Edith of Polesworth
|Venerated in||Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism|
|Major shrine||Tamworth, Staffordshire, England|
Saint Edith of Polesworth (also known as Editha or Eadgyth) is an obscure Anglo-Saxon abbess associated with Polesworth (Warwickshire) and Tamworth (Staffordshire) in Mercia. Her historical identity and floruit are uncertain. Some late sources make her a daughter of King Edward the Elder, while other sources claim she is the daughter of Egbert of Wessex. Her feast day is 15 July.
Edith (Ealdgyth) is included in the first section of the late Old English saints' list known as Secgan, which locates her burial place at Polesworth. The question of St Edith's historical identity is fraught with difficulties.
As sister to a West-Saxon king
The tradition which was written down at the monastery of Bury St Edmunds in the 12th century and was later by re-told by Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) and Matthew Paris (d. 1259) asserts that she was a sister of King Æthelstan, who gave her in marriage to Sihtric Cáech, the Danish king of southern Northumbria. It then suggests that the marriage was never consummated. When Sihtric broke his side of the agreement by renouncing the Christian religion and died soon thereafter, she returned south and founded a nunnery at Polesworth, not far from the Mercian royal seat at Tamworth, spending the rest of her life as a devout nun and virgin.
The story appears to take its cue from an earlier source, the D-version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which confirms that on 30 January 926 King Æthelstan married his sister to Sihtric (d. 927) and attended the wedding feast at the Mercian royal centre of Tamworth. The Chronicle, however, gives no name. Reporting on the same event in the early part of the 12th century, William of Malmesbury identified her as a daughter of Edward the Elder and Ecgwynn, and therefore a full-blooded sister to Æthelstan, but says that he was unable to discover her name in any of the sources available to him. A variant version of the Bury tradition, which locates her burial place at Tamworth rather than Polesworth, identifies this Edith as a daughter of Ælfflæd, Edward's second wife, and hence Æthelstan's half-sister. However, another late source drawing upon earlier material, the early 13th-century Chronicle by John of Wallingford, names Sihtric's wife Orgiue.
These late, contradictory statements have garnered a mixed response from modern historians. Some scholars favour Roger's identification or at least the possibility that her name was Eadgyth/Edith. Alan Thacker, for instance, states that "given the strong Mercian connections of Æthelstan himself, it is not at all unlikely that such a woman, if repudiated, should have ended her days in a community in the former heartlands of the Mercian royal family. Perhaps, like Æthelstan, she had been brought up at the Mercian court.". Barbara Yorke, however, argues that the name Eadgyth is unlikely to belong to two of Edward's daughters at the same time, the other being a daughter by Ælfflæd.
A slightly earlier if largely legendary source which potentially casts some light on traditions surrounding St Edith is Conchubran's Life of Saint Modwenna, a female hermit who supposedly lived near Burton-on-Trent. The text, written in the early 11th century, mentions a sister of King Alfred by the name of Ite, a nun who served as the saint's tutor and had a maidservant called Osid. Although an Irish nun called St Ita was active in the 7th century, Ite's name has been interpreted as "almost certainly a garbling of Edith" and that of Osid a rendering of Osgyth.
As early Mercian saint
Yorke prefers to identify the historical figure of Edith with an earlier namesake instead. The saint's inclusion in Secgan, grouped as she is with other early saints buried near rivers, may be taken as evidence for the hypothesis that she was a Mercian saint who flourished in the 7th or 8th century. According to Alan Thacker, on the other hand, the entry in Secgan may also be a later addition, along with at least two other items which seem to reflect interests peculiar to Æthelstan's time.
The saint is commemorated in a number of churches around the Midlands, the most notable of these being Polesworth Abbey and the Collegiate Church of Tamworth, which bears her name. Other churches dedicated to St. Edith include Church Eaton in Staffordshire, Amington Parish Church (in Tamworth), as well as a number of churches in Louth, Lincolnshire.
- Church of St Editha, a Grade I listed building
- Yorke, Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon royal houses, pp. 77-8.
- Hudson, Viking Pirates and Christian Princes. pp. 28-9.
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum, Book II, ch. 126.
- Thacker, "Dynastic monasteries and family cults", pp. 257-8
- Hudson, "Óláf Sihtricson"
- Hudson, Viking pirates and Christian princes, p. 29, considers it possible that her name was Eadgyth (and hence also a source for confusion with namesakes).
- Bartlett, Geoffrey of Burton. Life and miracles of Modwenna, pp. xviii-xix.
- Yorke, Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon royal houses, pp. 22, 39 n. 58, 77-8.
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum, ed. and tr. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (1998), William of Malmesbury. Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings. Oxford Medieval Texts. 2 vols.: vol 1. Oxford.
- 'Hyde' Chronicle (also Warenne Chronicle), ed. Edward Edwards (1866). Liber monasterii de Hyda. London.
- Geoffrey of Burton, Life and miracles of St. Modwenna, ed. and tr. Robert Bartlett (2002). Geoffrey of Burton. Life and miracles of St. Modwenna. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Hudson, Benjamin T. (2005). Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty, Religion, and Empire in the North Atlantic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Thacker, Alan (2001). "Dynastic monasteries and family cults: Edward the Elder's sainted kindred". In N. J. Higham and D. H. Hill. Edward the Elder 899–924. London: Routledge. pp. 248–63. ISBN 0-415-21497-1.
- Yorke, Barbara (2003). Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses. London.
- Hohler, C. (1966). "St Osyth of Aylesbury". Records of Buckinghamshire 18.1: 61–72.
- Hagerty, R. P. (1987). "The Buckinghamshire Saints Reconsidered 2: St Osyth and St Edith of Aylesbury". Records of Buckinghamshire 29: 125–32.
- Who was Saint Editha? (article discussing the Editha legend)
- Polesworth Abbey's website (which includes a history of the abbey]
- St Editha's Church, Tamworth