Frideswide and Her Treacle Well – Br. James Koester

Occasion: Commemoration of St. Frideswide, Monastic, c735

Some of us will remember our visit to Oxford a few years ago, when we were able to spend some time in the Cathedral after it closed to the public, and while the choir was rehearsing for Evensong. A number of us spent that time sitting in the Latin Chapel, where Morning Prayer is prayed each day, and where the shrine of St. Frideswide has been rebuilt. Frideswide’s relics aren’t actually there, but a few yards away somewhere under the floor, or in the wall, where they were hidden at the time of the Reformation.

She exists too, here at the monastery, along with St. Edward the Confessor, whose feast was last week. They keep watch over our comings and goings, as we move from the chapel to the refectory. Their small windows are in the door leading from the statio to the cloister.

Frideswide, is perhaps an odd saint for us to commemorate, but it is her connection as patron saint of Oxford that places her in our calendar, and in our windows.

Her legend is quite fantastic, at least to modern ears. It involves virgins, royalty, attempted seductions, near escapes, vows, miracles, and holy wells. In other words, the works. But beneath the legend, is a story of dedication, devotion, mercy, and healing.

Frideswide, an eighth century Saxon princess, was determined to live as a nun. Such a choice was not uncommon for highborn women of that age. It was the one way in which women of royal lineage could maintain control of their lives. However, as was also common, she attracted the attention of King Ethelbald. Fleeing into the woods outside Oxford, where she hid, her suitor was struck blind, and a holy well sprang up. Using water from the well, she healed her suitor, who then left her in peace, and she went on to found a double monastery, on what is now the site of Christ Church, Oxford. Both her shrine, and the holy well, continue to be places of pilgrimage. Indeed, the well even makes an appearance in Alice in Wonderland, as the treacle well. Now lest you think Frideswide’s treacle well dispenses a molasses type liquid, treacle in Old English means medicine, and so a holy well with healing properties, was referred to as a treacle well. And that of course brings us back to the story of Frideswide.

As I said, the legend of Frideswide is a little fantastic, but beneath it is a story of dedication, devotion, mercy, and healing, and we need those as much today, as did the people of eighth century England. Holy Frideswide, pray for us.


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1 Comment

  1. James Rowland on October 21, 2021 at 21:16

    Thank you Br James for a wonderfully entertaining message. You had my hopes up for a real ( perhaps legendary) treacle well. The taste of treacle ( to me) is truly miraculous and who is to say it may not also be medicinal?

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