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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

Oxford’s saint

Photo credit: By kind permission of the Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford

The shrine of St Frideswide gives us a glimpse of the world before the Reformation. Then the City was rich in such relics and shrines. Many of the University’s most prominent scholars were monks or friars – and almost all the rest were in holy orders too. Their daily routine combined study with worship. Presiding over the University and City was their patron, St Frideswide, an eighth-century abbess.

St Frideswide’s Priory (now Oxford Cathedral) opened a new shrine to house Frideswide’s relics in 1180. It attracted pilgrims in search of healing, including Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, who sought Frideswide’s intercession to conceive a son. Yet the Priory was also a site of conflict. A local Jewish man protested against the cult and subsequently committed suicide. The Jewish community’s inability to keep that event a secret was claimed by some Christians to be a miracle and proof of the saint’s power.

Protestant reformers saw such beliefs and practices as mere superstition. This shrine was one of many sites that they destroyed from the late 1530s onwards, along with books, statues, stained glass, and other artefacts. All that now remains of the original shrine is the platform on which it rested.

The question of how a reformed Church and University should address the material remains of medieval faith was never resolved. Unlike monasteries, colleges endured, retaining their pre-Reformation buildings, names, and many of their symbols.