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Old bones need new home: reliquary sought to hold the remains of St Eanswythe

07 February 2023

MATT ROWE

The bones of the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon Saint Eanswythe

The bones of the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon Saint Eanswythe

ARTISTS and designers have been asked to come up with new ideas for a reliquary to hold the remains of St Eanswythe, the founding abbess of one of the first monastic institutions in England to include women.

The bones of the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon saint lie at St Mary and St Eanswythe, in Folkestone, Kent, but their ancient lead container is no longer fit for purpose.

The remains — thought to be the earliest verified remains of an English saint — were discovered in 1885 in the church’s north wall, where they are said to have been hidden during the Reformation. It was not until 2020, however, that scientific analysis confirmed that they were St Eanswythe’s (News, 13 March 2020). Her grandfather King Ethelbert was the first English monarch to convert to Christianity, and she is the patron saint of Folkestone, where she is said to have founded her monastic community on the Bayle, the town’s historic centre.

Dr Andrew Richardson, from the Kent-based archaeology company Isle Heritage, said: “Eanswythe will always be a part of this church, but she needs a new ‘home’ within that home. The container in which her relics were found is an important artefact in its own right, but it is now very fragile and no longer suitable. We are looking to commission a new reliquary fit for a Kentish royal saint; one that will protect and preserve these relics for generations to come.

“I suspect that her early death at such a young age — 17 to 20, 22 at the most — perhaps just after becoming the founding abbess of one of England’s first monastic institutions that included women, plus the fact that she was of the Kentish royal house, beloved by the Church as the first to convert to Christianity, would have easily been enough to get her acclaimed as a saint, perhaps within only a few years of her death.”

Contemporary designs for the new container, and also ones that reflect the artistic traditions of seventh-century Kent, are welcome. The deadline for expressions of interest is 1 March and the design brief and application form can be obtained from Dr Richardson on Andrew@isleheritagecic.org. Once a design is selected and costed, a fund-raising campaign will begin.

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