21 February 2023

Saint Editha among the icons
by Ian Knowles in Saint John’s
Catholic Church in Tamworth

The icon of Saint Editha by Ian Knowles in Saint John’s Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

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.

Inside Saint John’s Church in Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

The sanctuary and altar in Saint John’s Church, Tamworth, with the four icons by Ian Knowles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

Inside Saint John’s Church, Tamworth, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

The four icons by Ian Knowles depict Saint Editha, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Elizabeth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

Saint John’s Roman Catholic Church, Tamworth … built in 1829 and rebuilt in 1954-1956 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Praying in Ordinary Time
with USPG: 21 February 2023

‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1559)

Patrick Comerford

Lent is only a day away, beginning on Ash Wednesday tomorrow. This time between the end of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, is known as Ordinary Time, and is a time of preparation for Lent, which in turn is a time of preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

Today is Shrove Tuesday, and before Lent begins and before this becomes a busy day, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

In these days of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday, I have been reflecting in these ways each morning:

1, reflecting on a saint or interesting person in the life of the Church;

2, one of the lectionary readings of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday is traditionally a day for self-examination and repentance, for thinking about amendment of life and spiritual growth, asking for God’s help in these areas. The term Shrove Tuesday comes from the word shrive, meaning ‘absolve’.

But popular practices on this day have also involved indulging in sweet and fatty food that might be given up during the 40 days of fasting in Lent, represented, of course, by pancakes. The term Mardi Gras is French for ‘Fat Tuesday’, referring to the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before Lent begins.

‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’, painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1559, is a panorama with almost 200 characters marking the transition from Shrove Tuesday to Lent.

On Shrove Tuesday, many churches burn the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to make the ashes for use on Ash Wednesday.

Lichfield’s traditional Pancake Races take place today, with the usual races including Men’s, Women’s, Mascots and under 10s. The races begin in Bore Street at 12 noon, and are followed by the traditional opening of the Shrovetide Fair on the Market Square by the Civic party, supported by the Town Crier, Adrian Holmes, who will give a shout to mark the occasion.

As I wake this Shrove Tuesday morning, I am taking some time to reflect on George Herbert’s poem ‘Lent,’ welcoming the ‘dear fast of Lent.’

Lent, by George Herbert:

Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev’ry Corporation.

The humble soul compos’d of love and fear
Begins at home, and lays the burden there,
When doctrines disagree,
He says, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandal to the Church, and not
The Church is so to me.

True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
When good is seasonable;
Unless Authority, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it less,
And Power itself disable.

Besides the cleanness of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulness there are sluttish fumes,
Sour exhalations, and dishonest rheums,
Revenging the delight.

Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
And goodness of the deed.
Neither ought other men’s abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
We forfeit all our Creed.

It’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s forti’eth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Saviour’s purity;
Yet we are bid, ‘Be holy ev’n as he,’
In both let's do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn and take me by the hand, and more:
May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast,
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.

George Herbert (left) with two other Cambridge theologians, Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott (centre) and Henry Martyn (right), in a window in All Saints’ Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 9: 30-37 (NRSVA):

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Burning Palm Crosses from Palm Sunday on Shrove Tuesday to prepare ashes for Ash Wednesday

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Social Justice in Sierra Leone,’ which was introduced yesterday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for the Diocese of Freetown and the North. May its work amongst the poor and marginalised people change attitudes and lives for the better.

The Collect:

Almighty Father,
whose Son was revealed in majesty
before he suffered death upon the cross:
give us grace to perceive his glory,
that we may be strengthened to suffer with him
and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Holy God,
we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ:
may we who are partakers at his table
reflect his life in word and deed,
that all the world may know his power to change and save
This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

‘George Herbert (1593-1633) at Bemerton’ (William Dyce, 1860)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org