Anglo-Saxons 12: St Eanswythe
This is a seal showing an image of St Eanswythe, Folkestone's patron saint, which is in the museum's collection.
Eanswythe was an early 7th century Anglo-Saxon princess from the Kent royal family. She was the daughter of King Eadbald (616-640) and Queen Emma.
According to legend, Eanswythe refused to marry a pagan prince who sought her hand, because she wanted to devote her life to God. Instead, she founded one of the first Christian nunneries (monastic house for women) in Britain.
Eanswythe lived there for the rest of her life, dying around 650, when she was in her early 20s.
On the seal St Eanswythe is shown carrying her abbess’ staff and wearing a crown. She appears to be holding a book in her other hand. Next to her is a fish to represent a connection to Folkestone’s fishing industry. Around the edge there’s an inscription in old fashioned gothic text.
The early Anglo-Saxons were pagans - they believed in lots of different gods. Britain began to convert to Christianity in 597 when St Augustine arrived in Kent from Rome.
St Eanswythe’s nunnery was founded only 40 years or so after the conversion to Christianity.
Here are the seal matrix (left) and wax seal (right) of the Benedictine Priory at Folkestone. The priory succeeded St Eanswythe’s original nunnery. It dates to the 15th century. The writing underneath describes the image on the seal:
“St Eanswitha, the patroness daughter of Eadbald, King of Kent, standing crowned in a niche with round-headed arch, holding a book & a sceptre or palm branch. In an upper niche with ogee arch stands the Virgin crowned with the Child, in her left hand a sceptre. Tabernacle work at sides. In base, under a flat arch the Prior, half length, in prayer.”
The Latin round the outside of the seal is:
SIGILLU: COMUNE: PRIORATUS: DE: FOLKESTON
This translates as ‘The seal of Folkestone Priory’.
The original buildings had to be abandoned in the 10th century because the land was being eroded by the sea. A new site was chosen by Nigel de Mundeville, the Norman Lord of Folkestone in 1095, to create a monastery (sometimes called a priory) for Benedictine monks.
Benedictines followed the Rules of St Benedict (peace, prayer and work). They wore black habits, so they were sometimes called the black monks. They were ruled by a Prior, who was the head monk in the monastery.
Again, the sea eroded the land and a new site had to be chosen further inland. The new monastery, called Folkestone Priory, was founded in 1137 by William de Abrincis, again the local lord. It was built on and around The Bayle, where it remained for over 300 years.
St Eanswythe was the granddaughter of the first Christian king of Kent, St Ethelbert. Her sister was also a saint: St Ethelburga.
This is a photograph of St Mary and St Eanswythe’s Church (also called Folkestone Parish Church) on The Bayle in Folkestone.
The original church was built in 1138 and was the church of the priory.
On 11th September 1138, St Eanswythe’s bones were translated (moved and reburied) in the church. Ever since, this date has been St Eanswythe’s Day, and she became the patron saint of Folkestone.
In the medieval period, many people came to the church to pray, to ask for St Eanswythe’s help or guidance. In return, they made a donation to the priory. Wealthy people sometimes even paid for new side chapels or expensive stained-glass windows.
The church was refurbished in the Victorian era, but the chancel (the area around the altar) was built in 1138, making it over 800 years old!
This photograph was taken over 100 years ago, in the days before colour photography. It has been coloured by hand using special paints.
A miracle attributed to St Eanswythe is that she made water run uphill. Recently, archaeologists from Canterbury Archaeological Trust found the start of a channel built to take water to the nunnery which, in places, gives the illusion of water flowing uphill.
This is the front page of the Folkestone Herald, dated 12th March 2020. It’s reporting on an important discovery in January 2020, at St Mary and St Eanswythe Church, Folkestone.
In the main photograph conservators are cleaning out the space where a casket (a type of box) containing human bones was hidden, before it was removed for investigation by archaeologists.
But how did it get there and whose bones were inside?
During the Reformation under King Henry VIII, all monasteries were closed and the shrines and relics of saints were destroyed.
It is believed that the relics of St Eanswythe (which were in the church at that time) were secretly hidden in a lead casket behind a wall of the church to save them from destruction by Henry VIII's men.
There they lay forgotten until they were rediscovered during building work in 1885.
But how can we be certain they are hers?
The 2020 investigations uncovered some very exciting news. Osteologists, people who study bones, examined the bones and established that the remains were that of a female who died in her late teens/early 20s.
Crucially, a special scientific test called carbon dating established an early 7th century date, meaning that the date of the bones matches what is known of the life of St Eanswythe.
Although archaeologists can never be 100% sure, the evidence very strongly suggests that these really are the bones of St Eanswythe herself!
If that’s the case, it’s a spectacular find of international importance. It means that Folkestone has the earliest surviving remains of an Anglo-Saxon saint in Britain, and the only member of the Kentish royal family whose remains have survived. Further tests are being carried out to establish her hair, eye and skin colour, and what she ate.
There are only three churches in the world dedicated to St Eanswythe. St Mary and St Eanswythe, Folkestone, St Eanswith’s in Brenzett near Ashford, and St Eanswythe’s in Altona, Australia.