Today is the feast of one of Kent's more obscure Anglo-Saxon saints, Eanswythe of Folkestone. We know very little about Eanswythe, but the two things we do know about her are interesting: she was the granddaughter of Ethelbert, Kent's first Christian king, and she is said to have been the first woman in England to head a religious community. Her father King Eadbald supposedly founded an abbey for her around the year 630 at Folkestone, on the south coast of Kent, some thirty years after Ethelbert was baptised by Augustine of Canterbury.
The records of Eanswythe's life are so scanty that we can't be sure whether the distinction of 'first English abbess' belongs to her or to her aunt Æthelburh (Ethelburga) who is said by Anglo-Saxon sources to have founded a community at nearby Lyminge, a little way inland from Folkestone, shortly after 633. (Some scholars say both dates are implausibly early for the foundation of a religious community of women in England, but the tradition is interesting in itself.) I wrote about Ethelburga and Lyminge here. We have a lot of information about her because she was married to Edwin, king of Northumbria, and therefore plays an important role in Bede's narrative of Edwin's conversion. If there had been a southern Bede, we might have known more about Eanswythe of Folkestone. However, let's have a look at what evidence we do have for her life, and then at some pictures of the church at Folkestone which preserves Eanswythe's memory - and not only her memory, but, perhaps, the relics of the saint herself.
Eanswythe was one of a number of royal women involved with the foundation of Christian communities in this period: besides Lyminge and Folkestone, abbeys were established at Ely, Barking, Repton, Whitby, Coldingham, Wenlock, Minster-in-Thanet, Minster-in-Sheppey, and more, all founded before the end of the seventh century and closely associated with a particular female patron. Royal abbesses are perhaps the most prominent 'type' of native saint, male or female, in the early Christian history of southern England, and the abbeys they led formed a closely-linked network of secular and spiritual power. In Kent, in successive generations - from Bertha, wife of King Ethelbert, to her daughter Ethelburga, granddaughter Eanswythe, great-granddaughter Domneva (Eanswythe's niece) and great-great-granddaughter Mildred of Thanet - it's royal women who were most closely associated with the spread of Christianity and the first communities of monks and nuns. The Kentish women were also connected by marriage to the 'lady saints' of Ely, St Etheldreda and her sisters and nieces, and to royal saintly women of Mercia and Northumbria, of whom the most famous is St Hilda. (More on all these women can be found in the following posts: St Etheldreda, St Wihtburh, St Eormenhild, St Ethelburga of Lyminge, Domneva, St Mildred of Thanet, St Ethelburga of Barking, and St Werburh of Chester.)
Royal men, by contrast, were often notably less keen on the Christian missionaries, and Eanswythe's father, Ethelbert's son Eadbald, is a case in point. Although Bede doesn't mention Eanswythe, he provides a useful context for her life by telling us that after the death of Ethelbert in 616, Eadbald rejected Christianity:
The death of Ethelbert and the accession of his son Eadbald proved to be a severe setback to the growth of the young church; for not only did [Eadbald] refuse to accept the faith of Christ, but he was also guilty of such fornication as the Apostle Paul mentions as being unheard of even among the heathen, in that he took his father's wife as his own. His immorality was an incentive to those who, either out of fear or favour to the king his father, had submitted to the discipline of faith and chastity, to revert to their former uncleanness. However, this apostate king did not escape the scourge of God's punishment, for he was subject to frequent fits of insanity and possessed by an evil spirit.Without royal support, the missionaries saw no alternative but to leave England. But just as Laurence, second (and nearly the last) Archbishop of Canterbury, was about to flee, he had a miraculous dream:
On the very night before Laurence too was to follow Mellitus and Justus from Britain, he ordered his bed to be placed in the church of the blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, of which we have spoken several times. Here after long and fervent prayers for the sadly afflicted church he lay down and fell asleep. At dead of night, blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, appeared to him, and set about him for a long time with a heavy scourge, demanding with apostolic sternness why he was abandoning the flock entrusted to his care, and to which of the shepherds he would commit Christ's sheep left among the wolves when he fled. "Have you forgotten my example?" asked Peter. "For the sake of the little ones whom Christ entrusted to me as proof of his love, I suffered chains, blows, imprisonment, and pain. Finally I endured death, the death of crucifixion, at the hands of unbelievers and enemies of Christ, so that at last I might be crowned with him." Deeply moved by the words and scourging of blessed Peter, Christ's servant Laurence sought audience with the king [Eadbald] early next morning, and removing his garment, showed him the marks of the lash. The king was astounded, and enquired who had dared to scourge so eminent a man; and when he learned that it was for his own salvation that the archbishop had suffered so severely at the hands of Christ's own Apostle, he was greatly alarmed. He renounced idolatry, gave up his unlawful wife, accepted the Christian faith, and was baptised, henceforward promoting the welfare of the church with every means at his disposal.Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1974), pp.108-9, 110-11.
So Eadbald was converted. He made a more acceptable marriage to a Frankish princess named Emma, and with her had three children, Eanswythe and two sons. The name of Eanswythe's mother is provided by the 'Kentish Royal Legend', an Old English text (or rather, group of related texts) dealing with the history of the Kentish royal family; here's one iteration of it in an eleventh-century manuscript, BL Stowe 944, f.34v:
I've posted extracts from this text before for Ethelburga and Mildred, who both have fairly substantial entries, but Eanswythe gets only one sentence:
þonne wæs Imme Eadbaldes cwen, Francena cyninges dohtor, 7 hi begeaton Sancte Eanswiðe þe æt Folcanstane resteð 7 Earcanbyrht Cantwara cyninge 7 Eormenræd æþelinge.
Eadbald's queen was Emma, daughter of the king of the Franks, and they had St Eanswythe, who rests at Folkestone, and Eorcenberht king of Kent, and Eormenred the Ætheling.
It's worth noting that although this calls Eanswythe a saint it does not say she was abbess of Folkestone, nor that she founded it, only that she was buried there. It's possible that later tradition has exaggerated her role, especially as she seems to have died young - the traditional date of her death is 31 August 640, when she might have been not even 25. Her father died the same year, and this time there was no reversion to paganism; his son Eorcenberht married St Etheldreda's sister (Seaxburh of Minster-in-Sheppey) and was the father of St Eormenhild, while his other son Eormenred was the father of Domneva and the two boys whose murder prompted the foundation of Minster-in-Thanet.
(That's the last of the genealogy, I promise; we're coming to the pictures...)
After Eanswythe's death there seems to have been a community at Folkestone for about two centuries, but like several other early Kentish abbeys it was apparently abandoned in the course of the ninth century, when Viking attacks made coastal monasteries vulnerable. After this its history is not entirely clear; there are occasional references to priests based at Folkestone, so there was probably a small community of some sort guarding the shrine and ministering to the town. By the mid-eleventh century Folkestone belonged to Earl Godwine, and formed part of the formidable power-base the earl had built up along the south coast. The monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, claimed Godwine had stolen Folkestone from their possession, after they had acquired Eanswythe's church in the tenth century. The Christ Church historian Eadmer - no fan of Godwine - says the earl had obtained it by bribing Eadsige, Archbishop of Canterbury (1038-50). In the 1080s the monks engaged in a lawsuit to get it back again, and forged charters in support of their claim that first Athelstan and then Cnut had granted them the ruins of Eanswythe's monastery. (The claim might perhaps be genuine, but the charters are not!)
However, they lost the lawsuit, and Folkestone remained in the hands of the king. The post-Conquest story of Folkestone is therefore one of secular patronage: the foundation of a priory in place of the former monastery by Nigel de Mundeville, Lord of Folkestone, in 1095, and then, when that fell into the sea - Vikings aren't the only threat faced by coastal monasteries - a new priory on a safer site in 1137. It was apparently on 12 September 1138 that the relics of St Eanswythe were translated to the new church, and that's the date kept as Eanswythe's feast today. The present-day church in Folkestone, originally thirteenth-century but much restored, is dedicated to St Mary and St Eanswythe:
When I visited the church earlier this year we had atrocious weather (it was April, but this is the English seaside) so unfortunately all my pictures are dark and damp; I prefer to photograph churches when the sun is shining, of course, but sometimes you have to take what you can get! When you live by the sea you learn to love a foggy day as much as a sunny one, in any case. The church is on the cliff above the port of Folkestone; the rain and wind were coming in straight off the Channel, which was rendered invisible by a curtain of mist. But the advantage of the torrent which descended just as we reached the church was that the congregation finishing their Sunday morning service were solicitously eager to welcome us, dripping wet, into the shelter of their church.
The fifteenth-century tower, high on the clifftop, must have been a landmark for shipping (though not on a day like this, when even standing at the foot of the tower the mist hid the top).
The interior of the building is thoroughly Victorian, but there are enough memorials to Eanswythe to make it clear that the church values its Anglo-Saxon history.
To the south of the chancel is a chapel dedicated to St Eanswythe, which contains a motley assortment of memorials to the saint.
This was my favourite, a really lovely window dating to (I think) 1955.
It shows Eanswythe as a determined-looking woman, rather than a sweet-faced princess.
Two scenes from her legend show how 'Saint Eanswythe causes a stream of water to be diverted to the service of her nunnery' (note the cliffs of Folkestone behind her):
And 'Saint Eanswythe forbids the birds to settle on her fields and destroy her crops':
These illustrate stories which appear in the late-medieval legend of Eanswythe, as found for instance in the Nova Legenda Anglie here.
The chapel also has a painting, donated by a past organist of the church, showing 'Saint Eanswythe ministering to the poor' at the door of her monastery, the cliffs in the background:
A little lancet window also depicts the saint:
And there are two banners, an underrated form of saintly memorialisation:
crest of arms. At some point in her iconography she's acquired a fish, apparently because of the town's long association with fishing rather than anything connected to Eanswythe herself.
Regular readers will know that I collect 'medieval people in modern stained glass', and there are a few more examples from Folkestone; Eanswythe's grandfather Ethelbert appears elsewhere in the church:
As does his baptism by Augustine:
As quite often in modern depictions of this scene, he's shown being baptised in something approximating the (Norman) font now in St Martin's, Canterbury.
Augustine also appears in the east window:
And Eanswythe is there too:
And a medieval effigy, rather incongruous in this very Victorian church, of Sir John de Segrave, baron of Folkestone:
But the real excitement is in the chancel, by the north side of the altar, where the glow of the votive candles are in the picture below:
In 1885, during renovation of the church, a lead casket was discovered in the north wall of the chancel, containing the bones of a young woman. It seems plausible that these are the relics of St Eanswythe, hidden or overlooked perhaps at the dissolution of the priory (the community had dwindled to almost nothing by that point). After inspection the relics were returned to their position within the wall of the chancel, which makes this church one of very few in England to still possess the relics of its patron saint:
The survival of these relics is extremely unusual, and to be in their presence was strangely moving. We know so little about Eanswythe that it's difficult to feel much for her personally, but the whole story of Kentish Christianity, which is so important a part of the history of Anglo-Saxon England, is embodied in this young woman's bones. The bodies of her more famous relatives, laid to rest in less obscure places, did not survive the Reformation: the tombs of her parents and grandparents, after being honoured for more than 900 years at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, were destroyed there at the abbey's dissolution, along with the tombs of St Augustine and his companions and other kings and queens of Kent. The reformers who left St Augustine's in ruins were destroying not only a great monastery but a royal mausoleum, Anglo-Saxon Kent's answer to Westminster Abbey. The sites of their graves are marked out amid the ruins, but there's no physical presence there. Other royal saints of Kent fared little better: Ethelburga's relics probably left Lyminge as early as the eleventh century, and are now lost; St Mildred's body left Minster-in-Thanet during the reign of Cnut, and was also lost at St Augustine's - though some relics of her did return to Minster in 1935, after being preserved on the continent during the intervening centuries. But St Eanswythe has never left Folkestone, and it hasn't forgotten her.