About the Project
Finding Eanswythe: The life and afterlife of an Anglo-Saxon saint 2017-2020
Background to the project
St Eanswythe is patron saint of Folkestone, and has been venerated in the town for around 1400 years. Over the centuries, Eanswythe’s origins and life story have become legendary but the history behind such stories was hard to find and little understood. This project has cast light on Eanswythe, and on all of the fascinating heritage that makes up her life and afterlife.
St Eanswythe is believed to have founded one of the earliest monastic communities in England (c. AD650-660) on the Bayle, the overlooked historic centre of Folkestone. Over the centuries a rich heritage ‘afterlife’ has developed around the site and its saint. This afterlife includes a number of intriguing heritage mysteries: the buried course of an ancient aqueduct (built to carry water from the down-lands to Eanswythe’s minster), a lost chapel, and the extraordinary survival of the saint’s relics, carefully concealed at the time of the Reformation in an ancient lead casket and only rediscovered in the 19th century.
Much of this fascinating past is hidden in plain sight, overshadowed by a modern high-street and rarely visited, although it can be traced in the remains of ancient buildings, the surrounding landscape, folklore, and sources as diverse as manuscripts, superb Victorian art, and local traditions. Together this heritage unites local, regional, and national history, but unfortunately much of it is not well understood and continues to be at risk from vandalism, pollution, and development. Over the last few years, Finding Eanswythe has invited specialists and communities to work together to explore and protect this valuable national heritage before it is too late. This website reflects some of that work in progress. Our hope is that these conversations and this research will continue, and that the search for Eanswythe will go on!
Story of the project – reflections from members of the Finding Eanswythe team
Sometimes it seems that, when we turn our attention to the past, we are being drawn towards questions and features that are calling out to be noticed. Lying, as it were, beneath the surface are buried parts of our past, unanswered mysteries or hidden people waiting to emerge into the day. Often when historians and archaeologists go in search of such mysteries they will find that others have been searching before them, having heard the same call to research, and having been intrigued by the same questions about the past.
This is how it was for all of us in the Finding Eanswythe team; a collection of coincidences and chance channelled our attention towards the story of Eanswythe, a young woman and saint. In the first instance we began by looking at a rather mysterious local feature, a watercourse that seemed to run from the Downs into the heart of Folkestone. The route of that watercourse and its origins were obscure but in 2014 a talk given by Dr Andrew Richardson (Canterbury Archaeological Trust) set us on the path of trying to find out more. Sitting in a pub on the Bayle after the talk, Andrew, and a small group of us from the Folkestone People’s History Centre, mulled over what was known about Eanswythe, and realised that it was very little indeed, even though she is the Patron saint of Folkestone and was reputed to have founded one of the earliest minsters in the country.
As we talked the legendary reputation of Eanswythe was still present all around us: stained glass windows in the nearby church showed her, staff in hand, ‘leading’ water uphill and talking to a flock of geese. The sign for St Eanswythe’s Primary School across the road, showed its insignia, depicting Eanswythe as a nun.
Over the next three years we carried on these conversations, and scoured archives to see what could be found. The mystery of Eanswythe deepened. New questions arose about a lost chapel, her life, the fate of her remains, and the location of her minster. We found that many before us had been intrigued by Eanswythe, dating back to John Leland in the 1530s, who had written about the remains of an ‘old nunnery’ on the Bayle, whilst others, such as the local antiquarian R. J. Fynmore, had gone in search of Eanswythe’s lost chapel at Swetton.
Determined to take our questions further we approached various sponsors and in the summer of 2017, were awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant and were also generously supported by others. Now in 2020 as our project draws to a close we reflect on what an incredible experience this has been. We think about all the friends that we have made, and all the individuals and groups who have joined us in our search. Some of those who were with us at the beginning have sadly died, and in particular we remember Father David Adlington and Kate Holtham-Oakley who were both deeply involved in the project, and very much missed.
When we started this project, our assumption was that Eanswythe was ultimately unknowable, but now perhaps, just, we are beginning to know her. For this we want to thank all the many people who have contributed so much of their time, passion, and expertise.