Early English Saint’s Relics Authenticated by Archaeologists

By Mark Michael

Bones discovered in the wall of an Anglican church in Southeastern England are almost certainly the remains one of the nation’s earliest saints, the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon princess Eanswythe, a team of archaeologists recently announced. Parishioners of the Church of St. Mary and St. Eanswythe in Folkestone, a port town near Canterbury, had long assumed that the relics enshrined in their chancel for over a century were those of the local patron saint. But they took a bit of a risk by inviting experts to take a closer look.

Dr. Andrew Richardson, of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, one of the partners in the Finding Eanswythe Project, which has under way since 2017, told The Guardian: “It was a brave move by the church. We could have come out and said: ‘Folks, it’s not her.’ I was 50-50 about it, and a lot of colleagues were skeptical. But everything is consistent with it being her.” The bones were retrieved from St. Mary & St. Eanswythe’s of Folkestone, in Kent County.

St. Eanswythe was the granddaughter of King Ethelbert of Kent, who was converted to Christianity by Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. She founded what may have been England’s first monastic community for women, in Folkstone, in about 660. Medieval hagiographies record that Eanswythe died a few years later, while still a young woman. The 13th-century Folkestone church was originally the chapel for a priory that traced its roots to Eanswythe’s community.

A team of archaeologists took over the church for five days in January, conducting detailed analysis of the bones, which were housed in a battered lead casket. Initial analysis suggested that they came from one person, probably a female aged between 17 and 20. The bones showed no signs of malnutrition, consistent with a person of wealth and high social status. The casket itself appears to be a piece of Anglo-Saxon workmanship, though fabricated out of pieces taken from Roman-era decorated lead coffins.

A tooth and a foot bone from the casket were sent to Queen’s University, Belfast for radiocarbon dating. These tests confirmed it was highly probable that the woman died in the mid-seventh century, between 649 and 673. Eanswythe could not have been born later than 641 (her father, Eadbald, died in late 641), and historians believe she died by 663.

The survival of Eanswythe’s relics is highly unusual, as the remains of locally venerated saints were widely destroyed during the English Reformation. The bodies of Eanswythe’s more well-known grandparents, King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha, as well as those of St. Augustine and his companions, were lost during the ransacking of St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury by henchmen of King Henry VIII in 1538.

Historians speculate that the casket containing St. Eanswythe’s remains must have been hidden in the chancel wall at some point in the mid 16th century to prevent a similar fate. Her shrine was likely dismantled around the time of the priory’s dissolution, when the former chapel was repurposed as Folkestone’s parish church.

Workmen discovered the casket while clearing out old plaster from the back of a niche in the chancel in 1885. Then-vicar Matthew Woodward, a high churchman who served as local incumbent for 47 years, arranged for the construction of an alabaster and brass shrine to house the discovery. Woodward was an Anglo-Saxon enthusiast, who named one of his eight daughters Eanswythe. Several others also bore the names of saints of the period. Several stained-glass windows in the church were constructed over the decades since then in tribute to the Eanswythe, depicting scenes from the legends of her life.

Relatively little is known of St. Eanswythe, and the earliest complete account of her life dates from around the time of the church’s construction, many centuries after her death. The miracles attributed to her are mostly of a practical character, including diverting a stream so it would flow uphill to service her monastery and repelling a flock of crows from a local wheat field.

The Finding Eanswythe Project is raising funds to conduct further tests on the saint’s remains, hoping to extract DNA for analysis to learn more about her diet, background, and appearance. Churchwarden Andrew Plested said he hoped the announcement would encourage modern pilgrims to visit the church, and that it might be included in one of the walking trails to Canterbury currently being developed and promoted by the local tourism authority.

Richardson acclaimed the discovery as one of “national importance,” “It now looks highly probable that we have the only surviving remains of a member of the Kentish royal house, and of one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon saints,” he said. “The project represents a wonderful conjunction not only of archaeology and history, but also of a continuous living faith tradition at Folkestone from the mid-seventh century down to the present day.”


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