The princess St Eanswythe, who died around 660, came from one of the most important families in Anglo-Saxon England. She was the granddaughter of St Ethelbert and his wife St Bertha, the king and queen who – along with St Augustine, the first de facto Archbishop of Canterbury – had been largely responsible for starting the conversion of England from paganism to Christianity.
But Eanswythe isn’t just significant because of who her grandparents were.
It’s probable that she established one of England’s very earliest nunneries – possibly the very first one ever set up in Britain.
And now this long-venerated saint has been rediscovered: her mortal remains have been identified by scientists in a church in Kent.
Scientists and historians are now trying to piece together key aspects of her life – where she grew up, what she ate, and precisely when and how she died. Even the precise meaning of her name is a mystery, which future linguistic research may shed light on. The archaeological project, largely funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, will continue.
But what’s certain – or near-certain – is that one of England’s earliest Catholic saints has come closer to us that ever before. As Francis Young writes opposite, it’s just the latest example of how archaeology is bringing the Catholic past to life.
Eanswythe exemplifies the importance of women in establishing and spreading Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England. Of the roughly 75 7th-century Anglo-Saxon saints, almost a third were female. Many Anglo-Saxon princesses became influential abbesses; other Anglo-Saxon royal women played a key geopolitical role, because religion was often spread by marriage.
In at least five known examples, princesses and queens (and their fathers) insisted that pagan kings and princes had to convert to Christianity as a precondition of marriage. North-east England, Sussex, the English Midlands and East Anglia all appear to have been converted on that basis.
In a sense, Christianity offered high status women substantial political leverage. It also offered them the opportunity to pursue highly respected roles as leaders of monastic communities. Many of the new abbesses (like Eanswythe) became popular saints, and were revered for centuries.
What’s more, Christianity offered such women an escape from at least some of the ultra-macho warrior ethos of pagan Anglo-Saxon tradition with its polygamy and bride abduction practices. (There may even have been suttee-style obligatory widow suicide.) The Christian emphasis on chastity may well have helped to give high-status women greater ability to assert their independence.
The newly identified saint, Eanswythe, was the daughter of St Ethelbert’s successor, as King of Kent, King Eadbald – who is possibly the 40th great grandfather of the present Queen.
It’s said that Eanswythe refused to marry a pagan king of north-east England, and instead decided to become a nun. And although only a teenager at the time, she is believed to have founded (and become abbess of) what may well have been England’s first nunnery.
Eanswythe died young in her late teens or very early 20s – possibly of plague. She became the patron saint of Folkestone: a local history project, Finding Eanswythe, is carrying out scientific tests to rediscover the long-lost secrets of her life.
Following her death, according to medieval accounts, she was interred in her own private chapel, overlooking the sea above Folkestone. But as waves undercut the cliffs, the abbesses who succeeded her began to fear that the building would eventually tumble into the sea below.
So, probably in the 8th century, her relics were removed from the doomed chapel and placed in a specially constructed shrine in the nunnery’s main church.
By 1100, the nunnery had become a monastery. Then, some decades after the Norman Conquest, a castle was constructed next to it – and the monks demanded that they be allowed to move to a new, less secular site.
Eanswythe’s relics were consequently moved again in 1138, a few hundred feet away to a newly built church – a later version of which still stands today. Folkestone naturally became the centre of local devotion to St Eanswythe, and the sick especially prayed to her for healing.
She then had a lucky escape. When Henry VIII turned against the Church, the English government became increasingly hostile to the veneration of saints. In 1535, government officials were about to try to seize and destroy Eanswythe’s bones. So the Prior of Folkestone (or some of his lay colleagues) appear to have hurriedly forced the lead casket containing Eanswythe into a secret cavity in the church wall.
The prior or some other church official then showed the government officials a probably gold or gem-studded reliquary, almost certainly containing just a few parts of the saint’s skull. The King’s representatives then seized that box (and its contents) – totally unaware that most of the saint’s bones were safe and secure in their dark hiding place inside the church’s north wall, just beside the altar.
Over time Eanswythe’s hiding place faded from memory – until, in 1885, her relics were discovered by labourers busy modernising the church. The congregation’s Anglican vicar said he believed they were the royal saint’s bones – and the find was reported around the world. However, in the 1880s there was no method of confirming her identity.
The relics were then placed in a specially built wall alcove. In 2017, a group of local historians and others decided to try to solve the mystery. By getting scientists to examine the bones they have been able to reveal the long-dead individual’s age at death and sex. What’s more, by radiocarbon-testing the relics, they were able to find out whether the bones did indeed date from the 7th century.
The information they succeeded in obtaining virtually proved that the fragmentary skeleton was indeed that of St Eanswythe.
The princess was venerated by the people of Folkestone throughout the medieval period – and a large number of stories attached themselves to her. Eanswythe was said, for instance, to have miraculously made water run uphill (a story which may have originated as a way of explaining a local optical illusion which appeared to show a local aqueduct channelling water up a gradient). She was also said to have brought back to life a goose that had been stolen and eaten.
Another story credits her with having miraculously lengthened a piece of timber to construct a church – by calling on Christ to help when a pagan king and his gods had failed to do so. And long after she had died, her ghost was said to have cured a man suffering from a skin disease.
The Rev Dr Lesley Hardy, a historian at Canterbury Christ Church University, says: “St Eanswythe was a local heroine of great relevance to local people. In medieval times, they saw her as their protector from disease and suffering. Researching her today will bring the people of Folkestone nearer to that history.”
Eanswythe may have passed away some thirteen and a half centuries ago, but she has never quite been forgotten. And now this rediscovered saint is about to fascinate a new public.
David Keys is archaeology correspondent of the Independent
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