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Bones Unearthed in English Church Likely Belong to Seventh-Century Saint

Eanswythe was the granddaughter of Ethelbert, the first English king to convert to Christianity

Workers discovered the bones in a lead container hidden in the walls of the Church of St. Mary and St. Eanswythe. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonianmag.com

When workers excavating the Church of St. Mary and St. Eanswythe found a lead container filled with bones in 1885, locals suspected they belonged to the Anglo-Saxon saint whose name the Kent parish bears. Now, archaeologists have all but confirmed this theory, using radiocarbon testing to date the remains to the middle of the seventh century—approximately the period when St. Eanswythe, a princess whose grandfather Ethelbert was the first English king to convert to Christianity, reportedly died.

“It … looks probable that we have the only surviving remains of a member of the Kentish royal family, and one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon saints,” says archaeologist Andrew Richardson in a statement quoted by the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood.

Scientists first examined the bones, which constitute around half of a skeleton, in the 1980s. But the new analysis marks the first time the Diocese of Canterbury has granted permission for closer inspection of the remains.

Archaeologists at Queen’s University Belfast conducted radiocarbon testing of a single tooth and bone fragment. The rest of the bones remained in the church, which was closed for five days as the team conducted its work. To ensure the relics stayed safe, reports Maev Kennedy for the Art Newspaper, the archaeologists even slept in their makeshift laboratory.

Eanswythe—patron saint of Folkstone, the southeastern coastal town in which the parish is located—probably died in her late teens or early 20s. Her cause of death is unknown.

In life, Eanswythe would have witnessed the beginnings of English Christianity firsthand: Her grandfather was the first English royal to convert from Anglo-Saxon paganism to Catholicism, opting to embrace the new religion after marrying a Frankish Christian princess and welcoming visits from missionary St. Augustine.

Around 660 A.D., Eanswythe founded one of Britain’s first monastic communities for women, establishing a religious center in Folkestone. There, she is said to have performed several “standard” miracles, including making a stream flow uphill to the monastery, resurrecting a goose and ordering a flock of birds to leave the community’s crops alone. Many of the archaeologists who worked on the project grew up in the town and were familiar with the legends surrounding its patron saint, according to the Art Newspaper.

“Folkestone is an extremely ancient place but much of its heritage has been erased through development in the 19th and 20th centuries,” Lesley Hardy, director of the Finding Eanswythe Project, tells the Guardian. “Eanswythe was at the [center] of the community—people would have seen her as a local hero. To bring her back into the light is something quite special.”

Popular lore suggests locals moved the remains from the town’s original monastery after buildings on the cliff where it stood started falling into the ocean. Later, during the English Reformation, caretakers likely stashed the bones in an alcove in hopes of saving them from iconoclasm.

Though some experts suspected the remains were fake relics dating to the medieval era, the new carbon dating supports the conclusion that the bones belong to Eanswythe.

“It was a brave move by the church,” Richardson tells the Guardian.

Speaking with the Art Newspaper, he adds, “The dates could have been inconclusive, or blown the project completely out of the water, but instead they are the best we could possibly have hoped for.”

Moving forward, the Finding Eanswythe project hopes to extract ancient DNA from the remains. A conservator is also working to restore fragments of gold thread that may have been part of a fabric that once covered the bones.

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