About Eanswythe - Legends & Belief

The Legend of St Eanswythe

By James Lloyd

Almost nothing is known about Eanswythe. The earliest source to give any information about her is the Kentish Royal Legend, a mid-tenth-century list of Kentish saints, which says ‘Then was Emma, daughter of the king of the Franks, Eadbald’s queen; and she begot Saint Eanswythe, who rests at Folkestone, and Earconberht, king of the Men of Kent, and Prince Eormenred.’ The Lives of the Kentish Royal Saints, a brief narrative about the Kentish royal family written around 1000, repeats this information and adds that ‘Saint Eanswythe lies at Folkestone, in the minster she herself founded.’

That is all that history records of Eanswythe. It is not much, so folklore was employed to fill the gap and in the thirteenth century an unknown monk of Folkestone collected together the legends that had accumulated about her into a Vita (Life). According to this, Eanswythe had always yearned to live a religious and chaste life and chose Folkestone as her retreat because of its remoteness from society. Her father King Eadbald built two churches on the site: a private oratory for his daughter close to the cliff and a church of Saint Peter further inland, along with buildings for the nuns who were to live with Eanswythe.

During the building work, Eanswythe was courted by the pagan king of Northumbria but she challenged him to ask his gods to stretch a wooden beam that had been cut too short to be used in the oratory. Only then would she agree to marry him. The king’s prayers failed but Eanswythe then prayed to the Christian God and the beam extended itself accordingly.

This episode is derived from two sources. The abortive romance with the Northumbrian king may have been inspired by the real-life marriage of Eanswythe’s aunt Æthelburh to King Edwin of Northumbria, a pagan who converted to Christianity after his marriage. Edwin was eventually killed in battle and Æthelburh returned to Kent, where her brother King Eadbald founded Lyminge Abbey for her retirement. This parallel between Æthelburh and her niece may have led to the erroneous notion that it was Eanswythe who had been courted by a pagan Northumbrian king. The miracle of the lengthening beam, a common folklore motif, was originally attributed to the boy Jesus in the apocryphal gospels and is associated with numerous other saints in medieval legend.

To provide refreshment for the builders, Eanswythe is said to have miraculously diverted a spring and caused it to flow uphill into Folkestone. This is Saint Eanswythe’s Water, which runs into the Bayle Pond. Its uphill flow is really an optical illusion and it was probably dug in the early twelfth century, so the fact that the Life attributes it to a miracle means that at least a generation must have passed between the digging of the watercourse and the writing of the Vita. The motif of drawing water uphill is extremely rare in hagiography, but a similar deed is reported of the Irish saint Modwenna. Her cult enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the early thirteenth century, including at Canterbury, which claimed to possess one of her relics and where her feast-day was observed. Therefore, the legend of Eanswythe’s water is likeliest to have developed at this time.

A flock of geese stripped Eanswythe’s fields of their produce, so she had them shut up in a house overnight. She released them in the morning, but they refused to fly away, for three of Eanswythe’s servants had stolen one of them and eaten it. Eanswythe ordered her servants to produce the bones of the unfortunate goose, from which she was able to resurrect it. This miracle is extremely common, with similar legends being found all over the world, and is mainly reported of female saints.

After her death, Eanswythe was buried in her oratory but, as the oratory became threatened by cliff subsidence, her relics were moved into Saint Peter’s Church. Her tomb became a site of further miracles. A rich man who refused to pay his tithes was driven mad by the Devil and cured only when hauled before Eanswythe’s tomb. Her help was also sought by a man suffering from a skin disease. Eanswythe appeared before him in a vision, washed him and cured him of his affliction.

The Vita ends abruptly here. This is because, regrettably, it does not survive in full but only in an abridged version in the Sanctilogium Angliae, Walliae, Scotiae et Hiberniae, a compendium of saints’ lives written around 1360 by John of Tynemouth.