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Inspired by these women

15 December 2017

Æthelburg and Hildelith; Æthel­thryth and Mildryth — Anglo-Saxon female saints offer models of devotion and leadership for today’s Church, suggests Sarah Foot

Colin Underhill/Alamy

Royal saints: Ethelbert, Margaret, Helena, Elizabeth of Hungary and Frideswide from a window in All Saints church, Ladbroke, Warwickshire

Royal saints: Ethelbert, Margaret, Helena, Elizabeth of Hungary and Frideswide from a window in All Saints church, Ladbroke, Warwickshire

IS THERE any point in continuing to venerate the saints of pre-Conquest England? Anglo-Saxon holy men and women rose to the challenge of living the gospel in circumstances that would seem to have little relevance to today’s Church.

Yet one such saint continues to provide inspiration for new gen­erations of Christians, in the city that developed around its first monastery. St Frideswide — an abbess of that community, and a patron saint of the city, university, and diocese of Oxford — testifies to a distinctive but sometimes under-appreciated aspect of the early English Church: the prominence of religious women.

Legends about this young princess, who apparently rejected marriage to devote herself to Christ in perpetual virginity, reached writ­ten form only some four centuries after her death, in about 727. She represents a signific­ant strand of early medieval devo­tion in England, however, to which other women also bore witness.


Godong/AlamyColourful life: the Frideswide window in Christ Church cathedral    MONASTICISM established itself as a powerful force within the nascent English Church in the seventh century, during the early phases of the Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxons. As a spiritual ideal, it appealed as much to women as to men, among them a young woman — probably a king’s daughter — Frithuswith (Frideswide).

Accord­ing to legend, Frideswide had vowed her virginity to Christ, and so rejected a king’s attempts to marry her, hiding from him in a forest. To avoid his pursuit, she took to obscure paths until, guided by God, she came at dead of night to Oxford.

Heaven assisted her: first, by blinding her importunate pursuer; and then — in answer to the maiden’s prayers — restoring his sight. That miracle sufficed to deter her suitor’s ardour, leaving Fride­s­wide free to live in seclusion with a small community, devoted to prayer and the service of God.

Two 12th-century Latin accounts of the life of the saint report these legends, testifying to her healing power and to a remarkable series of miracles effected by her relics after their translation to a new shrine in 1180. Middle English versions of her life closely follow the Latin texts.

The prior of the later Augustinian priory of St Frideswide, Robert of Cricklade, probably wrote the sec­ond of those lives before the re­­discovery and relocation of Fride­s­wide’s body. Although the details — especially the topographical in­­forma­­tion about Oxford and its en­­virons recorded by Robert — make this story particular to Fride­s­wide, many other women of her genera­tion also elected to leave the world and live in community. Their ex­­ample can continue to inspire Christians in the Church today.


ON A wet Wednesday evening this October, a week before St Frides­wide’s Day (19 October), a diverse group of clergy and laity gathered in the 19th-century Tractarian church on Osney Island dedicated in her memory.

They were there for the licensing, to the church and to the parish of St Frideswide with Binsey, of a Mission Priest, the Revd Kate Sea­grave, whom the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, has also charged with creating a new monastic congrega­tion in the city: the Mission Com­munity of St Frideswide.

Representing a range of church backgrounds, from Anglo-Catholic to Charismatic Evangelical, those who came from outside the benefice to show their support for this venture witnessed to the enthusiasm across Oxford for the creation of a new centre for prayer and spiritual­ity which will span the traditions.

Different visions of church re­­newal have found com­mon ground in the creation of this partnership to create a new mon­astic community. It seeks to estab­lish a community of young adults who seek to grow closer to Christ both collectively and individually.

Ange/AlamyRelic: vaulted ceiling of Christ Church cathedral, part of the original priory of St Frideswide

The movement known as “new monasticism” now has numerous manifestations around the world. Within the Church of England, these include well-established com­mu­­nities, for example at Iona and in Northumbria, as well as newer creations, such as the Community of St Anselm, established by the Archbishop of Canterbury for young adults at Lambeth; or the Wellspring Community, a fresh expression of the parish of St Luke’s, Peckham.

As Jonathan Wilson observed in his Living Faithfully in a Frag­mented World: From after virtue to a new monasticism (second edition, Lutterworth Press, 2010), all such congregations share “a commitment to building local community and serving locally”: their members are drawn to mission in the midst of the society around them, not “to geo­graphical isolation and purist with­drawal from the world”.

They recognise the necessity of showing faith in God’s calling to a particular place, taking a different sort of monastic vow of stability from that envisaged by the sixth-century St Benedict. Oxford’s ven­ture fits closely into this new ec­­clesial model of corporate devo­tion and active mission.

But, in one important respect, the Frideswide Mission Community will tap into deeper historical roots, drawing on traditions that go back to the first generations of Christian witness in the Thames Valley, and the creation of the earliest religious congregations for women, of which Frideswide’s was only one.

None of the many women’s mon­a­­steries founded in the late seventh or early eighth centuries was an enclosed, inward-focused, all-female congregation, devoted exclusively to the quest for God through prayer. All the nuns of this period seem to have lived in double houses: com­munities of men and women dwell­ing together (in varying degrees of separation) within a single en­­closure, under the overall authority of an abbess.


ST FRIDESWIDE’s example test­ifies to an important aspect of the early English Church: the oppor­tunity it provided for women not only to express their personal devo­tion in community, but to do so in contexts that frequently enabled them to exercise significant leader­ship.

Many other modern English towns and villages still remember and celebrate the Christian witness of early English abbesses of Frides­wide’s generation: Æthelburg and Hildelith of Barking; Æthel­thryth (also known as Etheldreda, or Aud­rey), Seaxburh, and Eormen­hild of Ely; Mildryth and Eadburh of Thanet; Mildburg of Wenlock; Hild, Eanflæd and Ælfflæd of Whitby; or Cwenburg and Cuth­burg of Wimborne.

Most of these women were royal: they were the daughters, sisters, even wives, of kings. Although some, such as Frideswide and Æthel­­thryth, had made personal vows of per­manent virginity (the latter main­tain­ing her virtue through two successive unconsum­mated mar­­riages), and some, such as Ælfflæd (daughter of King Oswiu of North­umbria), were dedicated to that life in infancy, others, such as Eanflæd — Oswiu’s queen — came to the cloister after marriage and mother­hood. Entry to religion did not sever these women’s familial ties, which frequently proved economically and politically important for a monast­ery’s success.

Godong/AlamyHoly deathbed: detail from the Frideswide memorial window in Christ Church cathedral

Remembering the families of their founders and first members, and praying for the souls of the departed, especially those buried in their midst, also represented one of the central functions that these female communities fulfilled.


SEVERAL such women were re­­nowned for their learning. Aldhelm of Malmesbury dedicated an erudite tract, On Virginity, to Hildelith and her Sisters at Barking, speaking directly to the range of his readers’ experiences in the world. He discussed the spiritual merits obtained not only by true virgins, but also by “the chaste” (those who gave up married life for the sake of the heavenly Kingdom) and “the con­jugal” (who married and produced children, but thereafter remained continent within marriage).

St Bede addressed one of his bib­lical commentaries, On the Canticle of Habbakuk, to his “dearly beloved sister in Christ”. She had requested an exposition of the canticle which she and her fellow nuns recited after the psalms at the Friday morning office, which implies that she was an abbess, possibly Ælfflaed of Whitby. The earliest surviving saint’s “Life” written in Anglo-Saxon England comes from Whitby abbey: a Life of Pope Gregory the Great, Apostle to the English. The same nuns wrote a Life of St Hild that was known to St Bede.

Various religious women from different houses in southern Eng­land corresponded with the eighth-century missionary to the Germans, St Boniface. These included Leoba of Wimborne (who added some rather clumsy verses to the end of one letter), and her one-time abbess, Eadburg, who sent vestments and manuscripts to Germany to enhance the missionaries’ work, including a copy of the Petrine epistles in gold letters.

St Boniface had commissioned her to have this book made “to im­­press honour and reverence for the sacred scriptures visibly upon the carnally minded to whom I preach”. In adulthood, Leoba joined St Boni­face in the mission field, becoming abbess of a monastery near Mainz.

As superiors of monastic schools, these abbesses had charge of the education of young nobles of both genders who were destined for secular careers, as well for the formation of future generations of nuns, monks, and ordained clergy. Five members of Hild’s community at Whitby went on in later life to become bishops; one of those (Oft­for, later Bishop of Worcester), had studied with Hild at her first mon­as­tery, Hartlepool, before fol­low­­­­ing her to Whitby.

Yet we should not imagine that these religious women exercised influence only inside the cloister: early English abbesses were sig­nificant figures in the secular world outside convent walls. As the cus­todians of substantial landed estates and great material wealth, they made economic decisions about the ex­­ploitation of the countryside which af­­fected their lay neighbours, beyond those who held land directly as an abbey’s tenants.

Ange/AlamyRelic: vaulted ceiling of Christ Church cathedral, part of the original priory of St Frideswide

Although reeves will have handled the day-to-day manage­ment of an abbey’s agricultural affairs, abbesses took responsibility for wider issues relating to the man­agement of their estates, often appear­ing as active agents in con­temporary documents about the donation or exchange of pieces of land, or as active parties to disputes over property ownership and inher­itance.


IN THE context of a developing (genuinely “mission-shaped”) Church in the decades after the initial con­version of the English to Christ­ian­ity, double houses, as well as those housing only men, found them­selves drawn into the work of evangelisation. Monks and nuns from such congregations ministered to the social and spiritual needs of their lay neighbours — not just feeding, clothing, and caring for the poor, offering hospitality to pilgrims and other visitors, and providing for the sick, but engaging directly in mission.

Women, as well as men, taught the laity about the message of the gospels (and, it would seem from St Bede’s accounts, preached hom­ilies). They recommended the bap­tism of infants, the proper burial of the dead, and regular attendance at the eucharist; and advised on de­­vout Christian living through their own example, as they tried to wean the population away from pagan superstition.


IN OXFORD, then, a new religious congregation designed to meet the needs of a modern city takes its name from an eighth-century local saint, Frideswide. Bringing women and men together under the au­­thority of a female mission priest, this community of young adults will unite in prayer and service to the poor. Their lives will be rooted in contemplation; they will show com­passion by ministering to those most in need at the margins of soci­ety, and courage in proclaiming the gospel.

These values closely mirror the aspirations of the earliest religious congregation on the banks of the Thames, which also had prayer and mission at their heart.

This initiative shows how ef­­fectively an early medieval historical model of female devotion can inform new modes of communal re­­ligious life, and serve the Church in the 21st century. Other English towns might profitably look to their own early Anglo-Saxon female saints to find similar inspiration.


Sarah Foot is the Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History and a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford. She is the author of several studies of the early Anglo-Saxon Church, including Veiled Women (two volumes, Ash­gate, 2000), and is currently working on a biography of the Venerable Bede.

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