St. Editha’s Church

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East view of St. Editha’s Church – 1790

The question often arises why Tamworth, relatively small market town should possess such a large and magnificent Parish Church.  The answer is to be found in the whole history of the town from Saxon days 1200 years ago when Tamworth was an important settlement of Mercia.  It was here that King Offa built his great palace and it was here, as it is recorded, that he kept the great festivals of Christmas and Easter.  Between 796 and 857 no less than 14 Royal Charters were issued from Tamworth and since all of them were witnesses by ecclesiastics, the inference of the church here is irrefutable.  In 874, the Danes sacked Tamworth, leaving the town and probably its church a heap of blackened ruins.  There can be little doubt, however, that a new church was built.  In 925 Sihtrigg, Jarl of Northumbria, plighted his troth to Editha, King Athelstan’s sister at Tamworth in the presence of Ella, Bishop of Lichfield.

The story of pillage however continued, and in 943 the Danes razed Tamworth again and its church was destroyed.  Only to be rebuilt by Kind Edgar in 963.  It is of interest that the commissionaires appointed by Henry VIII, to make an inventory of church property reported that, the “Collegiate and Parish Church of Tamworth” which they had inspected, was founded by King Edgar.  Little, if any of that church remains.

Tamworth Church was rebuilt and enlarged by the Normans, and must have been a magnificent building.  In length it was at least equal to the present edifice and there is Norman masonry at both the extreme east and west ends of the church.  Its plan was cruciform with a central tower over the crossing.  There is a deeply splayed round-headed window on the south side of the Chancel, which in the 12th century was an outside wall.  This window has beautifully twisted columns with cushion capitals externally, and a delicately carved string course underneath.  But the pride and glory of Tamworth Church are the two great Norman arches in the Chancel.  Originally there were four, those four arches carried the tower and the position of the two former transverse arches can be traced by the roughness of the walls showing where they were cut away.  Remnants of the zig-zag moulding of the Norman screen wall, the originally grey stone, burned a deep red by fire, still face the Nave.

The Tamworth Church in the days of The Marmions was a noble building and is shown but the scale of its buttress still to be seen in the transepts; and by a very interesting collection of relics displayed upon the south aisles western most windowsill.

On May 23rd 1345 Tamworth was practically destroyed by fire and the imposing Norman Church was completely gutted.  Only the large transeptal arches and portions of the Quire, western walls of the Nave, and the North Aisle with porch, remain standing.  Fortunately Tamworth possessed in it’s then Dean, a man whose name is worthy of an honoured place in the long roll of great men and women from Tamworth, Dean Baldwin de Witney, in spite of untold difficulties, poverty at home and war abroad, and then the terrible Black Death, set to work to repair the ravages of the fire.  In 20 years he rebuilt the church practically as we see it today.

image003The interior of Dean Witney’s 14th century church however, had one striking difference from today’s St. Editha’s.  Instead of being flat, all its roofs were steeply pitched.   Dean Baldwin de Witney died in 1369 and left a noble monument to future generations.  He is buried within its wall.

St. Editha’s Church is famous for its extraordinary double winding staircase, which climbs the whole height of the southwest angle and gives Tamworth Parish Church its greatest distinction.  The staircase had two independent entrances, one from the outside, and the other from the outside of the church.  Two persons may ascend the tower simultaneously without seeing each other until they reach the top.

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