Parishes, schools and agencies

The bones of Eanswythe: a reminder of a shared story

By Chris Lancaster

It’s not often that the bones of your parish patron saint are in the news. But that was the case in early March, when the parish of St Mary and St Eanswythe, in Folkestone, Kent, announced the outcome of fresh analysis of bones discovered over a century ago in the church.

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, visits the research laboratory which was set up in the church. Photo: Mark Hourahane

Eanswythe was a Kentish princess, granddaughter of the first English king to convert to Christianity, and she is thought to have founded one of the first women’s monastic communities in England in around AD 660. She died not long afterwards, in her late teens or early twenties, and her memory is honoured as the patron saint of the town of Folkestone.

In 1885, workers renovating the parish church found within the walls a lead box containing human remains. It seemed plausible, if not likely, that they were the bones of Eanswythe herself: hidden safely away at the Reformation when so many saints’ relics were destroyed, and then forgotten. In January this year, funded by a National Lottery grant, a team of experts from Canterbury Christ Church University analysed the bones with the latest available technology.

Everything added up. The bones, about half of a skeleton, came from one person, probably female, probably aged between 17 and 20. There were no signs of malnutrition, suggesting a person of high status. Radiocarbon dating placed them with high likelihood in the mid-seventh century.

Dr Andrew Richardson, of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, said these results were highly significant. “It now looks probable that we have the only surviving remains of a member of the Kentish royal family, and one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon saints … 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 to the present day.”

There is another strand of that living tradition here in Melbourne. In the 1920s the Revd W.H. Edwardes was the first priest of the new parish at Altona; he had begun his ordained ministry 40 years earlier in Folkestone, and so suggested that this new church on the other side of the world might also be dedicated to St Eanswythe.

As far as we know, it is the only St Eanswythe’s Church outside Kent.

Over the years, various parishioners from Altona have made a point of visiting the church in Folkestone when in the UK, and we have a processional cross that was given by that parish of St Mary and St Eanswythe. The connection was renewed when some of those involved in the Finding Eanswythe project contacted us to pass on this news of Eanswythe’s bones.

And so we are left to wonder at the fruit that is still emerging from the short life and even shorter ministry of this remarkable young woman from the seventh century, as her story and her bones connect Christians from both sides of the world.

The Revd Chris Lancaster is Vicar of St Eanswythe’s Altona with St Clement’s Altona Meadows.