the Ashmolean now stands, was outside the city walls).  This part of the legend is an interesting counterpart to the stories of Norman barons fleeing St Etheldreda, and Cnut being so afraid of St Edith; why, you might ask yourself, were such noblemen supposed to be at risk from the supernatural powers of these dead saintly women?

Anyway, in honour of St Frideswide I thought I would post a Middle English verse account of her life.  It comes from the same stable as the jolly little Middle English life of St Benedict which I posted in July; they're both from the 14th-century collection of vernacular saints' lives known as the South English Legendary.  There are actually two versions of St Frideswide's life in that collection, and this is the shorter one (you can find the shorter one here and the longer one here).  I must warn you in starting: from an artistic point of view, this poem really isn't very good.  You won't hear me say that about most of the medieval texts I post here, because a) I only post things I think are good and b) I like to encourage people to see the best in medieval poems which are not generally thought to be worth much artistically; most of the short lyric poems I post here, for instance, are not considered the best of the genre, but I think they have a lot of merit and are sadly underrated by scholars.  That is not the case with this Life of St Frideswide!  It's not meant to be high art: it's a pacy, memorable tale, recounting the most important moments in Frideswide's life and not attempting to be particularly clever about it.  But it is quite fun.  To preserve that quality, I've put it into a modernised doggerel form below the ME text; the uneven metre and even some of the dodgy word order are also found in the original.  Enjoy!

St Frideswide at Christ Church, Oxford, in a window 
 roughly contemporary with this poem.  She's surrounded by what look like 
grinning pumpkins, but I assure you those aren't part of the story...

Seint Fretheswyde, that holy mayde, was of Englonde;
Atte Oxenford heo was ybore, as ich understonde.
Hir fader hete Kyng Dydan, and Sefreth hete the quene -
This were hire eldren, that hure gotten hem bytwene.
Fretheswyd, hure yonge doughter, to lettre hii setten in youthe;
So wel heo spedde in six monnthes that heo hure Sauter couthe.
Swythe wel heo was byloved, of hey and of lowe;
Alle hii hadde joie of hure that couthen hure knowe.
Of the hard here was hure nexte wede.
The meste mete that heo ete was worten and barly brede,
And the cold welle water - that was hure drynke.
Now wold a knyghtes doughter grete hoker of suche sondes thynke!
The maide bysoght hure fadere to make hure nonne
In Seint Marie churche, that he hadde er bygonne.
Hire fadere was the furste man that lete the churche rere
That bereth the nam now of that mayde that lyth yschryned ther.
The king was glad of this chyld, that to clene lyf drowe.
He sende after a byschop anon hasteliche ynowe
Of Lyncolne that was tho - Edgar was his name -
To maken his doughter nonne ne thoght hym no schame.
The byschop for the kynges heste thuder he cam hymsulf
And schar hure in the nonnerie with hire felawes twelve.
A nyght, as this mayde was huresulf alon,
In hire bedes with hire sustren slepen everechon,
The fende hadde envye therof to hire goudhede
And thoght myd som gynne of goud lyf hure lede.
To hire he cam hire to fonde, in one mannes lyche
In goldbeten clothes that semed swythe ryche.
"My derworth mayde," he sede, "ne thynke thee noght to longe.
Tyme hit is for thy travayle that thou thy mede afonge.
Ich am thulke that thou byst to: take now goud hede.
Honoure me here, and for thy servyse ich croune thee to mede."
The fende hadde in his heved an croune of rede golde;
Another he that mayde bede, yif heo hym honoury wolde.
"Fare fram me, thou foule fende with thyn byheste!"
Heo made the croys, and he fley awey with noyse and grete cheste.
In the holy nonnerie so longe heo lyved ther
That hure fadere and hure modere both ded were.
Algar hete the king after the king Dydan;
He was king at Oxenford ychose - a wonder luther man.
He ofsende Fretheswyth, to habben hure to wyve.
Heo sede heo was to God ywedded, to hold by hure lyve.
The forward that heo hadde ymade, heo sede heo nolde breke;
If heo dude, wel heo wyste God wold be awreke.
"A foule," heo sede, "ich were the hey King of Hevene forsake
For gyfte other for anythyng, and thee His hyne take."
The messageres with grete strengthe wolden hure habbe ynome
And don the maide byfor the king anon to hym come.
Alle that weren ther woxen starc blynde;
Bynome hem was the myght the mayde for to fynde!
The borgeys of Oxenford sore were agaste,
And this holy maide for this men hii beden atte laste,
That heo thorw Godes grace geve hem here syght;
And thennes to the king passe that hii mosten habbe myght.
Anon hii hadden here syght thorw hire bysechyng;
Thannes hii wende, and al that cas hii toldyn the king.
The king therfor hym made wroth tho he herd this,
And in grete wrath swor his oth that he wold hire seche, ywys;
And that he hure habbe wolde. Faste he gan to yelpe
And swor that hure wocchecrafte scholde hure lyte helpe.
An angel that sulf nyght to that mayde cam
And bad hire oute of the kinges syght wende, that was so grame.
The levedy wende by nyght fram hure sustren tho
With somme that heo with hure toke - tweyne, witthoute mo.
To Temese heo yede and fonde a bote al preste, thorw Godes sonde,
And therin heo fonde an angel that broght hem to the londe.
For dred of the king heo wende, as God hit wolde,
Ne dorste heo come at non toune, to dwelle at non holde.
In a wode that Benesy yclyped ys al day
Thre wynter in an hole woned, that seylde me hure say.
A mayde that seve yere ne myght nothing yse
Cam to hure in the wode, and felle adoun a kne.
Hure eyghen that holy mayde wysche with water of hure honde,
And as hole as any fysche that maide gan up stonde.
The king hym cam to Oxenford, wroth and eke wode,
And thoght to do the mayde other than goud.
So sone so he to toune cam, he thoghte for to fyght
And habbe this maide Fretheswythe with strengthe agenryght.
He enquered ware heo was. Me told hym sone that cas:
That heo in the wode of Benysye preveliche yhydde was.
The king rod toward the wode with hauke and with racche,
For to enserchy after this mayde yf he myght cache.
Tho this maide this yherd, anon heo bygan to fle
Priveliche toward Oxenford, that non scholde hure se;
So that heo was underyute that heo was fleynde.
After hure me wende faste; the king rod ernyng.
The mayde scaped into the toune, as hit was Godes grace.
The kinges hors spornde witthoute the gate in a wel faire place
And felle and brake the kinges necke; and that he gan awynne.
Nas ther non of his men tho that derst come withinne.
The maide holde hure ther in pes fram alle hure fon.
Glad was that myght with hure speke other to hure gon.
Of hure holy lyf me told fer and eke nere,
Into alle Englonde that me wyste nas yholde hure pere.
A wel swythe wondere cas byfelle oppon a day
Up a fyscher that in a bote with his felawes aslepe lay.
He bygan to ravien as he awoke of slepe.
Up among his felawes, wod he gan to lepe,
So that on that ther was among hem alle he slowe;
And wan he was afalle, with his teth on hym he gnowe.
Alle that myght to hym come on hym setten honde,
And uneth with muche pyne hii teyghede hym and bonde.
Al hii wer busie that foule goste to lede
Toward that holy mayde, that heo for hym bede.
The maide fourmed that croys tofor on his heved;
The bounden body felle adoune, as hit were ded.
The maide hete unbynd hym anon in al wyse,
And suth hym a Godes name hole and sounde to aryse.
Hol and sounde the man aros and hered God almyght
And that mayde that hym delyvered of that foule wyght.
As heo yede a day in the toune, a mysel heo mette.
To hure the mysel felle adoune, and on knes hure grette,
And bysoght that lady that heo hym cusse scholde.
Heo custe hym, and he was hole, ryght as God hit wolde.
Fele miracles by hure lyve of hure weren ycude,
And suth after hure deth; hii neren noght yhud.
Heo wend out of this world a morwe up Lukes day.
Now God ous bringe to the blysse that He broght that may!  Amen.

St Frideswide and ox in the church of (guess what!) St Frideswide, Oxford

And now the translation (the interspersed images are from the Burne-Jones window in Christ Church Cathedral depicting the life of Frideswide):

Saint Frideswide, that holy maid, came from England;
At Oxford she was born, as I understand.
Her father was King Dydan, and Safrida was his queen -
These were her parents, who begot her them between.
Frideswide, their young daughter, they set to learning in her youth:
So well she sped that in six months she knew the Psalter through.
Most dearly was she loved, by high and by low;
All took great joy in her who ever did her know.
Of a rough hairshirt was her inmost clothing made;
The best food that she ate was herbs and barley-bread,
And the cold well water was her only drink;
These days a knight's daughter would scorn of such things think!

The maid asked her father to make her a nun
In the church of Saint Mary, which he had himself begun.
Her father was the first man who did that church begin
Which bears the name now of the maid, who lies enshrined within.
The king was glad of this child, who wanted a pure life:
At once he sent for the bishop, as fast as he could write,
Who was bishop of Lincoln then - Edgar was his name -
To make his daughter a nun; to him it was no shame!
The bishop at the king's request came then at once himself
And sheared her in the nunnery, with her companions twelve.

[sheared, i.e. had her hair ceremonially cut short - the female equivalent of the tonsure]

Then one night, when this maid was by herself alone,
In her bed, beside her sisters, sleeping every one,
The Devil took to hating her for her holy life,
And planned he would deceive her, by some trick he would devise.
He then appeared, to tempt her, in likeness of a man,
In precious clothes of beaten gold, and to speak he then began:
"My dearest girl," he said to her, "don't worry here too long:
It's time you were rewarded for the labour you have done.
I am the one you worship; pay heed to me now,
Honour me, and for your service your reward will be a crown."
The Fiend had there upon his head a crown of red gold;
Another he held out to that maid, if she him honour would.
"Away from me, you wicked fiend, with your promises!"
She signed the cross, and away he flew with noise and much distress.

In this holy nunnery so long she lived there
That at last her father and mother both dead were.
Algar was the king who succeeded king Dydan;
He was chosen king at Oxford - a cruel and wicked man.
He sent at once for Frideswide, to have her as his wife.
She said she was betrothed to God, and would be all her life.
The promise she had made, she swore she'd never break;
If she did, she knew full well God would his vengeance take.
She said, "I would be a fool the King of Heaven to forsake,
And you would be another, if you did his handmaid take."
The messengers with their great strength would have seized her as one
And forced the maid against her will before the king to come;
But then all of them were suddenly struck blind,
And all at once they lost the power this holy maid to find!
The citizens of Oxford were sorely aghast,
And for these men to the holy maid they prayed at last,
That she through the grace of God might give them back their sight,
So that from there back to the king travel again they might.
At once they had their sight back, through her beseeching,
And from there they went, and told all this to the king.
The king became angry when he heard all this,
And in wrath he swore an oath he would seek her, iwis,
And he would have her.  Furiously he began to rave
And swore that her witchcraft would no more her save!

An angel to the holy maid appeared on that same night
And bid her flee as best she could the furious king's might.
The lady fled by night from her sisters all;
Only a few she took with her - two of them, no more.
To the Thames she went and found a boat waiting, by God's plan,
And therein she found an angel who took them to the land.
For dread of the king she fled that place, as God it did provide,
But dared not go to any town, nor in any house hide.
As best she might she hid herself in a wood called Binsey
Three winters in a cave she lived, where no one could her see.

A maiden who for seven years nothing could see
Came to her within the wood, and fell down upon her knee:
Her eyes the holy maiden washed with water in her hands
And as whole as any fish the maid again did stand.

[apparently 'as healthy as a fish' was a genuine Middle English saying.  That seems impossibly ridiculous, but it is true, and google suggests it exists in other languages today...]

The king then came to Oxford, furious, almost mad,
And planned to do to the maiden something very bad.
As soon as he came to the city, he thought that he would fight
And seize this maiden Frideswide by strength, against the right.
He asked where she had gone, and was told that she had fled:
That she in the wood of Binsey had in secret hid.
The king rode towards the wood with hawks and hunting-hounds,
To seek the holy maid and get her in his hands.
When the maiden heard this, she soon began to flee
To Oxford very secretly, where no one could her see;
But as she fled they spotted her, and pursued her very fast;
After her they all galloped, the king was not the last.
The maiden escaped into the town, by God's grace.
The king's horse stumbled outside the gate in a level place
And fell, and broke the king's neck; and that was all he won!
Then none of his men dared within the city come.
The maiden remained within in peace, protected from her foe;
Glad was anyone who could speak with her or to her go.
Of her holy life they all spoke, far and near,
Throughout all England was no one thought her peer.

A very great wonder happened another day,
To a fisherman who, with his friends, in a boat sleeping lay.
He began to rave when he awoke from sleep,
And there among his companions he madly began to leap,
So that he seized one of his friends and suddenly him slew,
And when he had killed him, with his teeth he began to chew.
All those who could reach him, on him they set their hands,
And barely, with much labour, they got him tied and bound.
All their thought was to take the man to that holy maid
That she might cure the man possessed, if she for him prayed.
The maid marked the cross on the top of his head;
The bound body fell down, as if it were dead.
The maid had him unbound at once, in every wise,
And bid him, in God's name, whole and sound to rise.
Whole and sound the man arose and praised God in heaven
And the maid who released him from that wicked devil.

As she walked one day in the town, a leper she did meet;
At her feet the leper fell, and humbly did her greet.
He prayed to the lady, that her kiss might him heal;
She kissed him, and he was cured, just as God willed.
During her life it was well-known, the miracles she did,
And also after her death; they ought not to be hid!
She left this world on the morn that followed St Luke's day,
May God bring us to the bliss he prepared for that maid!  Amen.

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