Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Phantoms of Polesworth

If you are looking for history, tradition and ghosts then Polesworth is the place to visit. Today a rather rambling settlement that is between a town and a village, this was once the bustling centre of northern Warwickshire.

The place’s rise to prosperity began in 825 on the bloodstained battlefield of Ellendun, many miles to the south in Wiltshire. Warwickshire was then the heart of the kingdom of Mercia, a powerful English state that imposed an overlordship over several neighbouring kingdoms. The kingdom of Wessex, stretching from Devon to Sussex, was not one to acknowledge Mercian rule. When King Ceolwulf of Mercia was deposed for incompetence and replaced by an obscure nobleman named Beornwulf, King Egbert of Wessex took advantage to seize disputed borderlands in Wiltshire. This led to the Battle of Ellendun, at which the Mercians were comprehensively defeated.

Egbert of Wessex moved quickly to reach deals with the Kings of Sussex, Kent and East Anglia before moving into Mercia to establish himself as the new king of that country. But the victory did far more for Egbert than give him command over most of the English nation. It also solved a tricky family dispute.

Egbert had various children, but it was a daughter named Edith who was the problem. She was well educated and had taken a strong inclination to the religious life. Indeed, her knowledge of scripture and yearning for good morals were well known at Egbert’s court. Rather too well known for some. She was forever reminding the nobles and warriors about the sin of gluttony, just as they were about to tuck into a feast, banging on about vanity to a lady who had acquired a new dress or talking at length about sloth when somebody was late for an appointment. By 830 something had to be done.

Fortunately there were extensive lands in Mercia whose owners had been killed at Ellendun. Among these was the little village of Polesworth and its surrounding lands. Egbert gave the village and lands to his saintly daughter Edith and told her to go there, found a nunnery and do God’s work. Edith was delighted. Pausing only long enough to remind her father that she would need ready cash to build the religious house, she travelled north to take up her new lands. There she founded a convent that she filled with the daughters of gentry who preferred a religious life and settled down to the work of running a strict house.

In time, Edith passed away. She was buried in her beloved church at Polesworth. Before long, miracles began to occur at her tomb and she was formally recognised as a saint. The nuns of Polesworth continued to lead blamelessly holy lives for centuries, industriously working their lands and supervising their peasants to make a profit and do God’s work. Even when Viking warbands roamed the countryside, the Polesworth nuns continued with their duties.

Then came the Norman conquest of 1066. William the Conqueror, now King William I of England, took the lands of English nobles and parcelled them out to his own supporters in thanks for their help in battle. Sir Robert Marmion got extensive lands in northern Warwickshire, which carried with them the duty of providing military protection and law courts for Polesworth and area. Arriving at Tamworth Castle to survey his new lands, Sir Robert decided that if he were going to spend money protecting Polesworth, he may as well get some profit from the deal. He rode over with a gang of armed men and threw the nuns out while he pillaged the convent treasury and took ownership of the lands. The nuns retired to a small outlying cell they owned at Oldbury and sent messages to the king begging for their rightful lands.

As it turned out they did not need to wait for royal justice, divine justice was on its way.

Sir Robert rode back to Tamworth and organised a great feast to celebrate his new lands and home. St Edith must have disapproved very strongly of her convent lands being put to such sinful use. That very night, as Sir Robert was getting ready for bed, her ghost appeared to him in his private chamber. She demanded he return her lands to her convent and struck Sir Robert on the ribs with her crozier. Sir Robert collapsed in agony, his entire right side paralysed. Next morning Sir Robert’s servants carried him to Tamworth church where he took solemn vows to return the stolen lands to Polesworth Convent. Slowly his health recovered and by the time the nuns had repaired their church and buildings he was well enough to take to the saddle.

Through the centuries that followed, the convent at Polesworth flourished. The village high street became the site for the Mop Fair at which agricultural labourers from across northern Warwickshire came on the first Saturday of October to find work for the coming year. Markets were established, ensuring that the little town was the economic heart of the rich surrounding farmland.

Then came the reformation of the reign of King Henry VIII in the 1540s. The king sent his commissioners and soldiers to Polesworth to close down the convent and seize its assets, just as all other religious houses were being closed down across England.

It was time for St Edith to return, and so she did. But by this time her power must have been diminished somewhat. Rather than strike the king, she merely began walking the grounds of her convent. This gave the soldiers a bit of a fright, but did nothing to stop their work. Within months the lands and buildings had been sold off to the highest bidder. The church was put to use serving the parishioners of Polesworth and the gatehouse made into a private residence, but most of the buildings were torn down and their materials used to build houses more suited to the local folk. The site of the cloisters, refectory and other buildings became an open field beside the church.

And St Edith walks here still. She is seen several times each year pacing sadly across the empty field, past the church and on towards the gatehouse. She no longer seeks to impose punishment on those who occupy church lands or live in houses built with stones from her convent. Instead she seems content merely to walk about her old property, perhaps seeking still to remind her fellow humans of their sinful condition.

This is an extract from Haunted Places of Warwickshire by Rupert Matthews

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