In 1885, workmen carrying out work in the chancel of St Mary and St Eanswythe, Folkestone, discovered a lead casket containing a collection of bones. At the time, it was thought that these could be the relics of St Eanswythe, patronal saint of Folkestone and niece of our own Queen Ethelburga in Lyminge. But there were then no tests that could prove the point one way or the other. Now there are.
Over the past three years, the Finding Eanswythe project has been exploring the possible facts and the undoubted fantasies about this very early Anglo-Saxon royal saint. Last night, a group gathered in St Eanswythe’s church to hear the results of tests that have been carried out on the relics.
Eanswythe is recorded as the daughter of Ethelburga’s brother King Eadbald of Kent, and his second wife Emma. It is commonly said that she founded a church and monastery in Folkestone in 630, which would make it the first such royal foundation in southern England following the arrival of the mission of St Augustine in 597. But this date has always seemed improbable. Eadbald and Emma did not marry until around 624, and even if she was born soon afterwards, it is not credible that Eanswythe could have founded a monastery at the age of six. She could in fact have been born as late as 641 when Eadbald died, so it is likely that the foundation at Folkestone occurred much later than 630, probably in the 640s or even in the 650s.
In Folkestone back in January this year, the team that investigated the bones found in 1885 took every precaution to avoid them becoming contaminated when they were brought out from the reliquary in the chancel. There was nothing they could do about the way they had been handled when exposed in the past, but it was sensible to do what they could this time around.
An examination of the bones revealed that they belonged to a young adult, probably aged 17-20, who was most likely female and appeared to be well nourished. About 50% of the skeleton was present, including many small bones. There was no indication that these bones came from more than one individual, and the presence of so many small bones did suggest that these were the remains of a single individual who had not been buried in the ground. These were bones that had been carefully looked after and kept together from the outset. If these were the remains of Eanswythe, the likely age of the bones combined with the known biographical details suggested that she might have died at some point between around 641 and 661/62.
It was therefore truly fabulous that the results for the radio-carbon dating undertaken by Queen’s University, Belfast on a tooth and a foot bone indicated a likely date for the death of the individual in the 650s or early 660s. So we can say without doubt that this is no medieval forgery. The bones are those of an Anglo-Saxon woman of the mid 7th Century. The scientific dating of these bones is thus absolutely consistent with the calculated date when we think Eanswythe died.
This is not of course proof that the bones are those of Eanswythe. But these are bones of an individual who matches what we know about her. They have been carefully preserved from around the time when she died, they have been preserved in a lead reliquary since at least around 800, (based on its design) and they are now in the successor church to the one she originally built. The simplest explanation for all this is that these are indeed the remains of Eanswythe.
This is a great conclusion to the Finding Eanswythe project. But it also has something to say about Lyminge and Ethelburga too. We now have some insight into how the bones of a saintly royal woman could be venerated in the church she founded in this early Christian period around the middle of the 7th Century. We can imagine that Ethelburga too would have been treated in much the same way and her bones venerated in the tomb that was described as still standing in Lyminge in 1085 when her remains were taken to Canterbury by Archbishop Lanfranc. It seems highly likely that the church Eanswythe built, which has long-since fallen over the eroding cliff edge at Folkestone, would have been of a similar style to the church we excavated last summer in Lyminge churchyard. It is conceivable, and perhaps likely, that Eanswythe would have visited her aunt Ethelburga at Lyminge, and perhaps the example of Ethelburga inspired the young princess to found her own church, only a few miles away. It is certainly possible that Eanswythe’s foundation at Folkestone occurred within the lifetime of Ethelburga, who seems to have died around 647.
We came away from the event last night feeling that we have come a step closer to Ethelburga. In the presence of the actual physical remains of her niece Eanswythe, it felt as if we were almost in touch with her world. Eanswythe would have known the great halls on Tayne Field, and she would have known Ethelburga’s church. Somehow, through this link, Anglo-Saxon Lyminge has became just a bit more real.