26 July 2023

Æthelflæd and her spear
continue to make their mark
on the people of Tamworth

Luke Perry’s sculpture of Æthelflæd in the centre of the roundabout outside the train station in Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Tamworth loves Æthelflæd. She greets you when you arrive off the train and start walking into the centre of Tamworth. She figures prominently in the grounds of Tamworth Castle. And she looks down benignly on all in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, the parish church in the centre of Tamworth.

Throughout this week in my prayer diary on this blog each morning, I am reflecting on the stained-glass windows in Saint Editha’s Church. Her window is the latest addition to the windows in the church five years ago (12 June 2018) as part of the programme organised by the Tamworth and District Civic Society to mark the 1100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd.

The striking sculpture of Æthelflæd stands in the centre of the roundabout outside the train station, at the junction of Victoria Road and Albert Road. It was created by the sculptor Luke Perry, who was commissioned to produce an iconic piece of art honouring Tamworth’s Anglo-Saxon past in a 21st century way.

Luke Perry is known for his monumental sculptures, especially his work celebrating under-represented peoples and the heritage of the Industrial Revolution, particularly in the Black Country.

The six-metre tall steel figure was put in place five years ago on 20 May 2018, in a meticulous operation involving a large crane, ropes and ladders. The result is an impressive, striking sculpture that greets people as they step off the train and points them towards the town centre along Victoria Road, inviting them to follow the direction of her spear to find out more about her story in Tamworth Castle and Saint Editha’s Church.

More than a century earlier, in 1913, a sculpture of Æthelflæd and her nephew Aethelstan, by the sculptor Edward George Bramwell (1865-1944), was erected n the Tamworth Pleasure Gardens, below Tamworth Castle, to commemorate the millennium of her fortification of the town.

The Æthelflæd memorial window by Robert Paddock in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Æthelflæd memorial window in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church in Tamworth portrays her as a Christian warrior queen in front of a fortified burh, surrounded by English oak leaves, within a solid oak frame in an internal opening in the chancel. The hand-made glass was produced by Robert Paddock of the Art of Glass Ltd of Hatton, Warwickshire.

In the window, Æthelflæd holds aloft a sword, cross-like, alluding to the pose of the statue of her father King Alfred in Winchester. The window is back-lit so that its rich colours change in appearance during the course of the day, and it is particularly striking in the evening.

The window is a tribute by their children to Norman and Mavis Biggs who both died in January 2017. For over half a century, they were involved in promoting, protecting and celebrating Tamworth’s heritage and history.

The window was blessed and dedicated by Bishop Michael Ipgrave of Lichfield, and a plaque was unveiled by Prince Edward on 12 June 2018 as part of service organised by the Tamworth and District Civic Society to mark the 1100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd.

Æthelflæd and her nephew Aethelstan … a sculpture by Edward George Bramwell below Tamworth Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Æthelflæd, also known as Lady of the Mercians, was a daughter of King Alfred the Great. Today she may be ‘England’s forgotten Queen,’ but she was a formidable leader in a shadowy history of the dark ages.

She had no more children after her only daughter. When her husband Aethelred died in 911, she ruled Mercia alone, an astonishing early example of female empowerment. Planting cities, sponsoring learning and defending her people, Æthelflæd laid the foundations of a kingdom that would become today’s England.

She created and enlarged a series of strategic burhs or fortified towns as she pushed northwards through Mercia, rebuilding towns and churches that had been laid waste by the Vikings from the 870s. Her surviving and identifiable burhs are at Worcester, Gloucester, Hereford, Chirbury, Bridgnorth, Warwick, Stafford, Chester, Runcorn and Tamworth. She captured Derby from the Danes in 917, and took Leicester a year later without a fight.

Æthelflæd made Tamworth – seat of the Mercian kings until the Viking invasion of 874 – her base from 913, and rebuilt the church.

She died in Tamworth on 12 June 918, as she was about to launch a campaign against the Viking stronghold of York. She was buried in Gloucester beside her husband. Her daughter Aelfwynn briefly succeeded her as ruler of Mercia in 918, the first recorded example of female rulers succeeding one another.

Æthelflæd in the Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, ca 1220 (Copyright © the British Library Board)

Æthelflæd’s campaign was continued by her brother Edward of Wessex and their nephew Athelstan, resulting in the creation of a united England. Athelstan – the first acknowledged King of all England – was brought up by Æthelflæd.

Saint Editha, the patron saint of Tamworth Church since 960, is said to have been the niece of Æthelflæd and was married in Tamworth Church in 926 to Sihtric of York by arrangement of Athelstan. After the failure of that marriage, Saint Editha founded a convent in Tamworth and led a saintly life in Tamworth.

The historian Michael Wood believes that without Æthelflæd there would not be an England (Angle-land) as we know it. Tom Holland describes her as the ‘Founding Mother of England’.

Æthelflæd invites people to follow the direction of her spear from the train station to Saint Editha’s Church and Tamworth Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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