Eanswythe, Princess of Kent

Shrine of St Eanswythe

St Eanswythe’s shrine (to the right of the candle) in St Mary and St Eanswythe Church, FolkestoneRob Baldwin)

 

 Eanswythe was the daughter of King Eadbald of Kent and his Frankish Queen Ymme, and thus she was the niece of Queen Æthelburh.  There is a tradition that she founded a monastery at Folkestone in or around 630, but this is now thought very unlikely.  Her parents were not married until around 624, so she can only have been born in the years from around 625 up to 641, the end of this period falling after her father’s death.  Any church she founded is most likely to have been built two or even three decades after 630.

 

The source for the life of St Eanswythe is a collection of saints’ lives put together by John of Tynemouth, a monk of St Alban’s Abbey in the mid 14th Century.  John travelled extensively around the monastic houses of England collecting stories about the many saints he encountered, some of whom were very localised, in order to create a great national compendium of the Lives of the Saints.  We know from surviving manuscripts that he copied from his sources reasonably accurately.  This gives us some confidence that where John is the only surviving source for some of the stories, as he is with St Eanswythe, his account is likely to be close to the original.  However, we have no idea how old this original source was.

 

Based on John’s account, it would seem that King Eadbald had ambitions to use his daughter in much the same way as he had used his sister Æthelburh to promote the conversion of pagan areas of the country to Christianity.  However, Eanswythe was having none of this and rejected her pagan suitor, demonstrating a remarkable independence of mind and a strong will.  Instead, she opted to found a monastery.  At the time, this was a radical act, but within a few years, the role of royal women as abbesses became very well-established.  The purpose of abbeys, which were almost all led by women, was to pray for the King, the royal family and the Kingdom as a whole.  In this intensely spiritual age, prayer was seen as fighting against the forces of darkness to protect the interests of the kingdom, a parallel activity of equal importance to the conflict that the King might wage on the battlefield with his warriors.  Eanswythe’s choice to found a monastery rather than marry a pagan prince can be seen very much as a political act in which she dedicated herself to the interests of the kingdom, protecting it through the prayer and devotions of her community at Folkestone. 

 

Eanswythe’s original foundation of a monastery was probably on the promontory cliff where the parish church of Folkestone still stands, but most likely further south and thus long-since lost to erosion.  In fact the current church was built in the years after 1137 and is the third church in this area to be dedicated to St Eanswythe.  We can imagine that Eanswythe’s original church looked very like the church built by her aunt at Lyminge, which was uncovered during the summer of 2019.

 

St Eanswythe relics

Bones of St Eanswythe Matt Rowe)

During renovations in 1885, a lead casket was found buried in the chancel wall of the church.  Upon inspection, this was found to contain the bones of what was thought to be a young woman.  The bones were re-examined in early 2020 and were confirmed as those of just one well-nourished individual, probably female, aged around 17-21.  The radio carbon date obtained indicated a date of death around 641-61, which fitted perfectly with the likely life and death of Eanswythe.  It now seems beyond all reasonable doubt that the bones of Eanswythe were preserved at Folkestone from the mid 7th Century, making it extremely likely that she did found a church there, probably at some point in the period 640-60.

The reliquary in which the bones were found is thought to have been made from a fragment of Roman lead coffin some time in the 8th or 9th Century.  It now seems most probable that this reliquary was concealed in a chamber in the wall below the original shrine at the time of the Reformation under King Henry VIII in the 1530s, when all saint’s shrines across the whole country were destroyed.  The reliquary is today still housed in the original shrine in the chancel of the church which also still remains dedicated to St Eanswythe.  It is the only parish church in England still known to contain the relics of its original patron saint.  These relics are a unique and very tangible link back to this earliest phase of the conversion of England to Christianity in the 7th Century.