St Eanswythe’s shrine (to the right of the candle) in St Mary and St Eanswythe Church, Folkestone(©Rob 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.