Several reports recently appeared on television and in the national press concerning what was described as the “rediscovery” of the relics, which comprise the human remains of the Anglo-Saxon Princess, Saint Eanswythe (c. 615-640). However, this actually took place in 1885 and what has really happened is that the relics, having been subjected to new scientific tests which were not available in the nineteenth century, have now been confirmed as dating from the mid-7th century.

The project, which was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, was a joint collaboration from Kent historians and archaeologists and a team from Queen’s University in Belfast. Stephen Hoper, laboratory manager of Queen’s Radiocarbon Dating Facility who undertook the radiocarbon dating, was quoted in The Guardian as having said: “Our analyses of a tooth sample and a bone sample both believed to be from the St. Eanswythe have produced calibrated age ranges that are in good agreement …. The results would indicate there is a high probability of a mid-seventh century date for the death of this individual.”

Saint Eanswythe was the only daughter of Eadbald, King  of Kent (616-640) and his second wife, the Frankish Queen Emma. Although Queen Emma was a Christian and ensured that her children were baptised, her husband – although the son of King Æthelberht, King of Kent (589-616), who had converted to Christianity soon after the mission of Saint Augustine in 597, retained his ancestral paganism and was only later converted to Christianity by either of the later Archbishops of Canterbury Laurentius (died 619) or Justus (died 627).

Although Æthelberht became the first Anglo-Saxon king to convert to Christianity from Anglo-Saxon paganism, his son’s delay in converting was initially a hindrance to the re-establishment of Christianity in England.

Tradition has it that Eanswith influenced by some of the Roman monks who had accompanied St. Augustine to England, wanted to become a religious and asked her father to build a cell for her in which to pray. A pagan prince arrived in Kent seeking to marry Eanswythe. but  King Eadbald, whose sister St. Ethelburga had married the pagan  Edwin, King of Northumbria (586-633) two or three years before, recalled that this wedding resulted in Edwin’s conversion, so when Eanswythe refused to marry, he supported her and agreed to the construction of a Benedictine Priory at Folkestone, which became the first nunnery in England. From the age of sixteen, St. Eanswythe lived there with her companions in the monastic life, until her early death in her mid-twenties in 640.

The monastery was later sacked by the Vikings in 867, although her relics were saved and removed to the local church of SS. Peter & Paul. To avoid erosion by the sea, the monastery was subsequently removed to several other locations and also survived the destruction of the town by Earl Godwin in 1050, so that when a new monastery and church known as Folkestone Priory, was built by William de Abrincis in 1138 and was dedicated to SS. Mary and Eanswythe, the chronicler Goscelinus of Canterbury, records that her relics were removed there. They were also to survive the destruction of the church by fire in 1217.

At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) this Monastery, with a church dedicated to St Mary and St Eanswythe was plundered and her shrine destroyed, although her relics had been removed and hidden away beforehand. The priory was closed at the Reformation, and the Church became Folkestone Parish Church. Several contemporary newspaper accounts record their rediscovery:

“One fine June morning in 1885, Mr. Harry Hem’s workmen were preparing the walls of the chancel in Folkestone Parish Church to receive alabaster arcading. Some workmen in removing the plaster from a niche in the north wall noticed that the masonry showed signs of having been disturbed at some period, and a further search was made. Taking away a layer of rubble and broken tiles a cavity was discovered, and in this a battered and corroded leaden casket, oval-shaped, about 18in. long and 12in. broad, the sides being about 10in. high. Within it were human remains, but in such a crumbling condition that the vicar declined to allow them to be touched except by experts.”[1]

Canon Matthew Woodward then carefully replaced them in their recess, after lining it with alabaster and duly protected them by a brass grille and a solid brass door.  

On 8 July 2000, Abba Seraphim led a party of Orthodox pilgrims to Saint Eanswythe’s shrine when the British Orthodox Parishes at Maidstone and Portsmouth (Wymering) combined with Saint Michael’s Eritrean Orthodox Church in Camberwell to honour the saint. Through the kind hospitality of the Vicar, Abba Seraphim, celebrated the Divine Liturgy assisted by Father Yohannes Sibhatu and the deacons from Portsmouth and Maidstone. At the end of the Liturgy the congregation venerated St. Eanswythe’s shrine and the Eritrean choir sang a number of traditional hymns in honour of St. Mary and Archangel Michael and performed the sacred dance before the sanctuary. A picnic lunch followed on the Lees in spite of the inclement weather.

[1] Bury Free Press, 27 June 1885; Wigton Advertiser, 27 June 1885; Lancaster Gazette, 24 June 1885; West Sussex County Times, 27 June 1885; Buckingham Advertiser, 27 June 1885; Leigh Chronicle, 26 June 1885 and Tavistock Gazette, 26 June 1885.