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The shrine of Medieval Saint Eanswythe in the Folkestone church, England. Source: A Clerk of Oxford

Bones of Medieval Saint and Princess Found Hidden in Church Wall

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Scientists have finally managed to solve a centuries-old mystery. They have been able to show with a high degree of probability that some bones located in a church wall belonged to a medieval saint and princess who played a very important role in the development of Christianity in England. The team of experts believe they have found the remains of St Eanswythe, who lived in the 7th century AD.

In 1885 a number of human bones were found in in the wall of the Church of St Mary & St Eanswythe, on Church Street, Folkestone. Folkestone is a historic town in the County of Kent on the south coast of England. The bones were something of a mystery - no one was sure of their origin or who they belonged to.

Recently a group of archaeologists used radiocarbon dating technology to study the remains. A team comprised of local archaeologists and experts from Kent along with scientists from Queen’s University Belfast collaborated on the project.

Making a Laboratory in a Church

They established a temporary laboratory in the church which was closed for almost a week to allow the study to proceed. The team carbon-dated some bone fragments and teeth and they found that they come from the 7th century AD. According to The Guardian , the remains ‘came from one person, probably female, probably aged between 17 and 20, and with no signs of malnutrition, so potentially a person with high status.’ Some fragments were sent to Belfast to confirm the findings.

Based on the findings and subsequent analysis, the remains ‘are almost certainly those of St Eanswythe,’ reports The Daily Mail . The bones are those of one of the earliest English saints , who was also an Anglo-Saxon princess. Kent Online quotes Stephen Hoper who oversaw the radiocarbon dating, “Our analyses of a tooth sample and a bone sample both believed to be from the St Eanswythe have produced calibrated age ranges that are in good agreement.”

Medieval Saint Eanswythe in the Folkestone church, England. (A Clerk of Oxford)

Medieval Saint Eanswythe in the Folkestone church, England. ( A Clerk of Oxford )

Saint Eanswythe was also an Anglo-Saxon Princess

St Eanswythe was a member of the Kentish Royal family, who were the Anglo-Saxon rulers of this part of England in the Early Medieval period. Some suspect they are related to the modern British Royal Family. She was the daughter of King Eadbald and his Frankish Queen .

Her grandfather had converted to Christianity and she was very pious. Kent Online quotes Dr. Andrew Richardson, who works with the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, as stating that the identification of the remains was of “national importance.”

The Daily Mail reports that Eanswythe ‘committed her life to the service of God as a nun and refused to marry.’ Her father built a convent for her and this is believed to have been the first one built in England. It was built in the ‘The Bayle, Folkestone,’ according to The Guardian .

Eanswythe was possibly the abbess of the nunnery and was also believed to have been a miracle worker. She died very young, possibly of the plague , and was canonized and is a saint in all the major Christian denominations.

Why were the Medieval Saint’s Bones Hidden in the Wall?

Her remains were originally buried in several locations and were eventually placed in the Church of St Mary & St Eanswythe, where they were revered as holy-relics and she ‘became the centre of a local cult,’ according to The Independent . During the English Reformation , many of these relics and remains of saints were destroyed as they were seen as idolatrous. The Daily Mail reports that ‘her remains might well have been destroyed if they had not been hidden in a hole in the north wall of the Church.’ They remained hidden until their chance re-discovery in 1885.

A Photochrom image of the church in the 1890s. View from the north-east. (Public Domain)

A Photochrom image of the church in the 1890s. View from the north-east. ( Public Domain )

Dr. Richardson stated that “It now looks highly probable that we have the only surviving remains of a member of the Kentish royal house, and one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon saints.” Further research is hoped to provide more insights into the life of the saint and her times. This will involve testing the isotopes in the teeth and further DNA analysis.

The remains found in the church of St Mary & St Eanswythe in Folkestone, Kent, have been identified as almost certainly belonging to one of Britain's earliest saints (Finding Eanswythe)

The remains found in the church of St Mary & St Eanswythe in Folkestone, Kent, have been identified as almost certainly belonging to one of Britain's earliest saints ( Finding Eanswythe )

Pride of Local Christians

The discovery of the medieval saint’s remains is very important for the Christian community in Folkestone. Reverend Dr. John Walker, the vicar of the Church, told the Daily Mail that the saint’s life “vibrated with prayerfulness, compassion, and openness to the needs and contribution of others.” He believed that the re-discovery of the saint’s remains will inspire many Christians to live out their faith.

It was something of a gamble to allow the saint’s bones to be tested as if it had been shown that they were not from the 7th century, it would have been embarrassing for the local Church.

The findings of the study were released in conjunction with a series of events for British Science Week 2020, which focuses on the Anglo-Saxon era in England. The findings were publicized at a special event at St Mary & St Eanswythe Church and the Folkestone Museum.

Local community leaders are exploring how best to display the remains of the medieval saint, and how they may be able to boost tourism, while at the same time respecting their deep spiritual significance for many people.

Top image: The shrine of Medieval Saint Eanswythe in the Folkestone church, England. Source: A Clerk of Oxford

By Ed Whelan

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