Saint Eanswith (Old English: Ēanswīþ; born c. 630, Kent, England. Died c. 650, Folkestone, England), also spelled Eanswythe or Eanswide, was an Anglo Saxon princess, who was said to have founded Folkestone Priory, one of the first Christian monastic communities for women in Britain. In 2020 her remains were conclusively identified; these are the earliest remains yet discovered of an English saint, and of a relative of the British monarch.
Tradition has it that Eanswith founded the Benedictine Folkestone Priory, the first nunnery in England. She was supported in this by her father, Eadbald, who ruled as king of Kent from 616 to 640 CE.
While the monastery was under construction, a pagan prince came to Kent seeking to marry Eanswythe. King Eadbald, whose sister St. Ethelburga had married the pagan King Edwin two or three years before, recalled that this wedding resulted in Edwin’s conversion. Eanswythe, however, refused.
This was the first women’s monastery to be founded in England. St. Eanswythe lived there with her companions in the monastic life, and they may have been guided by some of the Roman monks who had come to England with St. Augustine in 597.
She remained at the abbey until her death.
The first monastic site became abandoned by the 10th century, and began to be eroded by the sea, a problem which also afflicted a new foundation of 1095. A site further inland was provided for a new foundation of Folkestone Priory by William de Abrincis in 1137, with a church dedicated to St Mary and St Eanswythe. Saint Eanswith’s day falls on September 12. Traditionally, this is the date on which her remains were translated to the new church in 1138. The priory was closed at the Reformation, and the Church became Folkestone Parish Church. During restoration work at the church in 1885 human remains were discovered in a lead reliquary, embedded within the church wall, which were identified as a 12th-century vessel, and the bones of a young woman. This led to the conclusion that they could be the translated relics of Saint Eanswith, hidden away at the Reformation. A new expert analysis by historians and archaeologists concluded in March 2020 that the remains are almost certainly that of Eanswith.
Eanswith is sometimes portrayed with a fish, along with her abbess’s staff, crown and a book. This appears to be a recent attribute, from Folkestone’s fishing port connection.
- Goscelin of Saint-Bertin mentions Eanswith in his 11th-century Vita Sancta Werburge.
- She is named in the genealogies of some versions of the Kentish Royal Legend
- John of Tynemouth (14th-century chronicler) has a substantive account in his Sanctilogium. As with all the Kentish Abbesses, Bede does not name Eanswith, so John must have had another source.
In 2017 a collaboration began between Kent historians and archaeologists from Canterbury Christ Church University and Folkestone Museum. Church legislation was required for the removal and examination of the human remains that had been uncovered in 1885. Osteologists tested teeth and bones and determined that they had come from one person, probably a woman, aged between 17 and 21, with no signs of malnutrition, all consistent with the history of Eanswith. They sent samples to scientists at Queen’s University Belfast who radiocarbon dated them to the seventh century. The project, named Finding Eanswyth, received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
As well as the former Priory church at Folkestone, Eanswith has the following church dedications:-
- St Eanswith’s Church, Brenzett, Kent, England
- St Eanswythe’s Church, Altona, Victoria, Australia
- scientific examination of her bones and teeth has determined that her age at death was about 17-21
- Richardson, Andrew. “The Historical Eanswythe”. Finding Eanswythe. Canterbury Christ Church University.
- Keys, David (6 March 2020). “Remains of Anglo-Saxon princess who could be the Queen’s earliest known relative discovered by scientists in Kent”. The Independent.
- “St. Eanswythe the Abbess of Folkestone”, Orthodox Church in America
- Yorke, Barbara (2003). Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon royal houses. Continuum. p. 23. ISBN 0-8264-6040-2.
- “St. Eanswythe of Kent”. Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Retrieved 5 February 2013.
- Starr, Brian (2006). Calendar of Saints: Whose Lineage Is Known. Brian Starr, 2006. p. 137. ISBN 1-4196-3665-0.
- The Friends of the Church of St. Mary and St. Eanswytheaccessed 21 November 2014
- “The Remains of St. Eanswith”. Pall Mall Gazette. 24 July 1885. p. 6.
Great interest has, it is said, been caused at Folkestone and the neighborhood by the discovery in the parish church of what are believed to be the remains of St. Eanswith, patron saint of the church and the daughter of Eadbald, one of the Saxon Kings of Kent. 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 eighteen inches long and twelve inches broad, the sides being about ten inches 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. St. Eanswith lived early in the seventh century and was interred, according to historians, in the church on the cliff, where she had founded a priory.
- Sherwood, Harriet (6 March 2020). “Bones found in Kent church likely to be of 7th-century saint”. The Guardian.
- Williams, Sam (6 March 2020). “Remains of ‘earliest English Saint’ and Kent princess confirmed”. Kent Online.
- A Clerk of Oxford: St Eanswythe of Folkestone accessed 22 November 2014
- Love, Rosalind C. (2004). Goscelin of Saint-Bertin. The Hagiography of the Female Saints of Ely. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford.
- Chang, Heesok; DeMaria, Jr., Robert; Zacher, Samantha (2013), A Companion to British Literature, Medieval Literature, 700 – 1450, John Wiley & Sons, p. 74