Venerable Eanswythe of Folkestone

 

St. Eanswythe (also Eanswith, Eanswide and
pronounced Inswith) has from time immemorial been
venerated as “the spiritual mother of Kent”
and “the wonderworker of Kent.” The center of
her veneration is Folkestone—a seaside resort and
fishing town on the south-east coast of Kent, on the very
edge of England. It is here that her holy relics have been
located for over 1350 years despite a period of several
centuries’ neglect. Let us recall her life.

Few sources give evidence of this saint’s life. The
Venerable Bede of Jarrow does not mention her in his
History of the English Church and People, which
is the case with several other early important saints who
lived before him. However, St. Eanswythe is mentioned in
the reliable manuscript of the mid-eleventh century known
as the Kentish Royal Legend and in the Life
of St. Werburgh of Chester
that was compiled late in
the eleventh century by the learned monk Goscelin of
Canterbury. Her Life is also described by a later author,
the fourteenth-century chronicler John of Tynemouth, who
wrote the history of the world from creation till 1347 and
compiled the lives of 156 early saints of the British
Isles.

The future saint was born in about 614 to the royal family
of the Kingdom of Kent. Her parents were Eadbald, King of
Kent (616-640), and his wife, Queen Emma (formerly a
princess of Austrasia in Gaul). Eadbald was a son of the
holy King Ethelbert of Kent and his wife, the saintly
queen Bertha. St. Ethelbert was the first English ruler to
meet the Roman mission headed by the future St.
Augustine of Canterbury on their arrival in England in
597. He became the first English Christian king and did
much to make his Kingdom Christian and thanks to St.
Ethelbert, Kent became the most powerful early English
kingdom at the time. Thus, Eanswythe was granddaughter of
such important saintly figures as Ethelbert and Bertha.
Her brothers were Earconbert (King of Kent from 640 to 664
and father to St. Ermenhild, the first English king to
order the destruction of pagan idols and the observation
of Lent by his subjects) and Eormenred (King of Kent
jointly with Earconbert for some while after 640; among
his children were several saints, notably St. Domneva of
Thanet).

The holy King Ethelbert died in 616 when St. Eanswythe was
two years old and Eadbald succeeded his father as king.
According to St.
Bede, Eadbald did not wish to become Christian for
some while after his accession to the throne and thus the
kingdom was under serious threat from paganism. Moreover,
he had married St. Ethelbert’s last wife, that is,
his own stepmother, which was normal for a pagan, but a
sin in Church law. Finally, through the efforts of St.
Laurence of Canterbury, the successor of St. Augustine as
Archbishop, Eadbald was enlightened by the light of Christ
and voluntarily abandoned paganism and was baptized. From
that time on he supported the Orthodox Faith.

Eanswythe led a very pious and holy life from childhood.
At a very young age she firmly decided to remain a virgin
and serve her Heavenly Bridegroom—Christ. It was
said of Eanswythe that she loved God so much that she
despised the riches of this world with all her heart and
mind understood the depths of the Holy Scriptures and
thirsted for the Heavenly Kingdom above all things. Beyond
doubt, the future saintly maiden of God was under the
influence of the spiritual disciples and successors of St.
Augustine: St. Laurence of Canterbury, St. Mellitus (the
first recorded Bishop of London), and St. Justus (the
first Bishop of Rochester). She also had a saintly aunt,
St. Ethelburgh, who married St. Edwin and became Queen of
Northumbria. After the conversion of St. Edwin to
Christianity Ethelburgh labored together with him to
spread Orthodoxy in the north of England and after her
husband’s martyrdom she returned to Kent to found a
convent at Lyminge.

St. Eanswythe's Church in Brenzett, Kent. Photo: theromneymarsh.net
St. Eanswythe’s Church in Brenzett, Kent. Photo: theromneymarsh.net
Eadbald wanted his daughter
Eanswythe to marry a Northumbrian prince too, in
order to secure friendly relations with this northern
kingdom which grew as strong and powerful at the time
as Kent. He saw that his sister’s
(Ethelburgh’s) marriage to a Northumbrian
(though at that time Northumbria was divided into
Deira and Bernicia) ruler was a success, so he wanted
to continue this policy. But the will of God was
different. St. Eanswithe refused point blank to marry
any prince and anyone in general, wishing to live as
a nun. Eadbald tried to persuade her, but all in
vain. Thus, about the year 630, St. Eanswythe, with
the support of her father, founded the first convent
on English soil, on the white cliffs of Folkestone in
Kent.

Eanswythe became the first English nun in the
country’s history. According to some sources, before
founding Folkestone St. Eanswythe had travelled to Gaul to
the convent at Faremoutiers to prepare for the monastic
life. Her convent at Folkestone was dedicated (most
probably by St. Honorius, the then Archbishop of
Canterbury) to the Apostles Peter and Paul—a very
common dedication in England of that age. From that time
and until her death Eanswythe never left this convent,
leading an exemplary holy life in it. With time she
probably became the abbess of Folkestone though there is
not enough evidence to prove this.

The community consisted partly of English nuns and partly
of nuns from Gaul who were more experienced and at first
helped Eanswythe and her sisters with advice. Apart from
everyday monastic labors and obediences at the nunnery,
the favorite practices of Folkestone nuns were repentance,
perpetual prayer and praising the Lord for His mercy,
especially on account of the growth and development of the
Orthodox faith in the English land. The saint prayed in
the church and in her cell, read the Holy Scriptures and
other spiritual books and did manual labor. The holy
maiden together with her sisters cared for the sick, poor,
homeless and needy. Most probably they also copied and
bound various manuscripts which was a custom in many
English monasteries.

St. Eanswythe gained fame as a wonderworker. There are
several cases of her miracles which are known: firstly,
she returned sight to a blind woman by her prayers;
secondly, she restored the mental health of a mad man;
thirdly, a holy spring with healing properties gushed
forth at her intercessions which provided fresh water to
her community and the saint even commanded it to flow
upstream from a mile away (unfortunately, the spring
disappeared when the sea subsequently eroded the area);
fourthly, she forbad birds to steal corn from the convent
fields and they obeyed her.

St. Eanswythe reposed in the Lord at the very young age of
twenty-six, on August 31 (September 13 according to the
new calendar), 640; her father, King Eadbald, died in the
same year. After the death of Eanswythe life in her
community continued to prosper until the ninth century.
Interestingly, it was her holy aunt, St. Ethelburgh, who
established (most likely) the second convent for women in
England in the neighboring Lyminge, only some three years
after Eanswythe had founded Folkestone. This county of
Kent situated in the south-eastern corner of England
indeed produced very many (no fewer than forty!) saints
alone, and it had a number of important Orthodox monastic
communities in the early period, such as Canterbury,
Reculver, Minster-in-Thanet,
Minster-in-Sheppey, Lyminge and Folkestone.

The convent in Folkestone was ravaged by the invading
Danes in about the year 865 and monastic life ceased to
exist there for quite a long time while the ruins were
submerged by the sea. The relics of the holy virgin then
were transferred to a church further inland. In 927 the
right-believing King Athelstan restored the church (though
not the convent) at Folkestone and for some while it was
used as a parish church with the relics of St. Eanswythe
enshrined inside. Presumably there was a small community
of priests attached to it who guarded the shrine and gave
spiritual guidance to the local inhabitants.

After the Norman Conquest in 1095 a Roman Catholic
monastery (a priory, to be more exact) of Black
Benedictines in honor of the Mother of God and St.
Eanswythe was built on the site of the former Orthodox
convent but very soon the cliff on which it stood fell
into the sea (the proximity to the sea was a problem for a
number of other English monasteries and cathedrals in the
middle ages—most of them were eventually washed away
by the waves and destroyed, so new structures had to be
built further from the shore afterwards). In the first
half of the twelfth century the monastery church was
completely rebuilt some distance from the sea and it is
basically the same church of the Mother of God and
Eanswythe which stands in Folkestone today, although, of
course, it is now a parish church.

Church of St. Mary and St. Eanswythe in Folkestone, Kent
Church of St. Mary and St. Eanswythe in Folkestone, Kent

On September 12 (September 25 according to the new
calendar), 1138, the relics of St. Eanswythe were
translated into the newly-built Norman church and from
that time on this date became her second official feast
day, along with August 31. The veneration of St. Eanswythe
and of her relics continued during the Catholic period of
the English Church at the new monastery and numerous
pilgrims visited her shrine, seeking healing, consolation
and inspiration. During the English Reformation initiated
by Henry VIII the monastery in Folkestone was closed, as
was the case with other monasteries and convents in the
country, and the saint’s relics were temporarily
lost. As we said, the main monastery church of Folkestone
is now used as the town’s parish church (there are
three parish churches there).

A miracle occurred in June 1885 at this church during
restoration work. A lead casket with human remains (as it
appeared, these were the bones of a young lady, as a later
expertise proved) was discovered in the north wall of the
temple. The casket was dated to the twelfth century, the
time of the translation of St. Eanswythe’s relics,
and it was understood that the reliquary with the holy
maiden’s remains was hidden during or after the
Reformation from the royal commissioners so as to save
them from destruction. Thus the precious relics of the
first English Orthodox nun and abbess were preserved and
rediscovered over three hundred years later! The holy
relics of St. Eanswythe who lived and labored and prayed
much for the establishment of Orthodoxy on English soil at
its earliest stage rest inside this church to this day,
and Orthodox Christians organize pilgrimages to this
place. This is a very rare situation for modern England
when the relics of a local saint are kept in their
original location, and in Eanswythe’s case this has
been uninterruptedly so for over a millennium.

In his fundamental work, Britain’s Holiest
Places
, Nick Mayhew Smith writes:

If you do visit the church, it is an effort to
identify the actual site of St. Eanswythe’s bones.
There is a shrine chapel dedicated to the saint, with
candles and prayers, on the south side of the chancel. But
her actual body lies on the opposite side, next to the
high altar, in an unmarked safe. To find the shrine, stand
in front of the high altar at the sanctuary rail. Look for
two brass doors on your left, set in the alabaster wall.
The large one is actually a bookcase with a small icon of
St. Eanswythe resting on it. The smaller door,
square-shaped and near the floor, contains her reliquary.
It was uncovered in 1885 during building work… The
bones have been returned to the same niche where they were
hidden at the Reformation, and lie there today. They were
examined in 1980 and confirmed as the remains of a young
woman, all the bones having belonged to the same person.
The vicar in charge when the relics were first uncovered,
Canon Woodward, used to expose the bones each year on St.
Eanswythe’s patronal festival, September 12. His
enthusiasm proved too much for some of the
congregation,
[1] and the casket is now kept locked
away. Despite overwhelming historical precedent, the
idea of celebrating saintly ancestors in Christian
worship is still too much for some churchgoers.
However, the Greek Orthodox community in Folkestone
holds services beside St. Eanswythe’s relics and
donated the icon that stands alongside.

The Church of the Mother of God and St. Eanswythe stands
in the center of Folkestone. After the dissolution of the
monasteries it fell slowly into disrepair. It is due to
the priest Matthew Woodword who served there from 1851
till 1898 that the church was restored. It is this
Victorian-era restoration that gives it its present glory,
especially inside, with high-quality stained glass,
wall-paintings, murals and mosaics. The church tower is of
the fifteenth century, and its churchyard forms a small
park. The patron-saint, St. Eanswythe, is commemorated
inside this church nearly everywhere, with a large number
of stained glass windows, paintings, and at least two
banners dedicated to her, in addition to her Orthodox
icon, chapel and relics in the chancel. In the church
visitors can find images where the saint is depicted with
her holy well, telling birds not to damage the crops, and
ministering to the needy. Among other English saints on
the stained glass are St. Augustine and St. Ethelbert.

 


St. Eanswythe is usually depicted as a
crowned abbess, with a staff, a book or two fish,
though the latter is connected with the town’s
business, not the saint. She is depicted on the seals
of the town of Folkestone and is the patron-saint of
the town to this day.[2] A parish church in the Kent village of
Brenzett near the East Sussex border is dedicated to
our saint (the present structure is chiefly of the
twelfth century but the first St. Eanswythe’s
church existed there probably as early as the seventh
century). In earlier times, her veneration extended
beyond Kent and reached such regions as
Gloucestershire. There is also a St. Eanswythe Orthodox
mission and study group in England. Finally, an
Anglican parish church in Altona, a suburb of
Melbourne, Australia is dedicated to her as well.

Holy Mother Eanswythe of Folkestone, pray to God for us!

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