Before this week even people with an active interest in Anglo-Saxon Christianity may never have heard of St Eanswythe, the patron saint of Folkestone. But since last Friday, this hitherto obscure 7th-century abbess holds a special place in English Catholicism: her relics are, we can now say with confidence, the earliest known remains of an English saint.
According to the archaeologists whose work David Keys describes opposite, the bones hidden in a niche in Folkestone’s Anglican parish church (dedicated to St Mary and St Eanswythe) show every sign of being authentic relics of the saint. The skeleton (which is missing its skull) was that of a woman in her late teens or early twenties who enjoyed the rich diet of a member of the aristocratic elite, and carbon dating confirms that she had lived in the 7th century.
The survival of Eanswythe’s relics is remarkable since her monastery was destroyed twice – by Vikings and then by coastal erosion – and then dissolved by Henry VIII’s commissioners. The rediscovery of the bones in 1885, and now their confirmation as Eanswythe’s, mean that they can now be venerated for the first time in centuries .
This new scientific support for an ancient devotion also reminds us that the medieval Church was generally very careful about authenticating relics. The idea that medieval clerics routinely engaged in relic fraud is a common misconception rooted in the anti-Catholic narratives of the Reformation.
A church’s relics were at the heart of its identity (as well as to its income from pilgrims). The moving of relics was performed with the utmost care whenever relocation, rebuilding or restoration took place.
While scientific examination of large relic collections has sometimes revealed inauthentic relics, where the human remains at the heart of local saints’ cults have survived in Britain and Ireland, they have almost always shown every indication of being genuine relics of the saints venerated in that place.
The apparent verification of the relics of St Eanswythe is one of several important archaeological discoveries in Kent that have shed light on the earliest years of the conversion of England. Last month Current Archaeology reported the excavation of a high-status burial site with splendid grave goods in the precincts of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, which was dated to 580–600, meaning this person may have witnessed the arrival of St Augustine and was almost certainly known to King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha. In September 2019 I reported in this magazine on the discovery of what was probably England’s earliest stone church – the monastery founded at Lyminge by Ethelbert and Bertha’s daughter Ethelburga, who was Eanswythe’s aunt.
Little is known of Eanswythe’s life, but we do know that she chose to forgo the chance to be a queen, instead founding a monastery when she was just a teenager. She probably died before her 20th birthday, but the house she founded endured for almost nine centuries. Although Eanswythe was very young when she founded her monastery, the success of early abbeys depended to a great extent on the royal status of their founders and leaders; Eanswythe’s descent from King Ethelbert would have commanded the immediate respect of her contemporaries, regardless of her youth or inexperience.
The early royal saints of Anglo-Saxon England can sometimes feel like distant figures who inhabited an alien landscape. Perhaps the authentication of these earliest relics will remind us that these saints were real people who, in a non-Christian land and with little tradition behind them, laid the foundations of the faith in England.
Dr Francis Young is a historian and folklorist
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