History - Victorian

The Rediscovery of the Relics

by Kevin Harvey

The church of St Mary and St Eanswythe which stands in the Bayle today is very different to the building that the Reverend Matthew Woodward encountered when he first became vicar here in 1851. The general shape of the building was then said to be barn like and following a gale in 1705 was actually smaller than the original footprint. The general fabric of the interior décor was deemed to be unsatisfactory and in 1855 what has been described as the first ‘restoration’ by Woodward was carried out in the chancel area. During work on the north wall of the sanctuary an empty pointed niche was uncovered. This was plastered over and left undisturbed for approximately thirty years until about 1885 when this area received further alterations.

By 1885 the interior of the church was much altered and also much admired by the congregation and visitors. The adornments and alterations Woodward had completed made the church of St Mary and St Eanswythe a Victorian showpiece but he still had plans for further work. For the preceding three years Woodward had been raising funds for an ambitious project to transform the sanctuary in the chancel. The plans involved lining the walls with alabaster arcading. This brought him into conflict with Lord Radnor who tried to halt the work. However, Woodward pressed ahead and was vindicated in his ambition to improve the church when the north wall of the sanctuary was being prepared to accept the alabaster arcading. Foundations to support the arcading were being added to the wall when workmen noted that the masonry had appeared to have moved at some point. This led them to discover a cavity beneath the location of the pointed niche which had been rediscovered thirty years before. The cavity was not empty though as it contained a surprising object, a decorated lead casket containing human bones.

There are two accounts describing the rediscovery of the lead casket, Woodward’s and the foreman of the workmen. Woodward himself was not in the church at the time but in the vicarage next door. His account appears to indicate that whoever placed the casket in the cavity did so with great reverence and respect whereas the foreman of the workmen’s account paints a different image. He states that the casket was found amidst rubble within the cavity as if it had been hurriedly placed there. Whatever the truth may be the bones within the casket were soon identified to be those of a young woman which led the Reverend Woodward to proclaim via letters to the Times newspaper that these were indeed the remains of St. Eanswythe.

Matthew Woodward: the discovery of the relics and modern iconography

by Judy Doherty and Eamonn Rooney

Matthew Woodward became Vicar of Folkestone in 1851 at the age of 26. Much has been written about this man; his vision and his character, most notably by Tony Shepherd[1]. As a churchman, Woodward had shifted his allegiance from low church practice towards the tenets of the Oxford Movement; espousing a more sacramental and, to some, a more catholic, approach to liturgy and ministry. He is said to have regarded St. Mary and St. Eanswythe church, on his arrival, as “like a barn” following storm damage to the fabric in 1705 and subsequent poor-quality restoration. He set about raising money to improve the church in line with the tastes and liturgical leanings of the Anglo-Catholic movement. He was clearly a persuasive fund-raiser and chancel furnishings, glass, tiles and frescoes by some of the best-known artists and craftsmen of the period can be seen at the church. In the main they reverence and complement the medieval stonework.

By 1885 the work was well underway, in spite of some disagreements between Woodward and Lord Radnor who, as Lay Rector, was liable for the costs of any restoration or repair to the chancel of the church. Woodward is known to have commenced work on the installation of the alabaster arcading in the chancel without Radnor’s agreement. Lawyers intervened and threatened to apply for revocation of the faculty. Woodward persisted, claiming that the works were further advanced than in reality. It appears that Woodward survived this skirmish and the work proceeded.

In June 1885, apparently on the same day that Woodward wrote to Radnor’s solicitors to say the work was all but complete, the workmen, while setting foundations to support the alabaster in the North wall of the chancel, discovered a small cavity containing an oddly shaped lead casket appearing to be of some antiquity. The casket was found to contain bones, apparently human, including thigh bones, parts of a skull and limbs and a well-preserved tooth.

Woodward wasted no time and within the week had written to The Times to declare that these were the bones of “..St. Eanswide or St. Eanswith as she is now called…” and by August that year, the story was reported in the New York Times.

Canon Scott Robertson was asked to make an assessment of the relics and his findings were published in the Archaeologia Cantiana in 1886[2]. His report describes the position of the cavity within the north wall of the Early English (13th Century) chancel. Immediately to the east of the double-doored aumbry (cupboard for storage of sacramental objects), is a small niche within an acutely pointed arch. On removing the plaster, workman had found a much larger space, some 4 feet long, which Robertson thought to be a founder’s tomb. Being without effigy, but with a flat slab in the base, Robertson thought this would most probably have been used as a support for an Easter Sepulchre i.e. used to support an occasional, probably wooden structure during the pre-Reformation Easter Triduum liturgy. It was beneath this large slab that the masons had found the casket containing bones.

Because of similarities to other artefacts, the casket was thought by Robertson to date from the late 11th century. The lid, which was ill-fitting, he considered to be of possible Roman origin and possibly to have come from a Roman coffin.

Robertson made a careful inventory of the bones, which he considered to have come from a young woman. Although many of the remains were in small fragments and there was much dust, he found among the material a jawbone with two teeth fixed along with three other teeth, parts of a skull and bones from limbs, ribs and digits. He also described a deep purple hue on the surface of the bones and the formation of small crystals which gave a sparkling effect.

Mindful of the requirement to preserve the find, Robertson commends Woodward for having taken immediate steps to safeguard the relics. “The reliquary and all its contents have been most carefully guarded and preserved by the Rev. Matthew Woodward, Vicar of Folkestone, who at once caused a large glass-case to be made and placed over the whole; nor would he suffer the bones to be disturbed until the Secretary of the Kent Archaeological Society came to examine them.” Because of the dedication of the church and because of the high status position in which the bones were uncovered, Robertson agreed with Woodward that “naturally it at once occurs to us that the bones in the reliquary may be those of the royal lady of saintly fame, whom Folkestone has ever delighted to honour.”

It would appear that the glass-case served a two-fold purpose both preserving the bones and allowing visitors and pilgrims to view the relics. Against a background of fierce opposition in some quarters to growing ritualism within the Church, Woodward had continued to promote high church practices and included opportunities for veneration of the relics; opportunities which excited both approval from supporters and admonition from his critics. While the relics were kept in the niche in which they were found, now lined with alabaster, a brass grille allowed the reliquary to be viewed and, as late as just a few months before his death, he was known to have brought the reliquary up to the altar and invited his congregation to act in a reverent manner before them.

Woodward undoubtedly did much to re-ignite devotion to and interest in Eanswythe within the town. It seems that her reputation had always always been highly localised: only one other church of any antiquity is dedicated to her and that lies not far away in the Romney Marsh at Brenzett.


[1] Woodward of Folkestone. Victorian at War with His Time; Tony Shepherd 2011

[2] St. Eanswith’s Reliquary in Folkestone Church; Canon Scott Robertson, Arch. Cant. Vol. 16 1886