21 February 2023
Saint Editha among the icons
by Ian Knowles in Saint John’s
Catholic Church in Tamworth
After a number of attempts over many decades, I finally managed to visit Saint John’s Church in Tamworth for the first time last Sunday.
Recently, the two Roman Catholic churches in Tamworth, Saint John’s Church in the town centre and Sacred Heart Church in Glascote, have undergone major refurbishment. Part of this work included commissioning icons by Ian Knowles for the sanctuaries in each church.
Saint John’s Church received four of his six half figures – Saint Editha, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Elizabeth, to grace the sanctuary, while Sacred Heart Church has a new monumental Cross hanging in the sanctuary.
Saint John’s Church was built in 1829, on the corner of Saint John Street and Orchard Street in the centre of Tamworth. The church is more of historical interest as an ambitious town church at the time of Catholic Emancipation than for its heavily compromised architectural qualities.
The church was designed as a large neoclassical church by Joseph Potter (1756-1842) from Lichfield, who supervised the alterations to Lichfield Cathedral in 1788-1793 and who was also the architect of Holy Cross Church, Lichfield (1835), and Saint Mary’s College, Oscott (1835-1838).
Saint John’s Church was remodelled and extended and given a distinctly post-war character in 1954-1956, and its brick exterior makes it look like a 20th century church.
I have long been interested in visiting the church, not only because of the earlier involvement of the Comberford family in Catholic and recusant life in Tamworth until the late 17th century, but because Saint John’s recently received interesting icons by Ian Knowles.
Finally, after many years, I was able to visit Saint John’s Church last weekend, before Sunday’s lunch in the Castle Hotel celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Tamworth and District Civic Society.
For his commission for the icons in Saint John’s Church, Ian Knowles researched the life and story of Saint Editha, the patron saint of Tamworth, who gives her name to the town’s Church of England parish church, Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, which I visited earlier on Sunday morning, including a visit to the Comberford Chapel in the church.
Describing his commission for the icon of Saint Editha and the other icons in Saint John’s Church, In Knowles says: ‘Sometimes saints really are lost to us in all but name, but where possible it is important to try and be as tuned in as possible to the saint as a living person whose commitment to Christ was lived out with such luminosity.’
Before beginning his work on this series of icons, Ian Knowles realised that it ‘is not clearly identifiable which St Editha this is.’
He found the earliest mention associating Saint Editha with Tamworth is the celebration of a Mass in her honour there in the ninth century.
Saint Editha is mentioned as Saint Ealdgyth in the Secgan, an 11th century Anglo- Saxon list of where English saints are buried and where their relics are venerated. Her relics are listed as being buried at Polesworth on the River Oncer or ‘Anker’. Ian wondered whether Saint Editha of Polesworth is the same as Saint Editha of Tamworth.
Polesworth is near Tamworth, and during the Norman period had the same feudal lord in the Marmion family. According to legend, Saint Editha of Polesworth appeared in a dream to Marmion of Tamworth Castle in the 12th century a to remonstrate with him over the eviction of her nuns from the monastic foundation he had suppressed.
The main source for her life is in the ‘Life and Miracles of St Modwenna’ by Geoffrey, Abbot of nearby Burford in Staffordshire (1114-1150). He identified Saint Modwenna with Saint Monenna, an Irish noblewoman, abbess and saint. He believed that St Eadgyth who was a her companion during her travels in England and on pilgrimage to Rome, was the same as his Saint Eadgyth or Saint Editha of Polesworth.
Other sources suggest Saint Editha was the daughter of Edward the Elder, sister of King Aethelstan who had his court nearby in Tamworth and whose unnamed sister was married briefly to Sitric, King of Dublin and York.
In his research, Ian Knowles also came across the story of Saint Eadgyth of Aylesbury, also known as Eadridus. She is said to have been a daughter of Penda of Mercia, who converted to Christianity, marking the beginning of the evangelisation of the Mercians.
As a result of his research, Ian Knowles has tried to summarise the life of Saint Editha. He concludes she was born into the royal Mercian household, a daughter of King Penda, and entered the monastery at Whitby with other English noblewomen, perhaps under the influence or at the direction of Saint Modwenna but certainly her eventual companion.
Her father King Penda gave her a parcel of land in now Polesworth near Tamworth to found a monastic settlement, and this became a small community who lived a semi-hermitical life. She was buried in Polesworth, and later was venerated in Tamworth when it became the seat of the Mercian royal court.
Ian Knowles doubts that he can ‘push much further than this’ in identifying who Saint Editha is. He describes her as a person of sufficient faith that miracles were associated with her in her lifetime, and she inspired other women to join her in her community.
The four icons by Ian Knowles in the sanctuary in Saint John’s Church, Tamworth, depict Saint Editha, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist (the church’s patron) and Saint Elizabeth, the mother of Saint John the Baptist.
On a future visit to Tamworth, I must endeavour to visit Sacred Heart Church on Silver Link Road, Glascote Heath, to see his Tamworth Cross in the sanctuary.