Remains of St Eanswythe found in Folkestone?

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Recent scientific tests on human remains kept for centuries in the church of St Mary and St Eanswythe in Folkestone, Kent, have suggested that they are likely to be those of Eanswythe herself.

Two people in PPE removing the remains from the wall
The remains were found in the church of St Mary and St Eanswythe [Image: Mark Hourahane]

St Eanswythe was the granddaughter of Æthelbert, the first English king to convert to Christianity under the Augustine mission, and is thought to have founded one of the earliest monastic communities in England in around AD 660.

Historical documents indicate that Eanswythe’s bones were kept as relics in Folkestone after her death, and were moved to the present church when it was built in 1138. There are records of an active shrine to the saint there until the 1530s; however, there is no mention of her remains after this date, and it was assumed that they had been destroyed during the Reformation – until renovations in 1885 revealed a lead container that had been hidden in a niche in the north wall and contained human bones.

Examination of the bones in 1980 determined that they belonged to a young female, but no further scientific investigation was carried out until January this year when a new project (‘Finding Eanswythe’), led by Canterbury Archaeological Trust, Canterbury Christ Church University, and Folkestone Museum, set out to investigate the remains in more detail.

Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, a dedicated team of specialists and volunteers, all local to East Kent, set up a facility in the church itself, where the remains stayed throughout the project (other than two samples, which were sent for radiocarbon dating). St Eanswythe is reported to have been born before AD 640, and died in her teens or early 20s, most likely in the 650s or early 660s. Osteological analysis confirmed earlier assumptions that the remains in the church belonged to one individual, probably female, who had been aged roughly 17-20 years old at the time of their death – which radiocarbon dating suggests was between c.AD 649 and 684.

If these are the bones of St Eanswythe, they represent the earliest verified remains of an English saint, and the only currently verified remains of a member of the Kentish royal dynasty to which she belonged. It is hoped that stable isotope and DNA analysis in the future will reveal more information about St Eanswythe and her family.

This news article appears in issue 362 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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