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Remains found in church are those of St Eanswythe, the patron saint of Folkestone


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Human remains found in a Kent church have been confirmed as belonging to an Anglo Saxon princess and the earliest English saint.

Historians say the bones and teeth are almost certainly those of St Eanswythe, who was born in the seventh century and founded one of the first Christian monastic communities for women, in The Bayle, Folkestone.

St Eanswythe was also the daughter of Eadbald, who ruled as king of Kent from 616 to 640 and granddaughter of Ethelbert, the first English king to convert to Christianity under Augustine, making her part of the Kentish royal dynasty.

She is thought to have died in her late teens or early 20s - though currently the cause of her death is unknown.

Although the remains were found in the wall of the Church of St Mary & St Eanswythe, in Church Street, Folkestone, in 1885 it wasn't until recently that archaeologists were able to use radiocarbon dating to learn more about them.

They now believe they are those of St Eanswythe, the patron Saint of Folkestone, who lived in a period that saw the beginning of Christianity in England.

These remains, believed to be those of St Eanswythe, were found in a Folkestone church. Picture: Mark Hourahane
These remains, believed to be those of St Eanswythe, were found in a Folkestone church. Picture: Mark Hourahane

Dr Andrew Richardson, FSA, from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, said the discovery is of "national importance".

He said: "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.

The relics were found hidden in a wall of the church in 1885, but have now been discovered to belong to St Eanswythe. Picture: Mark Hourahane
The relics were found hidden in a wall of the church in 1885, but have now been discovered to belong to St Eanswythe. Picture: Mark Hourahane

"There is more work to be done to realise 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."

The project was a joint collaboration from Kent historians and archaeologists and a team from Queen’s University in Belfast.

Stephen Hoper, laboratory manager of Queen's Radiocarbon Dating Facility who undertook the radiocarbon dating, said: "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.

"The results would indicate there is a high probability of a mid-seventh century date for the death of this individual."

The bones have now been subjected to radiocarbon dating. Copyright Kevin Harvey
The bones have now been subjected to radiocarbon dating. Copyright Kevin Harvey
A tooth fragment. Picture: Kevin Harvey
A tooth fragment. Picture: Kevin Harvey

The project was a conjunction of two different schemes - The Finding Eanswythe Project, which conducted the archival research and secured the church legislation to allow the moving and examination of the relics, led by Canterbury Christ Church University, and Folkestone Museum’s work on the Anglo-Saxon period in preparation for a series of events for British Science Week 2020.

It has received funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Dr Ellie Williams, lecturer in archaeology at Canterbury Christ Church University, and the osteologist who worked on the project, added: "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.

"We were surprised by how much of the skeleton still remains, and through drawing together a wide-range of expertise, our work has allowed us to construct a fuller biography of her life and death.

The remains will now be preserved. Picture: Mark Hourahane
The remains will now be preserved. Picture: Mark Hourahane

"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."

The project now needs to raise funds for the next stage of work, which will reveal more about Eanswythe and to ensure that her remains are housed properly for the future and can be securely displayed for research and tourism purposes.

The next analytical steps will include stable isotope analysis, in conjunction with the University of Oxford and the British Geological Survey, and DNA analysis in conjunction with Dr Tom Booth, senior research scientist at the Pontus Skoglund Laboratory, The Francis Crick Institute.

The findings were revealed for the first time tonight at a special event at St Mary & St Eanswythe Church, followed by a drinks reception at the Folkestone Museum.

The team also commissioned the creation of a gown similar to that which would have been worn by Eanswythe, which was modelled at the event by a woman who would have been close to her age.

  • KentOnline will run a feature on remarkable women in Kent in recognition of International Women's Day 2020. Visit KentOnline on Sunday to read more.

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