19 October 2015

The Demivirgins of Oxford

FROM A PREVIOUS YEAR.
The Arms of the See of Oxford have a band across the middle (a "fess" ... francophone readers, be quiet) and above it three crowned demivirgins (yes, the heraldic term does afford scope for endless witticisms, but, believe me, most of them were made several hundred years ago), and in the base an Ox walking sedately across a Ford. The three demivirgins and their fess gave rise to an old undergraduate joke that the shield represents three lady dons sitting at a table and giving a viva to a cow. Who the ladies actually are is not entirely clear.

Pretty certainly, one of them is S Frideswide. She was a princess who declined marriage, fled, and hid among pigs (a faintly Circaean touch?) in a forest until her suitor was struck blind and gave up the quest, whereupon she became an abbess. Her shrine was in the chapel of S Frideswide's Priory, which later became the Chapel of Cardinal College (I believe trendy people now call it Christ Church, but it's still got Wolsey's hat and his coat of arms - which it uses as its own arms and its flag - all over it). This chapel subsequently served as the cathedral church of the diocese which Henry VIII erected on the cheap (and which was formally given Catholic legitimacy, by virtue of his legatine powers, by Cardinal Pole). Under the Tudor Spoliation, the shrine was demolished and, under Bloody Bess, S Frideswide's bones were mixed with those of a Protestant woman; subsequently an inscription informed the public that Religion and Superstition lay mingled there ...

( ... a bit of an ambiguity there, don't you think? Rather in the spirit of the naughty old Jacobite doggerel "God save the King! God save our Faith's Defender:/ God bless - no harm in blessing - the Pretender./ But who Pretender is, and who is King:/ God bless my soul! That's quite another thing!").

Anyway, S Frideswide now does cheerful duty as Patron of the City, University, and Diocese of Oxford. (Under the old conventions, I suppose that might have made her Festival today a Treble of the First Class with a privileged octave.) Back in the dear old long-forgotten days of the Church of England, the Lord Bishop celebrated Pontifical High Mass on her festival against a background of apprehension that somebody might be offended because of the niceties of Precedence. You see, there was the traditional Anglican frisson of uneasiness between Bishop (and Diocese) and Dean (and Chapter), combined with the amour propre of the University and the capacity of the City Corporation, representing Town, to feel slighted by Gown. This was solved by having different processions simultaneously snaking into the Cathedral from different directions.

Yes, I know what you're thinking ... Oxford has never really quite Grown Up ...

2 comments:

Fr PJM said...

St. Margaret of Anointing Antioch, or St. Margaret of Scotland?

bvs said...

Loved this post. Really amusing. I am new to your blog R u @ Oxford, Father?