26 July 2023
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 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, 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’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’.
We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Seventh Sunday after Trinity (23 July 2023). Today, the Church Calendar remembers Anna and Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection.
In the weeks after Trinity Sunday, I was reflecting each morning with Trinity-themed images from cathedrals, churches and chapels. That series came to a conclusion on Saturday (16 July) with my search for the mediaeval Holy Trinity altar in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth. This week, my reflections each morning involve:
1, Looking at stained glass windows in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth;
2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.
The Marmion (Saint Editha) windows, Tamworth:
During this week, I am reflecting in this prayer diary each morning on windows in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth.
A set of three windows on the south side of the chancel in Saint Editha’s Church, high above the High Altar, tells the story of Saint Editha and how she became the patron saint of 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, and 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.
The legend says that 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, returned north without Editha. The marriage was never consummated and was annulled.
Saint Editha, who always wanted to be a nun, 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.
She 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 build 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 Francis Willington of Colehill, Tamworth, 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 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 heraldic arms.
The second window represents Saint 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 a 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 15 July.
Although Saint Editha’s Day was 11 days ago [15 July 2023], Tamworth Civic Society, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, is celebrating Saint Editha’s Day and Cherry Fair today (26 July 2023), honouring the town’s patron saint and reviving a great historic tradition begun by a 16th century royal charter.
The day begins at the bandstand at 10.45, and a procession to Saint Editha’s Church, followed by a special Saint Editha’s Day service. People are invited to wear red for the Cherry Fair procession.
Matthew 13: 16-17 (NRSVA):
[Jesus said:] 16 ‘But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’
The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Reflections from the International Consultation.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Michael Clarke of the West Indies.
The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (26 July 2023) invites us to pray in these words:
Help us Lord, that by understanding our past, we can help tackle modern-day slavery and human trafficking.
Lord God of Israel,
who bestowed such grace on Anne and Joachim
that their daughter Mary grew up obedient to your word
and made ready to be the mother of your Son:
help us to commit ourselves in all things to your keeping
and grant us the salvation you promised to your people;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name,
your servants Anne and Joachim revealed your goodness
in a life of tranquillity and service:
grant that we who have gathered in faith around this table
may like them know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge
and be filled with all your fullness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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