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St Edith of Polesworth and her Cult

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2019

Keele University/VCH Staffordshire, William Salt Library, Eastgate Street, StaffordST16 1LZ; e-mail:


Venerated at Polesworth (Warws.) in the late Anglo-Saxon period, the identity of St Edith remains uncertain, with medieval chroniclers suggesting various candidates, but she is likely to have been a seventh-century Mercian princess, perhaps also connected with a church near Louth (Lincs.). Buried at Polesworth, where miracles were still being recorded in the thirteenth century, and perhaps with relics in the collegiate church at nearby Tamworth, her cult was very localised, with only a few outliers elsewhere in the Midlands, probably linked to the Marmion family, lords of Tamworth castle and the founders in the mid twelfth-century of a female religious house at Polesworth.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019

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My Keele colleague Andrew Sargent is thanked for his comments on this article in draft, as is this Journal's reader for in particular advising a note of caution at one point in the argument.


1 Bodleian Library, Oxford, ms Dugdale 12, pp. 1–2. However, the year 1640 was given when the text was printed in the first edition of William Dugdale's Monasticon Anglicanum (1656), ii. 365; revised edn 1817–30, repr. 1846, ii. 365–6.

2 He is given as king of the counties of Warwick, ‘Worsyttur’ (Worcester), Colchester, ‘Arforte’ (?Hertford), Salisbury, Stafford, and of Derbyshire, Cheshire and Lancashire.

3 In fact, there is no entry for Polesworth in Domesday Book, nor one for Tamworth.

4 Mason, E., ‘Brothers at court: Urse de Abetot and Robert dispenser’, Anglo-Norman Studies xxxi (2009), 6489Google Scholar.

5 As given in A linguistic atlas of late medieval English, <>. Dr Maureen Jurkowski is thanked for drawing my attention to this source. Dugdale himself commented that it was written ‘as it seemeth temp: Hen. 6’: ms Dugdale 12, p. 1.

6 A co-heir of Baldwin de Freville (d. 1418), whose ancestor had inherited the castle after the death of the last Marmion (Philip) in 1291, Elizabeth was assigned Tamworth after a survey of 1419: HMSO, Calendar of fine rolls, xiv, London 1934, 282; Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, DR 10/1316; University of Nottingham, Manuscripts and Special Collections, Mi M 214 (survey).

7 Meeson, R. A., ‘The timber frame of the hall at Tamworth castle, Staffordshire, and its context’, Archaeological Journal cxl (1983), 329–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The date was confirmed later by dendrochronological analysis: personal communication from Mr Meeson.

8 Greenslade, M. W. (ed.), VCH Staffs. iii, London 1970, 315Google Scholar (list of deans). Ralph is named as the son of Thomas's son, another Thomas (d. 1498): TNA, PROB 11/11, Thomas Ferrers (1498).

9 BL, ms Add. 71474 (William Dugdale, ‘Book of monuments’), fo. 55v. The castle scene was reproduced by Dugdale in The antiquities of Warwickshire, London 1656, 823.

10 For a study see Rollason, D. W., ‘Lists of saints’ resting-places in Anglo-Saxon England’, Anglo-Saxon England vii (1978), 6193CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reference to Edith at p. 90.

11 Liebermann, F., Die Heiligen Englands, Hannover 1889, 1314, no. 18Google Scholar.

12 There is no entry for her in the ODNB and only a brief note in Blair, J., ‘A handlist of Anglo-Saxon saints’, in Thacker, A. and Sharpe, R. (eds), Local saints and local churches in the early medieval West, Oxford 2002, 495–565 at pp. 527–8Google Scholar. See also the synopsis in English monastic litanies of the saints after 1100, ed. Morgan, N. J., iii (Henry Bradshaw Society cxxiii, 2018), 107–8Google Scholar. For longer commentaries see Gould, J., ‘Saint Edith of Polesworth and Tamworth’, Transactions of the South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society xxvii (1987), 35–8Google Scholar, and Thacker, A., ‘Dynastic monasteries and family cults’, in Higham, N. J. and Hill, D. H. (eds), Edward the Elder, 899–924, London 2001, 248–63 at pp. 257–8Google Scholar. Edith is also mentioned in a discussion of the putative pre-Conquest religious communities at Polesworth and Tamworth: Foot, S., Veiled women, II: Female religious communities in England, 871–1066, Aldershot 2000, 139–42, 191–6Google Scholar.

13 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘D’, s.a. 925 (recte 926).

14 Athelstan did have a half-sister named Edith, but she married Otto, duke of Saxony (later king and Holy Roman Emperor), and was buried at Magdeburg in 946: for her see P. Stafford, ‘Eadgyth’, ODNB.

15 William of Malmesbury, Gesta regvm Anglorvm: the history of the English kings, ed. Mynors, R. A. B., Thomson, R. M. and Winterbottom, M., Oxford 1998, ii. 199, § 126Google Scholar.

16 Roger of Wendover, Flores historiarum, ed. Coxe, H. O., i, London 1841, 385–6Google Scholar, s.a. 925.

17 Paris, Matthew, Chronica majora, i, ed. Luard, H. R. (Rolls Series, 1872), 446–7Google Scholar, s.a. 925.

18 Thacker, Both, ‘Dynastic monasteries’, and Sarah Foot, Æthelstan, the first king of England, New Haven–London 2011, 48Google Scholar, comment that it is not unlikely that the widow would have entered a convent, which could perhaps have been in the Tamworth area.

19 Wilmart, A., ‘La Légende de Ste Édith en prose et vers par le moine Goscelin’, Analecta Bollandiana lvi (1938), 5101 at p. 13CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For Edith of Wilton see B. Yorke, ‘Edith of Wilton’, ODNB.

20 Nova legenda Anglie, ed. Horstmann, C., Oxford 1901, i. 311Google Scholar. Tynemouth has a different identification in his version of the Life of St Modwen.

21 Dockray-Miller, M., Saints Edith and Æthelthryth: princesses, miracle workers, and their late medieval audience: the Wilton Chronicle and the Wilton Life of St Æthelthryth, Turnhout 2009, 78–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar, lines 639–47. ‘Whitby’ is a reference to the monastery rendered as ‘Streneshale’ in a Life of St Modwen of Burton, on which this section of the ‘Wilton Chronicle’ may have been based: Whitby (Yorks. North Riding), the site of a celebrated Northumbrian monastery, was formerly known in Old English as ‘Streanaeshalch’.

22 Geoffrey of Burton: life and miracles of St Modwenna, ed. Bartlett, R., Oxford 2002, pp. xxxxviGoogle Scholar. Both Lives are the main sources for a detailed discussion of the relationship between Modwen and Edith: Sargent, A., ‘A misplaced miracle: the origins of St Modwynn of Burton and St Eadgyth of Polesworth’, Midland History xli/1 (2016), 119CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 This is rehearsed in Sargent, ‘Misplaced miracle’, 3–5, citing Esposito, M., ‘Conchubrani Vita S. Monenna’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy xxviii (1920), section C, 202–51Google Scholar.

24 Life and miracles of St Modwenna, 86–7, ch. xx; for Æthelwulf (‘Athulf’) and Alfred see pp. 74–5, ch. xviii.

25 Kirby, D. P., The earliest English kings, London 1991, 191Google Scholar. Moreover, in Geoffrey's Life of Modwen, his son Æthelwulf is described as king of the Mercians and West Saxons.

26 For a suggestion that ‘Streneshale(n)’ was an early name for Polesworth see ‘The cult at Polesworth and Tamworth’ below.

27 It may be that the personal name was indeed Edith (in its Old English form) in the original of the source used by Conchubran, who changed it to accord with the seventh-century Irish saint Ita: Life and miracles of St Modwenna, pp. xxviii–xxix; Sargent, ‘Misplaced miracle’, 4.

28 Nova legenda Anglie, ii. 207.

29 Sargent, ‘Misplaced miracle’, esp. pp. 12–14.

30 Rollason, ‘List of saints’ resting-places’, 63–4, 68.

31 A. W. S. Sargent, ‘Lichfield and the lands of St Chad’, unpubl. PhD diss. Keele 2012, 130–1.

32 Sargent, ‘Misplaced miracle’, 5, 15–18; Life and miracles of St Modwenna, 87–91, ch. xx.

33 Sargent, ‘Misplaced miracle’, 15. For what may have been Polesworth's earlier name see below.

34 For a detailed analysis of St Osyth's complicated hagiography, challenging an interpretation which assigned the river miracle to her, see Sargent, ‘Misplaced miracle’, 5–10.

35 Ibid. 14 (citing and commenting on The Durham Liber Vitae, ed. Rollason, D. and Rollason, L., London 2007, i. 93Google Scholar).

36 For these and other churches dedicated to Edith in Lincolnshire see ‘The cult elsewhere’ below.

37 Current Archaeology, May 2014. Paul Everson is thanked for his comments on this site and for drawing attention to its similarity with Polesworth.

38 ‘Archaeological excavations at Polesworth Abbey, Warwickshire, 2011–2013’ (MOLA, Northampton, Report 15/31, 2015), esp. pp. 3, 9–12, 155–60, 180–1. For an excavation of 1959 revealing probably part of the monastic reredorter south of the church, along with an archaeological assessment of 1976 of land to the west evidently outside the precinct, see Mytum, H. C., ‘Excavations at Polesworth’, Birmingham and Warwickshire Archaeological Society lxxxix (1980 for 1978–9), 7990Google Scholar.

39 Coates, R., ‘Worthy of great respect’, Journal of the English Place-Name Society xliv (2013), 3643Google Scholar (with discussion of Tamworth and a ‘Northworthy’ near Repton [Derbs.], but not Polesworth).

40 As suggested, the addition of ‘Polesworth’ to ‘Streneshale’ in Geoffrey of Burton's version of the foundation story suggests that the earlier name had been forgotten.

41 The main discussions are in Gelling, M., Place-names in the landscape, London 1984, 100–11Google Scholar, and Gelling, M. and Cole, A., The landscape of place-names, Stamford 2000, 123–33Google Scholar. See also Stiles, P. V., ‘Old English halh, “slightly raised ground isolated by marsh”’, in Rumble, A. R. and Mills, A. D. (eds), Names, place and people: an onomastic miscellany for John McNeal Dodgson, Stamford 1997, 330–44Google Scholar.

42 Styles, T., ‘Whitby revisited: Bede's explanation of Streanaeshalch’, Nomina xxi (1998), 133–48, esp. pp. 140–1, 145–8Google Scholar. For a further discussion of the element see Hough, C., ‘Strensall, Streanaeshalch and Stronsay’, Journal of the English Place-Name Society xxxv (2003), 1724Google Scholar, preferring ‘a fertile nook of land’, or ‘productive fishing area’ as better suiting some examples of the surviving place-name.

43 Gover, J. E. B. and others, The place-names of Warwickshire (English Place-Name Society xiii, 1970), 22–3Google Scholar.

44 Dugdale, Antiquities of Warwickshire, 1656 edn, 809.

45 ms Dugdale 17, p. 7.

46 Foot, Veiled women, ii. 139–42.

47 Charters of Burton Abbey, ed. Sawyer, P. H. (Anglo-Saxon Charters ii, 1979), 53–6, no. 29Google Scholar; translation at pp. xv–xix. The leasehold estate was at ‘Langandune’, probably Longdon, in Solihull (Warws.).

48 A point made by David Roffe in ‘Domesday Tamworth: a ghost within the Book’, paper given at the Æthelflæd 1100 conference, Tamworth, 15 July 2018.

49 See ‘St Edith of Polesworth’ above.

50 BL, ms Lansdowne 447 [‘Book of Sir Richard St George, Clarenceux king of arms, 1624’], fo. 28v [modern pencil foliation], printed in Palmer, C. F. R., History of the baronial family of Marmion, Tamworth 1875, 37Google Scholar.

51 The present author intends to explore this topic in another article.

52 For transcripts of original charters see ms Dugdale 12, pp. 3–29.

53 Ibid. p. 10.

54 Crook, J., English medieval shrines, Woodbridge 2011, 132 n. 121Google Scholar.

55 For a photograph see the Polesworth church entry on the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland website, <>.

56 The effigy was not on the table-top when drawn by William Dugdale for his Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656 edn), 804, and must have been placed on it at some later date, having been moved from elsewhere in the church.

57 Birch, W. de G., Catalogue of seals in the department of manuscripts in the British Museum, i, London 1887, 705–6, no. 3851Google Scholar. An earlier seal of the thirteenth century depicts the saint as abbess with a staff in her left hand and her right hand in blessing: ms Dugdale 12, p. 18 (trick accompanying transcript of a charter of Abbess Muriel: 1221 x 1234); BL, Egerton Charter, 457 (charter of Abbess Aubrey, 1285) = Birch, Catalogue, 705, no. 3850.

58 Matthew Paris, Chronica majora, i. 447.

59 Wilmart, ‘La Légende de Ste Édith’, 13.

60 Ibid. 53–4.

61 The post-Conquest borough was divided between Staffordshire and Warwickshire (as was the parish), with the church in the former and the castle in the latter.

62 The chronicle of Hugh Candidus, a monk of Peterborough, ed. Mellows, W. T., London 1949, 5964 at p. 62Google Scholar. For a discussion of the text see Rollason, ‘Lists of saints’ resting places’, 70–2, and Butler, L., ‘Two twelfth-century lists of saints’ resting places’, Analecta Bollandiana cv (1987), 87–103 at pp. 94–9Google Scholar.

63 Meeson, Bob [R. A.], ‘The origins and early development of St Editha's church, Tamworth’, Transactions of the Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society xlviii (2015), 1540Google Scholar.

64 Thacker, A. T., ‘Chester and Gloucester: early ecclesiastical organization in two Mercian burhs’, Northern History xviii (1982), 199211CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Kings, saints, and monasteries in pre-Viking Mercia’, Midland History x (1985), 1–25 at pp. 1819Google Scholar.

65 HMSO, Calendar of inquisitions post mortem, ix, London 1916, 224, no. 227; TNA, PROB 11/17, John Ferrers (1513).

66 Andrew Sargent and David Roffe are thanked for their comments on this matter.

67 See ‘St Edith of Polesworth’ above.

68 English episcopal acta, XVI: Coventry and Lichfield, 1160–1182, ed. Franklin, M. J., Oxford 1998, 12, no. 1Google Scholar.

69 ms Dugdale 12, p. 14, transcribed in Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, rev. edn, 1817–30, ii. 366–7.

70 The relationship between Polesworth and Oldbury will be discussed by the present writer in an article on the abbey's foundation.

71 Christina of Markyate, another female religious leader who took a ‘biblical’ name, was certainly English. For native Englishmen and women adopting such biblical names see Thomas, H. M., The English and the Normans: ethnic hostility, assimilation, and identity, 1066–c. 1220, Oxford 2003, 207CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

72 ms Dugdale 12, p. 28, calendared in Dugdale, Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656 edn), 779.

73 ms Dugdale 12, p. 16.

74 HMSO, Calendar of inquisitions post mortem, iii, London 1912, 19, no. 29Google Scholar.

75 Matthew Paris, Chronica majora, i. 447 (giving the Ides of July).

76 Court rolls survive from the later thirteenth century: Keele University Library, Special Collections. For her feast day see, for example, Edward I no. 8, mem. 7; no. 10, mem. 9; no. 13, mem. 2 (feast day itself); Edward II no. 11, mem. 2; no. 16, mem. 1; Edward III no. 1 dorse; no. 4 (feast day); and Henry VII no 5. Two courts, in 1289 and 1292, are dated after a feast day in early November, evidently the translation of St Edith of Wilton on 3 November: Farmer, D. H., The Oxford dictionary of saints, 2nd edn, Oxford 1987, 130Google Scholar.

77 HMSO, Calendar of inquisitions miscellaneous (Chancery), i, London 1916, 105, no. 306Google Scholar.

78 Calendar of patent rolls, 30 Elizabeth I (1587–88), ed. Neal, S. R. (List and Index Society ccxcvii, 2003), 22Google Scholar (from TNA, C 66/1307, mems 33–6).

79 William Salt Library, Stafford, M 6/1.

80 The Boarstall cartulary, ed. Salter, H. E. (Oxfordshire Historical Society lxxxviii, 1930), 14, no. 24Google Scholar: ‘festum sancta Gadine [sic] viginis’ (evidently a mistranscription and identified by Salter as ‘an obscure saint whose day was 1 October’).

81 ms Dugdale 13, p. 15; SRO, D. 593/A/1/21/1; Warwickshire feet of fines, i, abstracted by E. Stokes and edited by F. C. Wellstood (Dugdale Society Publications xi, 1932), 107, no. 533.

82 The Library of Birmingham, Wolfson Centre, ms 3669/506523; BL, ms Add. 28174, fos 186–7; SRO, 394/2.

83 University of Nottingham, Special Collections, Mi D 4249, 4293, 4318.

84 HMSO, Calendar of inquisitions post mortem, v, London 1908, 272, no. 482; ix, London 1916, 224, no. 227.

85 SRO, D. 593/A/1/22/10 (‘Edihtmedewe’).

86 Shaw, S., History and antiquities of Staffordshire, i, London 1798, 375Google Scholar; SRO, D. 661/2/690.

87 BL, ms Add. 50000 (‘Oscott psalter’), fo. 4 (‘sancte Edithe virginis’); ms Add. 54179 (‘York psalter’), fo. 4 (‘sancte Aedithe virginis’). Nigel Morgan is thanked for drawing my attention to these manuscripts.

88 It comes at the end of a relic list, immediately after St Milburg (of Wenlock): Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, ms 88–1972, fo. 1r, whence Owen, H. and Blakeway, F. B., A history of Shrewsbury, Shrewsbury 1825, ii. 43Google Scholar.

89 They headed the list of charter witnesses: ms Lansdowne 447 [‘Book of Sir Richard St George, Clarenceux king of arms, 1624’], fo. 28v [modern pencil foliation], printed in Palmer, History of the baronial family of Marmion, 37.

90 English monastic litanies of the saints after 1100, ii, ed. Morgan, N. J. (Henry Bradshaw Society cxx, 2013), 25–6, 91–2Google Scholar (as ‘Edith’, but evidently the Polesworth saint rather than Edith of Wilton; she again appears after Milburg and also Werburh, with Modwen a few entries earlier in the list).

91 English saints in the medieval liturgies of Scandinavian churches, ed. Toy, J. (Henry Bradshaw Society, Subsidia vi, 2009), 114Google Scholar.

92 For a list of churches given for each saint see Arnold-Forster, F., Studies in church dedications, London 1899, ii. 414–19; iii. 359Google Scholar.

93 The latter two churches have been claimed to lie on a ‘pilgrims’ way’ along Watling Street, east and west of Polesworth: Kirk, K. E., Church dedications of the Oxford diocese, Oxford 1946, 65–6 and map facing p. 86Google Scholar.

94 Gaydon, A. T. (ed.), VCH Shrops., viii, Oxford 1968, 134Google Scholar.

95 HMSO, Calendar of patent rolls, 1247–58, London 1908, 274Google Scholar.

96 Lawson, J. B., ‘The dedication of St Edith's Pulverbatch’, Shropshire History and Archaeology: Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Historical Society lxxvi (2001), 78Google Scholar.

97 ms Dugdale 12, p. 8. For Emma see VCH Shrops., viii. 133–4.

98 Baugh, G. C. (ed.), VCH Shrops., x, Oxford 1998, 332Google Scholar.

99 The rest of this paragraph is based on M. M. Chibnall's account of the house in Gaydon, A. T. (ed.), VCH Shrops., ii, Oxford 1973, 38–50, esp. pp. 3840Google Scholar.

100 There may also be tenth-century origin for the spread of the cult by Æthelflæd as far south as Bristol, where St Edith's well is first recorded in the 1390s: Boucher, C. E., ‘St Edith's well and St Peter's cross, Bristol’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society lxi (1939), 95–106 at p. 96Google Scholar. Bristol also had a church dedicated to St Werburh, the Mercian connection perhaps dating from when Æthelflæd and her husband moved another saint's relics to Gloucester in 909. I am grateful to Kathleen Thompson for drawing my attention to the well.

101 Polesworth's association with Cluny will be discussed by the present writer in an article on the abbey's foundation.

102 SRO, D. (W.) 1721/1/1, fo. 129v. See also the account in Midgley, L. M. (ed.), VCH Staffs. iv, London 1958, 98Google Scholar (and Edelina's family at p. 93).

103 ms Dugdale 12, p. 8. Roger also gave the nuns some land: ibid. p. 11, witnessed by Robert Marmion (d. by 1181) and several members of the Somerville family.

104 Robert Plot, Natural history of Staffordshire, Oxford 1686, 106.

105 Historical Manuscripts Commission, Middleton (1911), 77– 8 (this document is now University of Nottingham, Manuscripts and Special Collections, Mi D 3870/3); VCH Staffs. iii. 295.

106 See ‘St Edith of Polesworth’ above.

107 Dockray-Miller, Saints Edith and Æthelthryth, 78–9, lines 648–9.

108 The Library of Birmingham, Wolfson Centre, ms 3669/506571.

109 A list of families in the archdeaconry of Stafford, 1532–3, ed. A. J. Kettle (Collections for a History of Staffordshire, Staffordshire Record Society, 4th ser. viii, 1976), 18–25 at p. 24, Edith daughter of Nicholas Kekynge of Wigginton; SRO, B/C/11, Nicholas Kelyng (1538).

110 Valor Ecclesiasticus, iii, London 1817, 77–8, 148Google Scholar.

111 Polesworth (where the ‘the parish churchyard of St Edith of Polesworth’ was presumably separate from the nuns’ graveyard): SRO, B/C/11, John Gren (1543); William Gospesyll (1546); William Lakyn (1546); Tamworth: SRO, register of wills, i, fos 31v.–32r; BL, ms Add. 28174, fo. 468.

112 TNA, PROB 11/4, Thos. Bate (1459).

113 TNA, PROB 11/17, John Ferrers (1513).

114 Warwickshire County Record Office, HR 0109/4, Wilnecote manor court, 8 Apr. 1639 (‘Editchetyme’).

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