Kentish Royal Burials

At the latest event in the Lyminge Anglo-Saxon Festival, a socially distanced audience in the Parish Church last night was treated to a superb talk on a matter very close to the hearts of those of us who live in Lyminge. Dr Andrew Richardson of Canterbury Archaeological Trust gave us an excellent run-through of what we know about royal burials in the 7th Century, and in particular about what was happening in Kent in the early years of the Conversion to Christianity, following the arrival of St Augustine in 597.

Setting the scene with magnificent finds such as those at Sutton Hoo and Prittlewell which show how pagan or semi-pagan royalty were buried in neighbouring kingdoms, Andrew went on to consider the burials of King AEthelberht and Queen Bertha in St Augustine’s Abbey, and also that of Lyminge’s own Queen Ethelburga, whose tomb eluded us when the 7th Century church was excavated in 2019. Our view is that this tomb, which we know about from a description written in the 1090s, was most likely to have been under the area now occupied by the church porch. This is how it is reconstructed in our new 3D digital reconstruction, accessible through the touch screen in the church.

Visualisation of Queen Ethelburga’s tomb at Lyminge

Andrew of course is a leading light in the Finding Eanswythe project in Folkestone which not only discovered a lot more about the historical setting in which Eanswythe, Ethelburga’s niece, lived, but also achieved the unique distinction of identifying her remains. The bones of a well-nourished young girl that were discovered in 1885 hidden in the wall of Folkestone Parish Church in a 9th Century lead casket have now been radio-carbon dated to around 660. Andrew explained in detail how the work was undertaken, and his belief that the most likely explanation for these bones of the 7th Century is that they are the bones of Eanswythe that were venerated from the time of her death in the church she founded, and that they were hidden at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries around 1535-6 to protect them from the Commissioners of Henry VIII who were destroying saint’s shrines at that time.

We were all expecting the story of Eanswythe to be the climax of the story about the burials of the Kentish Royal Dynasty, but we were wrong. Andrew saved till last his exciting speculation that the mound within the grounds of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, which used to be the setting for the abbey bell tower, might be more than that. Andrew wondered whether there is a reason King AEthelberht and his Queen were buried close by in the abbey they allowed to be built on this spot. He noted that a late 6th Century aristocratic burial has recently come to light in this area, indicating the presence of a high status cemetery pre-dating the arrival of St Augustine. It is a tantalising thought that the mound is in fact a barrow, the burial mound of King Eormenric, AEthelberht’s father who probably died around 590, hidden in plain sight. If this speculation is correct, who knows what pagan splendour may lie beneath this grassy hill? Whether this will ever be dug to find out remains to be seen, but it was a wonderful end to a super, informative talk.

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