Eanswythe of Folkestone
Our venerable Mother Eanswythe of Folkestone, also Eanswith of Kent, was the Abbess of Folkestone. The daughter of King Eadbald of Kent, she established the first monastery for women in England. She is commemorated on August 31.
Eanswythe was born around 614 in an Anglo-Saxon England that was largely pagan. She was the only daughter of King Eadbald of Kent and his wife Emma, who was a Frankish princess. At the time of Eanswythe's birth, her father was probably a pagan, while her mother was almost certainly a Christian. Thus, it is highly likely that Eanswythe was baptized and raised as a Christian. When she was two years old, her paternal grandfather, King Ethelbert of Kent, died. Ethelbert, who later would be remembered as a saint, had been baptized at St. Martin's Church in Canterbury by St. Augustine of Canterbury.
Eanswythe's father, King Eadbald offered no opposition to Christianity while his father was alive. However, after St. Ethelbert died, Eadbald's attitude changed. Not only did he embrace idolatry, he also married his father's second wife . While this practice was prohibited by Church law, it was then quite common among the pagan royalty. Also at that time, King Sabert of the East Saxons (and a convert to Christianity) passed away leaving his realm to his three sons who were pagans. Thus, pagan idolatry returned to the territory of southeast England.
With the return of paganism, the missionary monks, including Laurence of Canterbury, who had carried out their work under the protection of King Ethelbert, came to despair and made plans to return to Gaul. The night before he was to leave Canterbury, Laurence decided to sleep in the church of Ss. Peter and Paul. St. Peter appeared to him and rebuked him for even thinking of leaving his flock. After his confrontation with St. Peter, Laurence remained with his flock and even converted King Eadbald, Eanswythe's father. King Eadbald then ended his unlawful marriage and was baptized.
From her childhood, Eanswythe showed little interest in worldly pursuits, for she desired to dedicate her virginity to God and to serve Him as a nun. Her father, on the other hand, wanted her to marry. Eanswythe told him that she would not have any earthly suitor whose love for her might also be mixed with dislike. The young princess told her father that she had chosen an immortal Bridegroom Who would give her unceasing love and joy, and to Whom she had dedicated herself. She went on to say that she had chosen the good portion (Luke 10:42), and she asked her father to build her a cell where she might pray.
Eadbald ultimately gave in to his daughter, and built her a monastery in Folkestone in Kent. While the monastery was under construction, a pagan prince came to Kent seeking to marry Eanswythe. King Eadbald, whose sister Ethelburga married the pagan King Edwin a few years before, recalled that this wedding resulted in Edwin's conversion. Perhaps he hoped that something similar would happen if Eanswythe married the Northumbrian prince. Eanswythe, however, insisted that she would not exchange heavenly blessings for the things of this world, nor would she accept the fleeting joys of this life in place of eternal bliss.
The construction of the monastery at Folkestone was completed about the year 630. This was the first women's monastery to be founded in England. Eanswythe lived there with her companions in the monastic life, and they may have been guided by some of the Roman monks who had come to England with St. Augustine in 597. As she was only sixteen years old at the time, Eanswythe was not made the abbess initially. While the abbesses before Eanswythe are not known, there may have been a few experienced nuns from Europe who taught the others the monastic way of life with a temporary Superior appointed until the nuns were able to elect their own abbess.
There are many stories of St. Eanswythe's miracles before and after her death. Among other things, she gave sight to a blind man, and cast out a demon from one who had been possessed.
Following the monastic Rule, Eanswythe prayed to God day and night. When she was not in church, she spent her waking hours reading spiritual books and in manual labor. This may have consisted of copying and binding manuscripts. The nuns probably wove cloth for their clothing and church vestments. In addition to the daily routine of cooking and cleaning, they cared for the sick and aged nuns of their own community, as well as the poor and infirm from outside.
According to Tradition, St. Eanswythe fell asleep in the Lord on the last day of August 640 when she was only in her mid-twenties. Her father King Eadbald also died in the same year.
The monastery at Folkestone did not last very long after St. Eanswythe's death. Some say it was destroyed by the sea, while others say it was sacked by the Danes in 867. St. Eanswythe's holy ]]relics]] were moved to the nearby church of Ss. Peter and Paul, which was farther away from the sea. In 927 King Athelstan granted the land where the monastery had stood to the monks of Christchurch, Canterbury.
In 1138, a new monastery and church, dedicated to Ss. Mary and Eanswythe, were built farther inland. The relics of St. Eanswythe were transferred again, this time from the church of Ss. Peter and Paul to the new priory church. During the Middle Ages, this second transfer of her relics was celebrated on September 12, which is the present Feast Day of the Church of St Mary and St Eanswythe.
On November 15, 1535, the priory was seized by the officers of the King, who plundered the church of its valuables. While the shrine of St. Eanswythe was destroyed, her relics had been hidden to protect them.
On June 17, 1885, workmen in the church discovered a niche in the walls which had been plastered up. Removing the plaster, they found a reliquary made of lead, about fourteen inches long, nine inches wide, and eight inches high. Judging by the ornamentation on the reliquary, it dated from the twelfth century. A number of bones were found inside, which experts said were those of a young woman. Today the niche is lined with alabaster, and is covered by a brass door and a grille.
At first, the holy relics were brought out for veneration every year on the parish Feast Day. This practice ended when several parishioners accused the Vicar of "worshiping" the relics. Although St. Eanswythe's relics are no longer offered for public veneration, candles, and flowers are sometimes placed before the brass door where they are immured.
An icon of St. Eanswythe has presented the parish of Ss. Mary and Eanswythe by an Orthodox iconographer.
- Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English PeopleBook 2, ch. 1