About Eanswythe - The Historical Eanswythe

The Historical Eanswythe: A Kentish Royal Saint

By Andrew Richardson

What can confidently be said about Eanswythe as a historical, rather than legendary, figure? The starting point must be the Kentish Royal Legend, the primary source about her. The ‘Legend’ though contains only the briefest of information; that she was the daughter of King Eadbald of Kent and his Frankish queen Emma (Ymme); that her brothers were Earconberht and Eormenred; and that she ‘rests at Folkestone’.

How reliable is this source? Although the earliest surviving copy dates to the mid-tenth century, it is likely that sections were written down as early as the first half of the eighth century. If so, the account of Eanswythe’s parentage is likely to be correct, as the genealogy of the Kentish royal dynasty during the seventh century would have been regarded as a matter of the greatest import and therefore recorded in some detail. If the reference to Eanswythe in the Kentish Royal Legend is not accepted as correct, then there is nothing else on which to base any historical account of her. However, as it is not contradicted by any other evidence or later source, there are no good grounds for thinking that this simple statement of her parentage is inaccurate. Thus, it is possible to place Eanswythe, with some confidence, firmly within the historical context of the seventh-century Kentish royal court.

Eanswythe’s father Eadbald was himself the product of a marriage between the Kentish and Frankish royal dynasties, that of Æthelberht and Bertha, her paternal grandparents. By the year 590, Æthelberht, who was a pagan, was married to Bertha, the Christian daughter of the Merovingian king Charibert. Bertha was accompanied to Kent by a Frankish bishop, Luidhard. Shortly thereafter Æthelberht, who remained a pagan, succeeded his father as king of Kent.

The kingdom that Æthelberht inherited was, by the late sixth century, probably the wealthiest and most sophisticated of states to have emerged in Britain following the collapse of the western Roman Empire. The Kentish royal dynasty, and probably a significant proportion of the Kentish population, claimed ancestry from southern Scandinavia, specifically the Jutland peninsula, although in fact their origins were almost certainly rather more mixed. But from at least the late fifth century Kentish material culture shows evidence of a fusion of Scandinavian and Frankish influences and during much of the sixth century Kent appears to have enjoyed privileged access to a range of exotic materials, some of which were used to create distinctively Kentish objects whose quality rivalled anything produced elsewhere in northern Europe at the time. Certainly, the relationship between the emerging Kentish elite and the Merovingian Franks appears to have been close, lucrative and long-lasting. Æthelberht himself probably had Frankish ancestry, judging by his father Eormenric’s distinctly Frankish name.

But, despite their familial links to the Christian Merovingians, the Kentish royal dynasty remained pagan until the arrival from Rome in the year 597 of the Augustinian mission, sent by Pope Gregory the Great, and led by the Benedictine prior Augustine, who would become the first archbishop of Canterbury. King Æthelberht welcomed Augustine and allowed him to establish a base at Canterbury. Within a short time, the king himself converted, along with many of his people. Thus began the long association of Canterbury with the Christian faith, whilst Æthelberht became a holy figure in the eyes of subsequent writers such as the Venerable Bede, who composed his ‘Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum’ (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) in the early eighth century, a major source for the period.

In February 616 or 618 (the sources are unclear), King Æthelberht died and was succeeded by his son Eadbald, who caused a major crisis by marrying his stepmother (presumably Æthelberht’s second wife after Bertha). Whether this was for love or for her control of royal treasure is unknown, but this act was forbidden by Church law. In response, Eadbald renounced Christianity (if he had ever adopted it). The resulting crisis, which probably lasted several years, nearly led to the abandonment of the Christian mission amongst the southern English kingdoms; indeed, Mellitus, bishop of London, and Justus, bishop of Rochester, left for Francia.

Several years later, Eadbald had a change of heart. Kentish power relative to other kingdoms such as Wessex and East Anglia was waning, and the benefits of a renewed close relationship with both the Roman Church and the Christian Merovingians may have been too tempting to avoid. Whatever his reasons, Eadbald was converted in late 623/4. His marriage to his stepmother would not have been recognised by the church and instead he married Ymme (Emma), possibly the sister of Erchinoald, the Frankish mayor of the palace of Neustria.

Eadbald and Emma had three children: the princes Eormenred and Earconberht, and Eanswythe. All were probably born sometime after 624. Earconberht went on to succeed his father as king of Kent when Eadbald died in 640. As Earconberht was old enough to have become king in 640, he is unlikely to have been the youngest of the three siblings, suggesting that Eanswythe was. Although she could have been born at any time between 625-40, a date of birth around the year 630 is perhaps most likely. This is the date often given for the foundation of her minster at Folkestone, but there is no contemporary evidence for this, and indeed it contradicts the evidence that she was the daughter of Emma. A minster at Folkestone, under the command of an abbess, certainly seems to have been in existence by the end of the seventh century and it is most likely that this was established sometime after AD 650, during the reign of Earconberht rather than Eadbald. There is little evidence of female monasticism in England before this date, with women travelling to Frankish minsters instead, as was the case with Eanswythe’s niece Eorcengota, who became a nun at Faremoutiers-en-Brie.

A foundation of the minster at Folkestone after 650 would fit with a date of birth for Eanswythe of around 630. Although it is not certain (despite subsequent tradition) that she was the first abbess of Folkestone, her name is strongly associated with Folkestone in subsequent centuries and with nowhere else. A charter of the Mercian king Coenwulf, dated to 799, contains a boundary clause that refers to ‘terra sancta Eanswithe’ in relation to land at Swingfield (later part of the estates of Folkestone priory). Although the charter is a forgery, the boundary clause appears genuine and was probably copied from an authentic charter. By the mid-tenth century, at that latest, it was believed that the remains of Eanswythe rested at Folkestone. So, the fact of her association with the minster at Folkestone, whether in life or in death, seems clear.