History - Reformation

The Reformation

by Lesley Hardy

The church in Folkestone at the time of the English Reformation was flourishing and we can only imagine how colourful and richly decorated the interior of the church would have looked then, with a number of altars and shrines and many statues and wall paintings.  Stepping inside a visitor would have been met with the smell of incense, the colour of light through stained glass and the flickering light of numerous candles and tapers.

Surviving documents, such as churchwardens’ accounts, parochial accounts and wills, show that local people, as individuals, families and guilds, spent money enlarging and enriching their parish church both as a sign of their faith and also to enhance and secure their status within the community.  The construction of the grand central tower and the octagonal font, (now housed at the rear of the church) are just two surviving signs of such work and church records also include gifts such as coloured glass and a beam, likely gilded or painted, which was raised behind the high altar perhaps to support statues of saints or lights. Local piety was also expressed in the purchase of richer vestments, altar cloths, vessels and decorated prayer books.  In Folkestone, as elsewhere, numerous ‘Lights’ made of good quality wax, were set up before the shrines and altars of the saints and kept alight as a sign of devotion, almost in proxy on behalf of someone who had died, and in hopes of securing intercession for their souls.

Such lights we know shone in front of St Eanswythe’s shrine but beyond this we know little for certain about how the Saint was venerated. It is possible that Eanswythe’s relics were placed within a stone altar tomb, such as that of St Wite of Dorset whose tomb survived the Reformation. This may have been located behind the present High Altar but recent research suggests that it is more likely to have been in the North wall of the chancel close to where the relics were found in 1885.   Such a shrine would have allowed pilgrims to access the relics through openings into which hands or personal belongings could be placed. Remarkably accounts suggest that at least some smaller parts of Eanswythe’s bones were housed in a ‘head reliquary’, a container shaped like a head, made from precious metals and probably jewelled, which would have contained fragments of the saint’s skull or other bones.

Other sources present a more troubled picture of church life in Folkestone before the Reformation. This was a time of acrimonious relationships between civic leaders and the Priory[1]. On a New Year’s Day (in either 1432 or 1433) Prior John Ashforde was dragged from the altar, whilst celebrating mass, by angry townspeople who threatened to throw him over the edge of the cliff! Later, in the 1460s, a further dispute arose about control of the Priory and accusations of lax management, absenteeism and debt were made against the Prior, Thomas Banes, by Lord Clinton the secular patron of the church. The underlying reasons for these disputes may well lie in issues of income, accountability and authority which rankled and created tensions between the leaders of the growing town and the dwindling priory.

It was against this background that in 1534 Henry VIII announced the Act of Supremacy making himself head of the church of England setting in motion the cataclysmic events of the Dissolution.  Among the laws and proclamations of the time were those outlawing the veneration of relics and authorising the ‘visitation’ of religious houses by commissioners, agents of the crown, whose aim was to investigate and report back on any signs of corruption or malpractice and to seize ‘absurd’ images, relics and shrines. One of these commissioners, Richard Layton, visited East Kent in October 1535, notoriously reporting back from Folkestone that the Priory was in ‘utter decay’ and that the Prior, himself guilty of apostasy and sexual misconduct, and a single elderly monk remained. A starkly different account however was given in a subsequent visit by ‘Commissioners to Kent’ which reported back to Thomas Cromwell that although ‘littill’ the Priory was ‘well repayred’ and the Prior much loved by his neighbours. From this distance it is hard to judge which of these accounts best reflects the reality of Folkestone Priory, but it was clearly in a much-reduced condition. With Layton’s accusations and in an atmosphere of hostile scrutiny the Prior decided to surrender the Priory to the crown before this was required by the Act of Dissolution for the Lesser Monasteries which was passed by Parliament some months later.

What follows is shocking to read. Churchwardens’ accounts are a formally sparse and selective account but even so, reading between the lines of these entries, we see a process of systematic destruction, in Eamon Duffy’s memorable phrase ‘a stripping of the altars’[2] .The changes that took place would play out over the following century and the reigns of different monarchs in a series of protracted and complex reforms and changes to the life, culture and identity of the church and in turn the place of the church and the cult of saints such as Eanswythe within the community.

One fascinating insight from the records concerns the various efforts of the Mayor and parishioners to value and sell the ‘juelles of the church’ a process which began in 1536/7 and continued the following year when there is an intriguing reference to show that the Mayor and others pleaded with Master Anthony Aucher to be ‘good to the parish for Eanswythe’s Head’. As already noted ‘Eanswythe’s Head’ was almost certainly a costly head reliquary and it is no coincidence that they were taken to Aucher, a Kentish gentleman who had enriched himself as a valuer and receiver of precious jewels and other items that during these years were being torn from sacred objects, such as books and reliquaries, sold off or melted down.

In 1547 Henry VIII died and his young son Edward VI became King; during his reign even more severe changes were required in churches across the land. Reformers were determined to break the centuries-long habit of reverence for saints as protectors, patrons and intercessors. In Folkestone the records of 1550 record the ‘whyte lyming’ or whitewashing of inside of the church. This practice of covering over the vibrant pictures on church walls was both ideological and aesthetic; the paintings themselves conveyed religious messages which the Reformers found unacceptable and there was also a likely association between the complexity and richness of the old catholic church and the plain simplicity of the new[3].

In the same year the breaking down of altars began and in Folkestone the large sum of 40 shillings to John Godden for ‘breaking downe the auter [altar] in the cherche’ was paid. Rather interestingly however a second entry mentions payment for ‘setting up sainte Enswithe”. It is not clear what this refers to but it would seem unusual for a local saint to be publicly celebrated when by this time saints of all sorts were under attack.

One last important footnote to this story of Eanswythe and the destruction of her cult concerns a site away from the church, a chapel dedicated to the saint which was located at the foot of the Downs, close to the source of the spring that became St Eanswythe’s water, a place connected to Eanswythe’s miracle story. Given its location the chapel may also have been a stopping off point for pilgrims along the North Downs Way. Almost nothing is now  known of this chapel and its precise location remains lost. One of the few records of it that survives is that of its destruction in the Folkestone municipal accounts which noted that in 1546, the year before Henry’s death, four men were paid for a day’s work for ‘plucking down the chapel late of St Eanswith. This work completed, the chapel was so completely destroyed that it appears only in fragmentary form in the records and its memory was lost for many years until reference to it was found by two local antiquarians in the nineteenth century. The lost chapel is just one singular symbol of the rich history, stretching over centuries, that connected Eanswythe to Folkestone; lost at the time of the Reformation only to be re-discovered.

[1] C. Harper-Bill, The Priory and Parish of Folkestone in the Fifteenth Century’,  Archaeologia Cantiana, vol 93, 1977

[2] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, (Yale: Yale University Press) 1992

[3] Victoria George, Whitewash and the New Aesthetic of the Protestant Reformation, London: Pindar Press, 2013