15 July 2020
Saint Editha’s Day is on
15 July; but who was
Saint Editha of Tamworth?
Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church in Tamworth is one of the largest and oldest parish churches in the English Midlands. Today [15 July] is Saint Editha’s Day … but who was Saint Editha?
I was in Saint Editha’s Church last year [9 May 2020] at the invitation of the Tamworth and District Civic Society to speak about the Comberford Family, Comberford Hall and the Moat House.
That visit also provided an opportunity to hear again the story of Saint Editha, and to take time to view the three windows telling that story.
A set of three windows on the south side of the chancel, high above the High Altar, tell the story of Saint Editha and how she became the town’s patron saint.
But, who was Saint Editha?
And why did she give her name to the parish church in Tamworth?
Saint Editha is said to have been the devout Christian daughter of Athelstane, King of Mercia, the expansive Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the Midlands that had its ecclesiastical capital in Lichfield and its civic and political capital in Tamworth.
However, the historical identity of Editha or Edith (Ealdgyth) and the dates of her lifespan are uncertain and questions about her historical identity are fraught with difficulties. Some sources say she was a daughter of King Edward the Elder, others say she was the daughter of Egbert of Wessex, while yet other traditions say she was a sister of King Æthelstan.
Saint Editha was to be given in marriage by her father, or her brother, in the year 925 to Sigtrygg, the Norse ruler of Northumbria in the North of England. It was not exactly a love marriage; instead, it was planned as a symbol of peace between the two kingdoms. Fifty years earlier, the Vikings had invaded Mercia from the north, and had ransacked Tamworth.
Legend says Editha refused to marry Sigtrygg unless he agreed to convert to Christianity. The marriage took place in the church in Tamworth, but Sigtrygg reneged on his undertaking, and returned north without Editha. The marriage was never consummated and was annulled.
Saint Editha, who always wanted to be a nun, then joined a convent near Tamworth at Polesworth, which may have been founded by that other Staffordshire saint, Saint Modwen, or Saint Modwenna, a female hermit who lived near Burton-on-Trent.
Editha later became the Abbess of Tamworth, and was known for her charitable deeds. She died in 960, and the memory of her inspired great devotion to her in Tamworth.
In yet another Danish invasion of the Staffordshire area three years later, Tamworth was destroyed once again. King Edgar of England rebuilt Tamworth, and at the same time Editha was declared a saint. The parish church has been dedicated to her ever since.
After the invasion of England in 1066, William the Conqueror gave the lands around Tamworth to the new lord, Marmion. One day after hunting in Hopwas Wood near Tamworth, Marmion fell into a sleep in which he dreamt that Saint Editha had struck him with her crozier of office, causing a deep wound. When he awoke, he found he had been badly wounded indeed.
When the wound refused to heal, Marmion decided to restore Saint Editha’s former nunnery to the Benedictine nuns, who built a new convent on the site.
In the late 19th century, Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), one of the great Pre-Raphaelite painters of his day, was commissioned by a Mr Willington to design the windows telling the story of Saint Editha. These magnificent windows, high up in the clerestory on the south side of the chancel, were made at the studios of William Morris (1834-1896), a Pre-Raphaelite and a member of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The Willington family in Tamworth included Waldyve Willington, Parliamentarian Governor of Tamworth in 1645, John Willington, steward of the Townshend estate at Tamworth Castle in the early 19th century, who lived at the Moat House, the former Comberford family home on Lichfield Street, and Francis Willington, Town Clerk of Tamworth.
From the east, the first window represents the marriage of Editha of Mercia and Sigtrygg of Northumbria. The left panel shows Athelstane taking Editha by the right hand to give her away in marriage. In the two centre panels, Sigtrygg is seen placing a wedding ring on Editha’s left hand. The pane on the right shows Ella, Bishop of Lichfield, blessing the marriage.
At the top of the window is a Norse galley as an emblem of Sigtrygg. At the foot of the window is the heraldic arms of Athelstane, the Willington family, Sigtrygg and the Bishop of Lichfield. The Willington arms are used here as Saint Editha had no arms herself.
The second window represents Editha, whose nunnery was in Tamworth, as an Abbess with a crozier in her right hand in the first panel, and her nuns with her in the two centre panels, beholding a vision portrayed in the fourth panel of the Virgin Mary, patron of the Benedictine Order to which the nunnery belonged, with the Christ Child.
At the top of this window is panel with the tower of Saint Editha’s nunnery. The nuns had no heraldic arms, so the four panels at the bottom of the window depict the arms of the Willington family, Guy de Beauchamp (1272-1315), 10th Earl of Warwick, and the Bracebridge and Waldyve families, who all claimed descent from King Athelstane of Mercia.
The third window deals with two subjects. The two panels to the left show William the Conqueror resting on a mighty sword, presenting Tamworth Castle to Marmion. The two panels to the right depict Saint Editha striking Marmion with her crozier for banishing the nuns. When he awoke and his wound failed to heal, he allowed the nuns to return.
The panel at the top of this third window shows Tamworth Castle.
The four heraldic panels at the foot of the window depict the arms of William the Conqueror, the Marmion family and their successors at Tamworth Castle, and the Willington family.
Other churches dedicated to Saint Edith include Church Eaton in Staffordshire, Amington Parish Church near Tamworth, Saint Edith’s Church in Monks Kirby, Warwickshire, and a number of churches in Louth, Lincolnshire.
Her feast day is today, 15 July.