Who was St. Editha?

By kind courtesy of Christine Smith

(From her book “Royal Saint Editha”)

The Collegiate Church of Tamworth, Staffordshire, and Polesworth Abbey Church, Warwickshire, are dedicated to St. Editha.  As is Amington Parish Church.  The saint is also commemorated in other parishes in the midlands and in a cluster of churches in Louth, Lincolnshire.  Historians in most of these places, are however, still trying to discover the identity of the saint who was undoubtedly an Anglo-Saxon royal. The search has taken us through the mists of time and the complications of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman languages, and slowly but surely legend is beginning to turn into history.

The Tamworth Legend was written down in the reign of King William II (Rufus) and a 15th century copy was later in the 17th century found to be in the possession of the Ferrers of Tamworth Castle.  Both copies are unfortunately now lost but Sir William Dugdale (1606-86) was shown this legend written on a “very old parchment” and mentioned it in his “History and Antiquities of Warwickshire”.  Charles Ferrers-Palmer later wrote about it in his “History of the Baronial Family of Marmion”.  It was part of a collection of legends and stories from early Anglo-Saxon through to Norman times, written by more than one person and put together with little regard for geography, genealogy and hagiography, as were many tales in the early Norman era.   We’ll refer to this from now on as “The Tamworth Legend”.

This started with the legend of St. Editha, the daughter of King Egbert of Wessex who, in gratitude to St. Modwen, daughter of the King of Connaught, for curing his son Arnolph of leprosy in Ireland, invited the saint to court. She then founded a small cell in the Forest of Arden, with sisters Lynne and Osyth at a place called “Trensale” where the king`s daughter Editha went to be a novitiate. This later became Polesworth Abbey where Editha eventually became  abbess.

The collection of stories emerged into written history with the haunting of Lord Marmion of Tamworth Castle by the spectral figure of St. Editha who admonished him for evicting the nuns from Polesworth.   It also told of the struggle between the Marmions and the Bassetts of Drayton, further inflamed when William Rufus decreed that all those monasteries with a certain type of cross (on the roof, in the grounds, or elsewhere) were no longer subject to the Crown.  This included the foundations of the White Friars of which the Bassetts were patrons, while those of Marmions appear to have been subject to this order.  Possibly the reason Marmion evicted the nuns was to sell the abbey lands, but if he`d known how unpopular this was to make him, he might not have done so. The Tamworth Legend added to the stories already circulating in this area, and in the many re-writings, these all became confused and vast time-scales were condensed. Despite the obvious inaccuracies however, these stories still provide the basis of many books and articles.



The Marmion Windows at St. Editha’s Church portraying the legend of St. Editha.  Photograph by H. Chas. Mitchell

Its clear some of the Norman writers, especially those ensconced in distant monastic establishments, were unsure of Anglo-Saxon history.  If the local saint was a daughter of King Egbert of the 9th cent. then her tutor St. Modwen, well-documented as belonging to the 7th cent. had to be made to fit into the story somehow, and this was done by the saint supposedly having lived to the remarkable age of 200 years!  Those of the populance who were literate, were still subject to the writings the ecclesiastics presented to them, and those who were not were often narrated traditional stories by the monks and village elders,  and sometimes by travelling storey-tellers and players.  It still happens today, that although the truth of a story is known, we still prefer to cling to the legend.  The real story however, that can be reached through all the embellishments, appears far more interesting.  Egbert did not in any case have a son called Arnolph; no legitimate daughters; and as far as is known, none named Editha.  Some historians have also had difficulty explaining how a King of Wessex could have had jurisdiction over land in Mercia, the two being at that time still separate kingdoms.

Recent research including the latest publications by several best-selling authors proves that if we look closely at the many old documents remaining, most now in the archives of far-flung libraries and museums (that many of us have trouble getting to) we`ll see that much of our history over the centuries has been wrongly translated, ruthlessly edited, and made to fit some religious or political criteria.  It is only with increasing access to the archives and by the insistence of ordinary people, that many documents are now being dusted off, re-translated and in some cases re-published.  Only then shall we discover what really happened in the past. 

The information provided for Ford Madox Brown (1821-93) who designed and William Morris (1834-96) who made the stained-glass windows in the Collegiate Church at Tamworth, depicting the story of the saint, identified “Editha” as the daughter of King Edward the Elder and sister of King Aethelstan.   This was rather strange, as usually they did a lot of research on their subject, but many Victorian writers started to put forward this new contenders.  The source appeared to be one of the Norman monk-chroniclers of the 12th cent. who referred the princess as “Editha”,  perhaps confusing her with her half-sister Editha, who wed Otto the Saxon, King of the Franks, later Holy Roman Emperor.  They are the ancestors of our present queen.

Anglo-Saxon female names tended to sound similar, for most of the daughters of the family carried the prefix of the name of one of their parents,  e.g.  “Aelfgyfu” meant “gift of Aethel”. The Anglo-Saxons did not in any case use a final “a”, that was a Norman addition, denoting the feminine.  The monks, who did not understand these languages, often simplified names they found difficult to pronounce,  so “Eadgyth”,  “Elfgyfu”, “Aethelgyfu” and others, were often rendered as “Editha”.

The princess was the only full sister of Aethelstan, and they were the children of Edward the Elder`s first concubine,  and were probably born and certainly brought up at Tamworth by their aunt Ethelfleda, Countess of Mercia.  Edward later had a vast brood of daughters by his two subsequent wives, some of whom became sainted.  The princess is unnamed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which is odd since these were first compiled by her grandfather King Alfred of Wessex (grandson of King Egbert).  Neither is she mentioned by name in the norse King-Lists, though she was for a few months the wife of Sihtric the Danish King of York and Dublin, an unconsummated match that soon left her a widow, for Sihtric was much older than her.  He was the “caoc”, the one-eyed war-lord, who had committed fratricide and who walked a precarious path even among his own kind, for making his peace with the English King.  The marriage took place at Tamworth in early 926.  It was probably a political match to strengthen the alliance between the two kings, and Aethelstan claimed Northumbria after Sihtric died.  The princess, apart from founding a monastic community in the grounds of the royal residence at Tamworth, seemed to fade into obscurity, perhaps retiring to Polesworth Abbey.

The community of laymen the unnamed princess founded was mentioned in the will of Wulfric Spot, Alderman of Mercia, of the early 11th century.  Depending on where the early fort was situated, and it is thought Ethelfleda`s burh may have been on the site of the present castle, in which case  the princess`s foundation may have been somewhere in the extensive Castle Liberty.  However, considering it is now thought the early church was situated on the man-made plateau the present church stands on, the building could have been in the centre of town.

Medieval Writers.   According to Jim Gould,  historian, in his “Saint Editha of Polesworth and Tamworth” :-

The Old English list of Saints` Burial-places refers to St. Editha`s last resting-place as Polesworth Abbey where she had been abbess.

1155, Hugh Candidas in his revised list records her burial-place as Tamworth.

1080, Goscelin, writing about St. Editha of Wilton, mentions the saint of Polesworth as being the sister of King Edgar.  (St. Editha of Wilton was in fact King Edgar`s daughter).

John of Tynemouth copied this but in other works on St. Modwen he identified St. Editha of Polesworth as the daughter of King Egbert of Wessex, an ancestor of Edgar.  In writing about St. Modwen, John based his findings on the work of Geoffrey, Abbot of Burton-Upon-Trent, who had in turn sent to Ireland for source material on the work of Conchubran, a monk of Glenanussen, Ireland.  Conchubran wrote his Life of St. Modwen between 1000-1050, using Irish source material.  He died at the monastery in 1082.   These writings were contained in the Cotton manuscripts examined and printed in 1910 by Mario Esposito whose extensive researches have guided modern scholars. He believes the manuscripts to have been at Burton-Upon-Trent until the Reformation.   

Looking at the many differing opinions of the medieval writers however, if they were confused then so are we nowadays!  They were commissioned to write histories by the royals, but as so few documents had survived from the 7th to the 12th centuries, they often went to extraordinary lengths to provide a story from limited material that would appeal to their overlords, and they generally embellished these to suit demand.  However, they are the only source for our Anglo-Saxon history and some truth can be gleaned from the many legends they recorded.

The Tamworth Legend may in fact have in part originated from the work of Conchubran, who included in his Life of St. Modwen all the known tales about this sainted Irish princess, some full of pathos,  some quite bizarre.

The saint was a daughter of a King of the territory of Mochta, Ireland, who had founded a convent at Faugha, Louth, and been enraged at an attack upon it by an Irish king who wanted a parting gift for the King of Northumbria who had just ended his long exile in Ireland and was returning to claim his rightful throne.  Aldfrith was one of the sons of King Oswiu of Northumbria, ousted by his half-brother Ecgfrith, during whose reign, the friction in the royal family over the change of the church calender was to erupt in full-scale war that eventually engulfed the whole of the north.

St. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, had tried at the Synod of Whitby in 664 to keep the church order Celtic, but St. Wilfred was intent on changing it to that of the Roman. This was to have a profound effect upon our religious culture, and was to devastate Northumbria, seat of learning.  Most of the Irish and Scots might have supported Ecgfrith in his fight to keep the Celtic Church calendar but he alienated them by his invasion of their territories,  when dreadful loss of life occurred.  The warmongering Ecgfrith was finally defeated by King Bruide mc Billi of the Picts at the Battle of Forfar, 685.    Aldfrith, the scholarly king, being notified by messengers from his half-sister Aellflaed, who was made Abbess of Whitby after the death of St. Hilda,  returned to his kingdom.  He had spent many years writing and translating documents in an Irish monastery, and found on his return that by then the Church of Rome had taken over the church in Northumbria and in all other English kingdoms as it would also in time take over those of the Irish, Scots and Welsh.

During St. Wilfred`s prolonged absence abroad, Ecgfrith had put Chad, a monk of Lindisfarne, in his place as Archbishop of York.  When the respected churchman returned he tolerated the newcomer, until King Wulfhere of Mercia asked Chad to become Bishop of the Mercians and the young cleric who undoubtedly felt uncomfortable under the circumstances, in the Northumbrian scene of opulence and academia,  consented,  and later settled into a cell at Stowe, Lichfield.

St. Modwen came sailing into the port of Whitby one day in 685, to seek redress of an unsuspecting Aldfrith and this she gained, probably being ceded land in the conquered territories of Scotland, where she was known to have ministered.  Aelfflaed, Aldfrith`s half-sister, had succeeded St. Hilda as Abbess of Whitby, and she invited St. Modwen to stay and tutor the young nuns. This gives credence to that part of the legend that tells of the sainted Irish princess tutoring St. Editha, for there is a possibility that this could have been when the two saints met.

St. Editha of Aylesbury and Bicester was at that time a nun who had already founded several convents with the help of her mother, who had in turn persuaded her father to agree to this.  Editha was a daughter of King Penda of Mercia by his Queen Cynewise, a cousin of Cyndyllan, King of Powys.    Penda whose name is British and meant “father figure” was indeed for all his ferocity just that to his people.  Although he`d had a bad experience of Christians he didn`t prevent his wife and children from founding their own churches and monasteries.   Editha was probably in her thirties when she would undoubtedly have visited Northumbria for the return of the king, a great occasion.  She had probably already been there for the weddings of three of her siblings to Northumbria royalty, and perhaps she was also accompanied by her two neices Editha and Osyth, the daughters of King Frithwald of East Anglia by his wife Milburgha, a daughter of Penda.

Conchubran was the source for Geoffrey, Abbot of Burton-Upon-Trent, who in his Life of St. Modwen,  tells how several nuns including Osyth, Ite (Ede) and Lazar then accompanied St. Modwen to Burton where she founded a cell on Andressey Isle in the Trent, named after St. Andrew the patron saint of Scotland.  St. Modwen did so much more all over these islands, that commands a literary slot of its own.  In Scotland, ongoing archaeology in Galloway is revealing more of the rich heritage of our distant past, and about these early Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints who were so beloved of the people among whom they ministered, around whom cults sprang up, and whose memories remain still.

At Burton where her remains were taken for burial in the chapel beside the curative well on Andressey Isle, local historians are still trying to locate the Church of St. Andrew in the town, and the  Church of St. Peter and St. Paul on the riverbank below Scalpcliffe Hill, while relics from the Abbey of St. Mary and St. Modwen are still being found.  Here, as in Scotland, the had  saint healed people suffering from diseases of the throat and chest, particularly children suffering from the whooping cough, treating them with water from the pure wells.  Her oft-times formidable presence brought order to the turbulent courts of fractious kings, who readily supplied her with funds for the sick and poor.

The Tamworth Legend went on to tell about two young nuns Lynne and Osyth who came with St. Modwen to “Trensale” in the Forest of Arden, to set up a cell where Editha would minister and eventually become abbess.  Conchubran mentioned a “Streanschalt” and its thought this could have been “Streanschalen”, Whitby, Northumbria, the place where St. Hilda had lived and worked.  And where Abbess Aelfflaed who succeeded her, invited St. Modwen to tutor the young nuns who may have included Editha`s neices.    “Whitby” is a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Norse, and means “white fort”, but many very early Anglo-Saxon names were retained as were some even earlier British ones.  Was “Trensale” really “Streanschalen”?  Or was it as a Polesworth historian thinks, “Trent Dale” near Repton, Derbyshire,  where the huge double-monastery and churches were attacked for their riches by maurauding Danes in the 10th cent.  Perhaps both. St. Modwen was definitely in Whitby, then she would appear to have gone south, accompanied by these members of the Mercian royal family, to found the cell at Burton. They then all appear again on the banks of Anker at Polesworth.

If Editha, who had several convents to run by then, did not stay at Polesworth, then it may have been her neice, whom the legend describes as “young” and who was probably only about 14 when she started out on her ministry, who later became abbess.

The Forest of Arden covered much of the midlands, and it was Wulfhere of Mercia, Editha`s brother, who first started making clearings in the forest, not to decimate the woodland but in order to bring more people into the forest to live and work.  Anglo-Saxons managed woodland, for timber was a valuable commodity;  they coppiced and pollarded trees and introduced many new species from abroad.  Most people earned their livings from the land, much of which was forested.  The woodland also provided food and medicines for people and animals. The names of the king`s clearings can still be seen in places, such as “Ulverley Green Road”, Birmingham (Wulfhere`s field) and “Kineton Green Road” Solihull, (the king`s town).  Polesworth “the settlement by the deep-pooled stream” was another clearing.   As undoubtedly also was Tamworth, “the settlement by the flooding river” for although there had been farmsteads at least as far back as the Iron-Age, all around, it could well have been Wulfhere who cleared land for a fort on the riverbank at Tamworth and made it his capital.  From here he tried to encroach along the Watling Street into his cousin Cyndyllan`s territory and was defeated in a battle near Wall.  It wasn`t until the late 7th cent. that Cyndyllan lost a large part of Staffordshire and Shropshire to the Northumbrians, then in some deal with the Mercians, this was given over to Wulfhere`s kingdom of Mercia.  Legend also connects him with the town for the supposed murder of his sons Ruffin and Wulfhade, and  for centuries there was a Ruffin`s Well, now the scented garden, near the river.

This was a century before King Offa of Mercia built his famed palace “the admiration and wonder of the age”.  Despite some archaeologists maintaining this was built in a rural area, this seems odd if he wanted to exhibit a “wonder” of architecture for people to show “admiration” for.  It could also be asked why Offa built a complicated series of earthwork defences around what appears to be the whole of the modern town, if there was nothing there to defend!   Despite some archaeologists of the 1960s maintaining the relics found during excavation of these ditches dated only to the 10th cent., the latest excavations on the General Hospital site turned up relics from the time of this Anglo-Saxon king. Tamworth was obviously of some importance by the 8th cent.

At Castor, near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire the interesting church was founded by St. Cyneburgha, (nowadays spelt with a “K”) and still holds much heritage.   It had grown depleted in the Northumbrian wars and leading churchmen planned to restore to its former splendour.  Wulfhere readily agreed to do so,  in memory of his brother King Peada whom he suspected of having been murdered by his Northumbrian wife and in-laws. His sisters St. Cyneburgha and Cyneswith, wife of King Alchfrith of Northumbria, were witnesses to the re-foundation Charter. They bore the prefix of their mother Cynewise`s name, indicating their descend from British royalty.   Wulfhere`s brothers Ethelred and Merewalh, both to become kings, also witnessed the foundation charter.

There was a mass for St. Editha celebrated in Tamworth Church that was mentioned in the 9th cent. when the church was patronised by an “Ite”, sister of King Alfred of Wessex.   This was “Ethelswith”, who bore the prefix of her father`s name, King Ethelwulf of Wessex.   She was 13 when her father married her off to King Burhred of Mercia who promptly left the country when the Danes invaded, leaving her to try to defend the territory, including her beloved monasteries and convents, many of which she had founded and endowed.   If the mass for St. Editha was celebrated in the mid 9th cent., then this could only have been dedicated to the daughter of King Penda.  King Alfred founded a church at Winchester Abbey in memory of his sister who died in 888 at Pavia, on a pilgrimage to Rome.

St. Editha of Wilton, daughter of King Edgar the Peaceful, gt-grandson of King Alfred is another contender for the saint.   This is another story of the cult of a beloved saint spreading far and wide.   There is still a yearly pilgrimage from the well by the church at Kemsing, Kent, her birthplace, along the Pilgrim`s Way to Canterbury.  Editha was a student of St. Dunstan, and founded the abbey church at Wilton.

Far from being a shy, retiring little nun who never left the cloisters, the reality was that she was a woman of great courage in troublesome times, a scholar, a healer and mentor who to the consternation of some clerics often wore her own rich clothes in the cloisters and who greatly influenced many leading churchmen of the day.  After the murder of her half-brother King Edward at Corfe Castle, she was offered the crown by a deputation of thanes, but declined. The next in line was her half-brother Ethelred.   St. Dunstan, who had taken as a portent the fouling of the font by the enfant at his Christening, braced himself for the years of misrule of the reign of Ethelred the Unready.

Miracles were wrought at St. Editha`s tomb after her untimely death in 983, at the age of twenty-two years, one of the distinguished visitors being King Canute who had ousted Ethelred and who ruled most of Mercia.  The strange haunting the king experienced in the abbey that day caused the king to become much less sceptical, and he decided to make for St. Editha a jewel-encrusted shrine.

Canute`s first wife was  Aelfgyfu of Northampton, a Mercian royal, a cousin of St. Editha.    Her family had suffered appallingly at the hands of a henchman of Ethelred, but when she wed Canute, she was avenged.  The Mercian royal family were elevated again, and found to be influencing civic and religious events and foundations.

Did Canute rebuild Polesworth Abbey? Or at least give Wulfric Spot, Alderman of Mercia, his wife`s uncle , permission and finance to do so, for Wulfric, ousted from office by Ethelred, had still carried on his plans to found Burton Abbey which was completed at the same time, around 1004.   Dedicated to St. Mary, this was later changed to St. Mary and St. Modwen when the relics of St. Modwen were transferred there from the chapel on Andressey Isle.  Canute has recently been found by archaeology to have rebuilt part of Canterbury Cathedral for he had promised to rebuild many of the foundations of King Alfred, devastated in the wars between English and Dane.

The saint of Polesworth and Tamworth is still not known for sure, she could be either St. Editha of Aylesbury and Bicester, whose brother made clearings in the Forest of Arden.  Whose neices Editha and Osyth were also saint, with Osyth indisputably one of the nuns of the early cells at Burton-Upon-Trent and Polesworth. To whom there was a mass celebrated, in Tamworth church, at the time of  its patroness, Queen Ethelswith of Mercia.

Or St. Editha of Wilton whose cousin was wed to King Canute, who made for the saint a jewel-encrusted shrine. The king also rebuilt churches in Wessex and Mercia.

The Feast Days of the Saints are given locally as:-

St. Editha of Tamworth,    26th July, died 960.

St. Editha of Polesworth,  15th July,  died 964.

Both these could allude to the unnamed princess, who could have lived to the 960s.  The two dates obviously refer to the alteration of the calendar when there was a difference of 11 days, so both belong to the same saint.  The fact the unnamed princess does not appear to have been the local saint however, does not deter from the fact she may well have endowed these churches and retired to Polesworth Abbey.

St. Modwen,  5th July, died 701, Scotland.

St. Editha of Aylesbury and Bicester. Her father King Penda died untimely in battle in 654. She may have been one of the younger children, and could have been in her thirties at the time of the King of Northumbria`s return.

St. Editha and St. Osyth, the daughters of King Frithwold of East Anglia.  There were two saints Osyth, but the neice of St. Editha had churches in Lincolnshire and East Anglia dedicated to her.

Please find enclosed picture of King Canute and his wife Aelfgyfu presenting a golden cross to Winchester cathedral.  In many history books this picture is described as depicting Canute`s second wife Emma of Normandy,  when the label clearly states “Aelfgyfu Regina”.




The family who purchased the abbey site after the Reformation.

Francis Goodere       m      Ursula

d. 1546                               d. 1547


Sir Henry Goodere    m    Frances.                 Anne  m  Sir Henry Rainsford.

d. 1595. (Aged 13 at parents` deaths).

Settled manor on himself and family, 1574.


                  Thomas Goodere of Collingham, Notts.,

/           and his son Henry Goodere, claimed  manor had been conveyed to them

/                  at a  time when Sir Henry had no heirs.


Frances Goodere      m      Henry Goodere

(Her father settled manor on her and her husband who was also her cousin.

Both d. by 1628).


      John Goodere (probably a son) at manor

1618 and 1624.


/       Other daughters of   Sir Henry and Lady Francis Goodere:

/        Lucy  m  Sir Francis Nethersole.

/        Elizabeth  m  Samuel Roper.

/        Mary  m  Samuel Hildersham.

/        Anne  m  Dr. John Kingston of London.


Frances Goodere  m  Michael Biddulph,

at manor, 1661.


Michael Goodere,  d. 1688.


George Goodere,  d. 1737.

Lady Anne Rainsford with her husband and Sir Henry Goodere`s daughters, conveyed manor to Sir Robert Honeywood and his wife Frances and others, 1628.  In 1655 Sir Robert Honeywood and Frances, Samuel Roper and Elizabeth and a daughter of Sir Henry Goodere conveyed manor to Samuel Hildersam and Mary.

The manor later descended to the Chetwynds.

The Goodere family crest was a partridge and a sheaf of corn. 

Thanks to several other historians; even if we didn`t always agree, it was great communicating with other like-minded individuals.  

Christine Smith

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