Back in 1885, workers busy renovating the Church of St. Mary and St. Eanswythe in England chance upon an unexpected remnant of the past. And the find is grisly, to say the least. Concealed inside a box are human remains – ones that some believe could solve a centuries-old mystery surrounding a medieval saint. As it happens, though, another 100 years will pass before the truth finally comes out.
St. Mary and St. Eanswythe is more specifically in the coastal town of Folkestone, in Kent. And the church site has a long and storied history, as a place of Christian worship has existed on or near the location of the current chapel since the middle of the seventh century. The building that worshippers see today, however, began to first take shape in the Victorian era, when mosaics, murals and stained glass features were all put in place.
It was during this round of renovations, in fact, that the workers discovered the curious bones. The remains had been placed inside a lead container and hidden inside the north wall of the church. They also dated to the 12th century, making them over 600 years old at the time of their discovery.
Centuries before the person to whom the bones belonged passed away, however, Folkestone Priory was founded at the location. This was the first nunnery in England, and one of its founders was St. Eanswythe – an Anglo-Saxon princess who lived between 630 and 650 A.D.
St. Eanswythe’s father was King Eadbald of Kent, who himself had been born to King Ethelbert – the first English ruler to convert from Anglo-Saxon paganism to Christianity. Eanswythe’s mother, meanwhile, was Eadbald’s second wife, Emma of Austrasia – a Frankish princess who bore the ruler three children. It’s believed, too, that Eanswythe was baptized and grew up as a Christian.
And according to legend, Eanswythe was once pursued by a Northumbrian prince who hoped to make her his wife. She refused his offer of marriage, though, and chose instead to dedicate her life to her religion. Consequently, she moved into Folkestone Priory along with a group of associates. These other individuals had previously been tutored by Roman monks who had accompanied St. Augustine to England in around 597.
Eanswythe was just 16 when she entered Folkestone Priory, meaning she was not made an abbess. And it’s said that she remained at the convent for the rest of her life, where she apparently dedicated her life to prayer, spiritual enlightenment and caring for the elderly and sick.
Then, following her passing, Eanswythe became one of the earliest examples of an English saint. Apparently, she had earned that honor through purported miracles such as exorcising the devil from a sick man and returning sight to a blind person. And, today, her feast day is celebrated on September 12 in Western Christianity and August 31 in the Orthodox tradition.
As the years passed, Eanswythe also became the patron saint of Folkestone, where she spent most of her life. In more recent times, then, she has come to be depicted with a crown, a book, an abbess staff and a fish – the last of those symbols being a nod to the catches made in and around the town’s port.
And after Eanswythe died, she was said to have been laid to rest in a private chapel looking out over the sea at Folkestone. When coastal erosion put the church at risk, however, the saint’s remains were moved into a shrine at the priory at some point in the eighth century.
Folkestone Priory came into further peril in 867, when it was apparently raided by Danish invaders. Fortunately, the saint’s holy relics were safeguarded and subsequently moved to a nearby church. And a new abbey and church named in Eanswythe’s honor would be established further inland around 1138.
Unfortunately, though, the priory would endure further upheaval — particularly during the Reformation of the 16th century. At this time, swathes of Europe turned away from the Roman Catholic Church to create Protestant states. That was also the case in England, with the famous Dissolution of the Monasteries leading to the destruction of many abbeys.
In the midst of the Reformation, the Church of St. Mary and St. Eanswythe was seized by representatives of Henry VIII and ransacked. And as part of that plundering, a shrine dedicated to St. Eanswythe was damaged beyond repair. Still, somehow, the place of worship managed to largely survive the upheaval.
Yet over the centuries, something incredibly sacred to the church was lost. The remains of St Eanswythe vanished without a trace, and for years their whereabouts remained a mystery. Given the disruption caused by the Reformation, it was believed that the relics had likely been hidden away to prevent them from being defaced or stolen.
And the exact location of the bones was completely unknown until the 19th-century work that took place at the Church of St. Mary and St. Eanswythe. These restorations were spearheaded by Canon Matthew Woodward, who served as vicar at the place of worship between 1851 and 1898. Under his watch, the church was transformed into the beautiful building that exists today.
But, of course, along with the installation of mosaics and stained glass windows, the renovation also led to the discovery of the hidden reliquary in the wall. And the remains held within the container turned out to be of particular significance.
After workers had broken into the northern wall of the church and unearthed the remains, however, they didn’t know the exact provenance of the bones. And while the semi-complete skeleton may have once belonged to Eanswythe, there was no way of determining this for sure back in the 19th century.
Ultimately, though, technology progressed to the point when – more than 100 years after the reliquary was rediscovered – scientific testing could be carried out. And the results gleaned from the process turned out to be very exciting indeed.
The new research got underway in 2017, when local historians in Kent teamed up with archaeologists from Folkestone Museum and Canterbury Christ Church University. Then, in 2020, after a vital financial boost from the U.K.’s National Lottery Heritage Fund, work began in earnest on the remains.
After being granted permission by the parish to test the bones, a team of osteologists started their research. And by examining the teeth of the skeleton, these experts could determine that they had belonged to someone who had eaten relatively refined foods. In real life, then, the teeth would have been in excellent condition, as they showed barely any pre-death erosion.
Furthermore, the remains themselves showed few signs of wear and tear. Only minimal injuries were present, including what appeared to be a stress fracture to a foot bone; two finger bones also seemed to have been damaged. And, fortunately, much of the skeleton was intact, giving the scientists plenty to work with.
However, one of the first steps for the osteologists — who specialize in the study of bones — was to determine whether the relics found in 1885 actually belonged to one person. And the team not only discovered that this was indeed the case, but also that the individual in question appeared to share certain characteristics with Eanswythe.
More specifically, it was determined that the bones most likely came from a female who had been between the ages of 17 to 21 when she died. These findings matched what historians know about Eanswythe, who is thought to have passed away in her late teenage years or her early 20s.
That wasn’t the only evidence suggesting that the remains belonged to Eanswythe. In addition, the bones appeared to show no sign of malnutrition, and again this seemed consistent with the lifestyle that Eanswythe was known to lead.
And further promising signs were to come. After samples of the remains were sent to Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, radiocarbon dating confirmed that they were from the seventh century — the same period in which Eanswythe had lived and died.
Laboratory manager Stephen Hoper explained exactly what the Northern Irish team had uncovered when speaking to Kent Online in March 2020. The scientist said, “Our analyses of a tooth sample and a bone sample both believed to be from St. Eanswythe have produced calibrated age ranges that are in good agreement.”
Considering all the evidence, then, the experts determined that the remains were almost certainly those of Eanswythe. Yet even so, there are some doubts that the bones could belong to someone with similar attributes to the saint. You see, back in medieval times, there was a tendency to fake relics.
Nevertheless, those who’d worked on the so-called “Finding Eanswythe” project were confident that they had located the saint. And the good news that Folkestone’s patron saint had finally been relocated was shared with the public in March 2020 – although only following some deliberation.
In March 2020 Andrew Richardson from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust told The Guardian that the team had initially felt apprehensive about announcing the result. He said, “It was a brave move by the church. We could have come out and said: ‘Folks, it’s not her.’ I was 50/50 about it, and a lot of colleagues were skeptical.”
However, in the end, Richardson concluded that, when it comes to the bones belonging to Eanswythe, “everything is consistent.” And when talking to Kent Online, he added, “It now looks highly probable that we have the only surviving remains of a member of the Kentish royal house and of one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon saints.”
Richardson added, “There is more work to be done to realize the full potential of this discovery. But certainly 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 down to the present day.”
Archaeology lecturer Dr. Ellie Williams – who acted as an osteologist on the project – appeared similarly enthused about the discovery. She said to Kent Online, “In 2017, when we launched ‘Finding Eanswythe,’ we couldn’t have imagined that three years later we would conclude the project studying the skeletal remains of what is almost certainly St. Eanswythe herself.”
Williams also emphasized the significance of the investigation, saying, “Our work has allowed us to construct a fuller biography of [Eanswythe’s] life and death. Further scientific analyses are underway, and it is hoped that we will soon be able to know more about this young woman who is such an important part of Folkestone’s history.”
Yet while scientists have determined that the remains most likely belong to Eanswythe, their work is not yet over. Further lines of inquiry include stable isotope analysis, which will be carried out in collaboration with the British Geological Survey and the University of Oxford. This will determine what kind of diet Eanswythe enjoyed.
There is also the hope that DNA tests will be carried out in an attempt to determine Eanswythe’s cause of death. It’s suggested that the saint succumbed to the plague, and researchers are understandably eager to determine whether this early pandemic did indeed end her young life.
And, in fact, such DNA analysis may provide us with an insight into Eanswythe’s links to a present-day monarch. Yes, not only is she one of England’s first saints, but she may also be Queen Elizabeth II’s earliest known relative.
But what actually happened to the skeleton just before it went missing? Well, it’s believed that Eanswythe’s remains could have been hidden around 1535. During that period, the Reformation was underway, and the government took a particularly dim view over the veneration of saints. With that in mind, it’s believed that church officials squirreled the relics away so that they couldn’t be destroyed.
And in case government agents came asking for Eanswythe’s bones, the officials seemingly hatched a plan. Ultimately, then, they apparently showed Henry VIII’s representatives an elaborate reliquary that is said to have held just a few fragments of the saint’s skull. Through these means, they were reportedly able to save the rest of Eanswythe’s remains.
So, even though the pieces of skull were seized by Henry VIII’s officials, the remainder of the skeleton was safe – hidden carefully away in the north wall of the church that bears Eanswythe’s name. And there the bones remained undisturbed until 1885, when they were uncovered by workmen and subsequently linked to Eanswythe.
Now, more than 130 years later, scientists have determined that those almost-forgotten remains likely do belong to Eanswythe. And as a result, they’ll probably never be hidden away again. One day, in fact, the relics will likely be housed in a style suitable for a saint and displayed proudly for the world to see.