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Scientists confident they have identified early Saxon saint

06 March 2020

Mark Hourahane

Studying the remains

Studying the remains

BONES found in a reliquary in Kent have been confirmed as almost certainly those of St Eanswythe, a seventh-century princess. They are thought to be the earliest verified remains of an English saint.

The bones were discovered in 1885 during a refurbishment of St Mary and St Eanswythe in Folkestone, Kent. It has taken until now, however, for advances in scientific techniques to enable them to be identified with confidence.

Eanswythe, who is the patron saint of Folkestone, was a member of an Anglo-Saxon regal dynasty: she was a granddaughter of Ethelbert, the first English king to convert to Christianity under Augustine. She is believed to have been abbess of the first nunnery established in England, about AD 660 on the Bayle — the historic centre of Folkestone.

Tooth and bone samples were tied to these dates through carbon dating by experts at Queen’s University, Belfast. The findings were described as “a stunning result of national importance” by Dr Andrew Richardson, of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, who worked with two Lottery-funded projects in Folkestone that investigated the town’s early history. One, by Folkestone Museum, focused on the Anglo-Saxon period; the second, the Finding Eanswythe Project, led by Canterbury Christ Church University, conducted archival and other research.

MARK ROWEThe remains of St Eanswythe

Dr Richardson said: “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. There is more work to be done to realise the full potential of this discovery, but certainly 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.”

Eanswythe died in her late teens or early 20s; the cause of her death was unknown. Her relics soon became a focus of pilgrimage, and, in 1138, were installed in the present church. They were hidden in 1534 to avoid Henry VIII’s commissioners during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and were only uncovered 350 years later. Today, they are held in niche behind a brass grill in the north wall of the sanctuary of the Grade II* church.

MARK ROWEThe team with the remains of St Eanswythe

The osteologist Dr Ellie Williams, a lecturer in archaeology at Canterbury Christ Church University, who worked on the project, said: “ We were surprised by how much of the skeleton still remains, and through drawing together a wide-range of expertise, our work has allowed us to construct a fuller biography of her life and death.

“Further scientific analyses are under way, and it is hoped that we will soon be able to know more about this young woman who is such an important part of Folkestone’s history.”

The Revd Dr John Walker, Priest-in-Charge of St Mary and St Eanswythe, said: “St Eanswythe’s life vibrates with prayerfulness, compassion, and openness to the needs and contribution of others. Her presence with us calls us to embody these qualities, too.”

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