of Binsey or Thornbury. On the other hand, in the Laudian MS. we
have an account of the miracle of the girl being healed ' in villa prae-
dicta Bentona' and then S. Frideswide is made to say to her companions
that she thinks it time they returned to their monastery. They then
got into a boat, and were cdiXx'iQd.' ad praedium civitate p7-opinquum quod
Buneseia diciiur,' and then we are told that there was in this ' praedium,'
a place much overgrown with bushes of a thorny character called ' ?'«
lingua Saxonica Thornbiri.' Here she built the oratory and many
buildings most fit for a dwelling for the holy women, and here, since
the spot was some distance from the river, and so inconvenient to the
sisters, in answer to her prayer a spring broke forth, ' qui nuiic usque
super est.' Then it is that the ' inforiunatus juvenis in villa quae dicitur
Sevecordia,^ has his hand released from his axe, and of course now
the story is made consistent, for ' Sevecordia,' or Seacourt, is only the
other side of the stream from Binsey, the shire ditch dividing the two,
as has been observed ; and the narrator introduces the circumstance
of the man being taken to her, '■ amne iransito,' i.e. by the road which
led from Seacourt to Binsey, to which reference has already been
made \ It was here, too, that the fisherman who was seized with a fit
Then it was that, feeling her death approaching, she returned to
her monastery, and the population met her, and she healed the leper
by the kiss.
All this about the migration from Benton to Binsey is entirely new,
and beyond either what William of Malmesbury or the writer in the
Cottonian IMS. have given ; but the name Thornbury, the story of the
spring, and one or two of the miracles, occur, as will have been noticed,
in the abstract which is given in the Oseney History, and of which
copies occur in the S. Frideswide cartularies.
The account of her death in both biographies (for neither in the
Oseney summary, nor in William of Malmesbury is any mention of it)
is narrated much in the same way as if there was a common original.
* See ante, p. 69.
FO UN DA riON OF S. FRIDES WIDE 'S NUNNER V. I o I
She had foretold her decease, and had her grave dug, because the fol-
lowing day being Sunday, she wished no one to work. The variations
are of no special moment, except, perhaps, one passage. The Cot-
tonian MS. in respect, of her burial, merely narrates she was buried in
the church of S. Mary on the southern side. But the Laudian MS.
has the following expansion : —
' The holy virgin was buried in the church of S. Mary, on the south
side, near the bank of the Thames. For at that time the church was
thus situated [and was so] up till the time of King Athelred, who,
when the Danes who had fled thither were burnt in it, enlarged the
circuit of the church as he had known it. Hence it happened that
the tomb which before was on the south side came afterwards to be
in the middle ^'
These four narratives then, the one which William of Malmesbury
procured for his history about 1125, the Laudian MS., which from
certain evidence in the MS. itself appears not to have been compiled
before 11 40, and the Claudian copy, which seems to lie between
the two, and the abstract found in the cartularies, which, though the
latest as to MS, authority, may be based on the earliest form of the story
of all, provide us with the material on which to judge of the circumstances
attending the first definite event which can be associated with Oxford ^.
We have to treat legends, it must be remembered, very differently
from myths. They, as a rule, grow up around a shadow, while
legends grow up round a substance. It is true it is not always easy
to discover it, but by taking surrounding circumstances into account
it is not unreasonable to hope to arrive at it approximately.
Some stress has been laid upon the story of a nunnery being
founded hard by about fifty years previous to the date ascribed to
the foundation of S. Frideswide ; while in the few records we possess of
that particular period such foundations are not uncommon. At this
date ^thelbald was ruling Mercia, having succeeded in 716. Though
a warlike king, yet, judging by the charters granted in his name, he
seems to have encouraged the foundation of religious institutions.
Again, although, as has been insisted on more than once, a site like
Oxford, so close to the borders, was not favourable altogether to
settlement, still there seemed now to be less danger to ecclesiastical
than to royal property, because King Ina of Wessex, the foe to be
feared, would not willingly have injured the Church.
^ Bodl. MS. Laud Misc. 114, folio 138. Appendix A, § 31.
^ It has not been thought necessary to refer to the variations of the legends as
given by John of Tynemouth, Capgrave, and other writers.
L02 THE EARLY HISTORY OF OXFORD.
The name of Frideswide, more properly spelt with the ?S, and so
written in some MSS. ' Frithes-witha/ has all the characteristics of a
good Saxon name. One is perhaps at first sight surprised to find in
the Annals of Winton this : —
'In the year 721 Ethelward was king of the West Saxons. His
wife, Queen Fritheswitha, gave Taunton, which was of her patrimony,
to the church of Winchester; and Ethelward on his part added to the
same manor vii manses for the need of the church '.'
But this appears to be a various reading of the name which we find
in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 737, viz. Frithogith^,
who then with Bishop Forthere visits Rome. It is singular, however,
that the two should occur about the same time, the one the daughter
of a Mercian under-king, the other the wife of the Wessex king. The
coincidence might indeed suggest that in consequence of her gifts to
the church, the West Saxon queen had been canonized, and some
later chronicler, wholly ignorant of the circumstances, had ascribed to
her that which was at the time looked upon as the highest attribute of
sanctity, namely, holy virginity — and that the several stories gathered
round her in consequence. But there must at once be set against
this, that the place associated with her name (and that certainly
anterior to the year 1004, when Ethelred's charter refers to the
foundation as something well known) was in Mercian territory and
not in West Saxon territory. Had we found a monastery dedicated
to S. Frideswide on the river Tone, or Parrot, or even on the Itchen,
there would have been some reason for the supposition ; but as the
church founded in her name was situated on the north bank of the
Thames, there is little doubt but that the fame of S. Frideswide's
monastery, in the thirteenth century, was such that the Winchester
annalist, in writing of the queen of Wessex, blundered her name, and
called her after the Oxford saint.
Then as to the story of the persecution by King Algar ^ A tradi-
* From the Annalcs Alonastcrii de Winton ; printed in Wharton's Anglia
Sacra, vol. i. p. 289. Appendix A, § 32.
2 Leland also, in his Itinerary, vol. iii. p. 72 (Hearne's ed. p. 88) gives in an extract
'Ex Libello Donatiomi7n Winton. Eccksiae'' the following line, "■ Fritheswiglia
Rcgina dcdit Tanton^
^ In the Acta Samtorinn, Oct. viii. p. 539, there is a reference, on the authority of
Malbrancq and others, to S. Frideswide's journey to Rome, that writer speaking of
a chapel existing there dedicated to this Virgin. In this case there can be little
reasonable doubt that the recorded visit of S. Frisogith has been changed into that
of S. Frideswide through error. Whence the origin of S. Frewisse, who is honoured
at Bomy (Pas de Calais) about five miles south of Therouanne, does not appear.
The Bollandist writer starts on the assumption that S. Frideswide went there ; and
though several pages (vol. viii. 560 et seq.) are given to the discussion he does not
FO UNI) A TION OF S. FRIDFS WIDE 'S NUNNER Y. j 03
tion may have been handed down of some under-king who had asked
her in marriage and whom she had refused, choosing rather to dedi-
cate herself to God. Such a story is far from improbable, and the
founding of a church with a community of women attached in order
to avoid him is quite in accordance with what we might expect. The
charter of King Ethelred seems distinctly to assert that at least certain
lands were possessed by a community calling themselves from the
name of the saint, who was buried in the church within their precincts.
And this could not have come about without some portions of the
legend being substantially true. The names of Algar, Algiva, and
Osgar, as already said, may perhaps one and all be dismissed as
additions by the transcribers of the legend.
The next point to consider is the introduction of the name Beii-
iotiia, as the place to which S. Frideswide is supposed to have fled
from her persecutor. The place, it will be observed, is named by both
the biographers as if they had copied a common original. In the
summary given with the copies of the charter in the Cartulary of
S. Frideswide, as has been said, no mention is made of the journey to
this Bentonia ; she is said simply to have taken up her abode ' peace-
ably at Thornbury, now called Binsey.' Again, William of Malmesbury,
in his story, omits all reference to the longer journey, and implies that
a sojourn was made in a wood near Oxford, which would agree with this
simpler version that her abode was at Binsey. In the Cottonian MS.,
on the contrary, there is no mention of the sojourn at Binsey at all,
only at Benton. In the Laudian MS., which from the general cha-
racter of the narrative appears to be the latest, both places are named ;
first Bentonia, then Binsey ^
Now it happens very frequently, when two stories are told in
different ways, that the next chronicler inserts both stories and makes
one succeed the other. There is much reason to suppose it has
happened in this case. It is just the same probably with the story of
the messengers first being struck blind, and then the king some time
afterwards being struck blind also; and it will be observed that the second
story is introduced somewhat awkwardly in the Cottonian version, be-
cause S. Frideswide was away at Benton when the King is supposed
to come to Oxford to find her. On the whole therefore the more prob-
seem to get beyond seventeenth and eighteenth century writers such n.s Malbrancq,
De Neuville, and Le Heurdre, and what they have to say appears to be simply
derived from guesses. There is probably no connection between S. Frewisse and
either Frisogita, or S. Frideswide.
^ The fourteenth-century version in the Lansdowne MS. (see anlc, p. 99) com-
bines the two by making the wood of Binsey close to Bampton.
I04 THE EARLY HISTORY OF OXFORD.
able solution is that Benton came to be written erroneously, that there
was only one place actually occupied, and that most likely was Binsey.
But if this were not so, then where is Bentona? Amongst the guesses
from the sound the commonest with writers has been Benson, i.e.
Bensington, and though this is on the Thames yet it is over twenty
miles down the river. There appears to be nothing to show that this
place was in the mind of the original writer ; but on the other hand it
is to be noted that Bentonia is a name which occurs in Domesday in
the Hst of the king's lands in Oxfordshire. The Hst begins with Besing-
ton, i. e. Benson, and then after several other names, e. g. Hedinton,
Cherilintone, Optone and Sciptone, it gives Bentone, which is un-
doubtedly to be identified with Bampton ^, the parish of which lies on
the north bank of the Thames, some seventeen miles up the river '^,
though the church and present village are some two miles away from
It may, of course, be argued that if the nuns moved from their place
in Oxford, they may just as well have moved as far as Bampton to
begin with, and then afterwards moved to Binsey on their way back.
But if so the detail of the legend as given by both the writers, and
therefore to all appearance belonging to the earlier copy, is very in-
consistent, namely that the journey by water was ' unius horcE spaiio'.
This would take them possibly to Binsey, it could not possibly take
them seventeen miles to Bampton against stream : while in the after
history of S. Frideswide's we find that the monastery held land at
Binsey, but none at Bampton.
That the nunnery situated in the town might have a ' cell,' as was
so commonly the case in after years with so many monastic establish-
ments, is not extraordinary, nor on the other hand would it have been
strange if the nuns had found the residence in Oxford inconvenient to
them, and seeking the quiet of the country actually moved thither;
* The fourteenth century transcriber of the Lansdowne MS. 436, already re-
ferred to as introducing the ' wood of Beneseye,' has written Baniptonia instead of
Bentonia, that being the place he considered to be meant by Benton.
■•^ The identification with Abendon, i.e. Abingdon, which has been suggested by
some writers, has nothing to recommend it except that one legend speaks of Benton
being ten miles off on the Thames ; and as Abingdon is nearly eight it has been
thought sufficiently near to warrant the supposition.
^ So far as has been observed no event in the history of Bampton seems to be
associated vrith the story of S. Frideswide. Whereas as regards Binsey, throughout
the middle ages the place has belonged to S. Frideswide's monastery and still
belongs to Christ Church ; and though we do not find mention of S. Margaret's Well
till a comparatively late date, it is just possible that the direct association of this
with S. Frideswide's spring, which burst forth in consequence of her prayers, may
have had its origin in an older tradition.
FO UN DA TION OF S. FRIDES I VIDE 'S NUNNER V. 1 05
and cither of these would give rise to the stories which, after all, are
only so much colouring of facts. Whether S. Frideswide herself moved
during her lifetime to the quietude of Binsey, or whether the nuns
moved after her death, as appears to have been the case with the
Abingdon nuns v.'ho removed to WiUiam on the death of Cilia, would
make no difference. Wherever the nuns went, there, as the story
would be told, would S. Frideswide be said to go.
We need not be troubled with the fact that no place near bears the
name of Thornbury now, or that it is found in no other record. One
answer is, we have no early charters describing the immediate
surroundings of Binsey, and names of the kind are soon lost.
On the other hand, the choice of the place is not otherwise than
reasonable. The water-way was the safest and the easiest in those
times, and although somewhat circuitous it was no doubt most fre-
quently adopted. The district is one not unknown previously, if, as
has been suggested, the Wytham to which the Abingdon nuns removed
was divided only from Binsey by the Shire ditch, and but half a mile
between the spots where afterwards the two churches rose. In its
after history we certainly find the land to be in the possession of the
monastery of S. Frideswide; whether or not it had been so from
the first cannot be learnt from the charter of Ethelred in 1004, since
the possessions then granted may not all be named. When we come
to the Domesday Survey of 1087, though the record does not include
Binsey, at the same time it does not exclude it, as it may possibly
be included in the four hides near Oxford \
It is further somewhat favourable to this theory that, in King
Stephen's reign, the meadows to the north of Binsey were chosen
as a site for a nunnery, which in its day was only second to that of
S. Frideswide and Oseney, namely Godestow. Merely a ditch sepa-
rated the parish of Binsey, which may be supposed to represent
S. Frideswide's property, from the land of the nunnery in which Fair
Rosamund passed her early years; while the meadows at the south-
eastern corner, bearing the name of the middle-eyt (i. e. the middle
island, or Medley, as it is known commonly, and gives its name to the
lock which exists there), belonged to the nuns, and there a building was
erected to which at times they could retire, and which may be said to
' The entry is ' Canonici Sanctrc Frideswide . . . iiij hidae juxta Oxeneford . . .
et 100 acrae prati et 8 acrae spineti.' This is so vague that it is just possible the
' spinney ' was on the Binsey side and was the ' thorn thicket ' referred to. There
is however no reference to any property on this side of Oxford in the descriptions
of the land which are attached to the charter of King Ethelred of 1004.
lo6 THE EARLY HISTORY OF OXFORD.
have borne the same relation to Godestow as Binsey might long
before have borne to S. Frideswide's.
Such, then, are the grounds on which there is good reason to
believe that, in the eighth century, the vill of Oxford, although the name
appears nowhere else in our Annals, possessed a religious community
which had settled there, and that besides their property to the south-
eastern edge of the promontory of the gravel bank already referred to,
and where their church was erected, they possessed property and
buildings at the far western extremity of the Mercian soil and so
bounded on its western side by the Shire ditch. To this in times of
war with the West Saxon king, when raids upon such a border town
as Oxford would have been frequent, and rendered the position of the
nuns unbearable, they could retire. All definite record of this com-
munity is lost, but it survives in the description given by the monks
of S. Frideswide in after years of the life of the foundress; it is in
legendary language, which cannot be construed with any certainty of
the exact meaning, though it may convey a tolerably clear outline of
the actual facts.
Oxford a Border Town during the Eighth and
From what has been said in the last chapter, it is only reasonable
now to speak of Oxford by name, as a vill of some kind must by this
time have been existing here on the border of the Thames. There is
no reason to believe it had been as yet fortified, because if it had
been, it would most probably have played some part worthy of record
in the struggles of the eighth and ninth centuries.
The year after the foundation of S. Frideswide's monastery, the
good King Ina of Wessex died, but not before he had restored by
charter to Abingdon the property which through the negligence of
Hean in carrying out the conditions of the original grant, had been
practically lost ; and as part of their land was on the Mercian side of
the Thames, we find in this charter of restoration, or rather in the
confused abstract of it, which alone has been handed down to us, the
name of ^thelred, the Mercian king, as having granted part of the
land, and the signatures of ^Ethelbald together with that of Ine
amongst those who appear to have attested the charter of confirma-
tion \ This shows that at this time Oxford was a border town, the
Thames separating the two kingdoms.
The long reign of King iEthelbald (who had succeeded as early as
A.D. 716) seems to have begun peacefully, and no difficulties seem to
have arisen between him and Ina, or Ina's successor ^thelheard, who
ruled the West Saxons from a.d. 728 to 740. Indeed only one batde
is recorded, namely, in the year 733, and at Sumerton, in these words : —
'Ann. 773. In this year iEthelbald captured Sumurtun^'
It is often difficult to identify places named in the Chronicles,
especially where they stand alone, and in this case the chronicler has not
even recorded against whom the king was fighting. Two places have
been fixed on by different historians ; and one of these is the Somerton
on the Cherwell, about ten miles north of Oxford: such a battle
1 Hist. Mon. Abinsdon, Rolls Series, vol. i. p. 10. Note also yEthelbald's
Charter, ibid. p. 38.
■ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles spell this place variously Sumurtun, Sumertun
I08 THE EARLY HISTORY OF OXFORD.
would have of course affected Oxford considerably, for it would in-
volve the supposition of the West Saxon king having previously crossed
the Thames and made a raid up the Cherwell and occupied Somerton.
It is, however, very improbable that such a raid would have been
recorded in the manner in which we find it described in the Chronicle.
For a king would scarcely be said to capture a place which was in his
own dominions ; and then, further, there is no trace of any fortress there
which would have been likely to have caused a siege. Equally im-
probable is it that JEthelbald would make a long raid across Wiltshire
and Somersetshire, and fight at Sumerton, south of the Mendip hills,
which is the second place fixed on by historians. There would have
been some serious fighting first, and other places would have been
named, which would have fallen before such a raid was successful.
The most probable explanation seems to be afforded by Henry of
Huntingdon, who, in expanding the Chronicle in respect to the events
of this year, adds ' for he determined to carry his kingdom up to the
Humber \' This being so, we must look rather to the borders of Lin-
colnshire: and there we find a Sumerton which was in the middle ages
chosen as the site of a fortress, portions of which still exist -. So that
we may suppose that during the time that JGthelbald and .^Ethelheard
were kings of ^Mercia and Wessex respectively, Oxford was not in any
In the reign of Cuthred, ^thelheard's successor, for some reason or
another the two kingdoms went to war again. In a.d. 743, the entry
in the Chronicle describes them as both fighting against the Welsh.
Whether as allies, or whether each on his own account, we are not
told. It is just possible that their successes led to their disputing with
each other. Certain, however, it is that, in the year 752, the Battle of
Beorgford was fought — a battle vividly described by Henry of Hun-
tingdon — in which the IMercian king was put to flight. There can be
no question that this is Burford, about fifteen miles north-west from
Oxford. The circumstances would have been these. The West Saxo:!
king would have crossed the Thames, sweeping very possibly over
Oxford, and reaching the line of hills on the north, which are in part
capped by Wychwood Forest ; once having gained these hills he
would have the whole of the district between them and the Thames at
* ' Edelbald igitur rex Mercensis maxima virtute super reges coffitaneos provectus
omnes provincias Anglis usque ad Humbram flumen cum suis regibus sibi sub-
jectas esse voluit et fecit.' Hen. Hunt, Rolls Series, ed. 1S79, P- i^S-
^ Somerton Castle is in the parish of Boothby, eight miles south of Lincoln, and
on the river Brant, which flows into the Witham near to Lincoln. Edward I.
1 licence to crenellate it in 1281.
OXFORD A BORDER TOWN. IO9
his mercy. Standing on the Whitehorse Hill, we can readily take in
the meaning of this conquest, for the valley of the Thames and its
tributaries lies at our feet, while in the far distance another line of
hills appears bounding the horizon, beneath which the vill of Burford
was situated. Just as the capture of the Berkshire Downs had put
the Mercian king in possession of the Abingdon and Wantage district,
so now the capture of these hills put the West Saxon king in posses-
sion of the Oxford and Witney district. Of course this was the battle
of the campaign, and, therefore, duly recorded; and the town of Bur-
ford, lying beneath the range of hills for which these two armies con-
tended, receiving its name from the ford across the Windrush, beneath
the Beorg or fortress, gave the name to the battle. No record
exists of how Oxford was then treated, but having no fortifications, it
would probably have submitted and suffered as cities then did before
a victorious army. The Mercian King JEthelbald seems to have been
The next three years witnessed the death of both Cuthred and
^thelbald ; also the accession to the Mercian kingdom of the great
King Ofifa, and to the West Saxon kingdom of Cynulf (Ceolwulf ). It
is clear that Offa set about gaining back what his predecessors had
lost, but one great battle only is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle, namely of a.d. 777. The words are brief: —
'a.d. This year Cynewulf and Offa fought about Benesingtun, and
Offa took the town ^'
This, however, is to be read in connection with a passage which
occurs in the Abingdon History, of which the meaning is probably as
follows : —
'When Cynewulf was conquered by Offa, King of the Mercians, in
battle. King Offa took possession of all those parts which had been