Bones discovered in the late 19th century are likely those of a seventh-century English saint, scientists have announced.
Carbon dating confirmed that human remains discovered hidden in a church wall in 1885 are from the seventh century, and are almost certainly the bones of St Eanswythe, one of the first English saints.
Dr Andrew Richardson of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust praised the work of the “locally-based community partnership” that had the bones being carbon dated, and called the discovery “a stunning result of national importance.”
The testing of the remains was led by the Finding Eanswythe Project and the Folkestone Museum. The Finding Eanswythe Project describes itself as “a community-led project about a nationally important heritage.”
If the bones are St Eanswythe’s, they would be the only known surviving remains of the Kentish royal house, said Richardson. The Kingdom of Kent existed from the mid-fifth century until the year 871.
St Eanswythe was the granddaughter of King Ethelbert, the first Christian king in England, and the daughter of King Eadbald of Kent. She was born in approximately 614 AD.
Around the year 630, she founded a Benedictine Priory in the town of Folkestone, in southeastern Kent. She is believed to have been the abbess of this community and died of unknown causes between the ages of 17 and 22. Popular devotion to her grew up quickly in the surrounding area and her life was recorded by the monk and hagiographer Goscelin of Canterbury.
Following her death, the convent continued for some time before closing – according to some sources after being sacked by Viking raiders – and the site collapsed into the sea. In 1138, her remains were transferred to the newly-built priory in Folkestone that was named in her honor.
On November 15, 1535, the priory church was seized, and all relics found there were destroyed as part of the Dissolution of Monasteries during the Reformation.
St Eanswythe’s remains were hidden by monks during the Reformation period of Catholic persecution in England. The bones were discovered, hidden in a lead box that was concealed in a church wall, in June of 1885.
Richardson admitted that while he was not 100% certain the bones were St Eanswythe’s, he said he considered it on the same “terms of certainty in comparing it to Richard III” and that “There’s not really any indication it’s someone else.”
King Richard III died in 1485. His remains were discovered in 2012 under a car park in Leicester, and DNA tests later all-but-confirmed the identity of the bones.
A news brief published in the August 9, 1885 edition of the New York Times described the discovery of St Eanswyth’s bones.
“Some workmen, in removing the plaster from a niche in the north wall, noticed that the masonry showed signs of having been disturbed at some period, and a further search was made. Taking away a layer of rubble and broken tiles a cavity was discovered and in this a broken and corroded leaden casket, oval shaped, about 18 inches long and 12 inches broad, the sides being about 10 inches high,” said the New York Times.
“Within it were human remains, but in such a crumbling condition that the vicar declined to allow them to be touched except by experts,” the brief said.
Now that carbon dating has confirmed that the remains are from the seventh century, there will be further DNA and isotope testing to learn more about the life of the early Christian saint.
“There is more work to be done to realise the full potential of this discovery,” said Richardson. “But certainly the project represents a wonderful conjunction not only of archaeology and history, but also of a continuous living faith tradition at Folkestone from the mid-seventh century down to the present day.”