Saint Eanswythe was born around 614, 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. Therefore, 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 (February 25) died. St Ethelbert had been baptized at St Martin’s church in Canterbury by St Augustine of Canterbury (May 28). It was St Augustine who came to England in 597 with several monks in order to re-establish Christianity, which had almost been wiped out by the pagan Anglo-Saxons. These monks carried out their missionary work under the protection of King Ethelbert.
Eanswythe’s father King Eadbald offered no opposition to Christianity while his father was alive. When St Ethelbert died, however, Eadbald’s attitude changed. Not only did he embrace idolatry, he also married his father’s second wife (Bede, ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH PEOPLE Book 2, ch. 1). While this practice was prohibited by Church law, it was quite common among the pagan royalty.
About this time, King Sabert of the East Saxons (and a convert to Christianity) passed away. His three sons were pagans, and so idolatry returned to that territory as well.
St Laurence of Canterbury (February 3), St Mellitus of London (April 24), and St Justus of Rochester (November 10) held a council to determine what they should do. They decided that they should not waste their time among the pagans, and to go where people would be more receptive to their preaching. Appalled by the King’s behavior and by the rise of paganism, Sts Mellitus and Justus went to Gaul.
The night before he was to leave Canterbury, St Laurence decided to sleep in the church of Sts Peter and Paul. St Peter appeared to him and rebuked him for even thinking of leaving his flock. He also beat St Laurence, who remained with his flock and even converted King Eadbald.
The king ended his unlawful marriage and was baptized. Within a year, St Justus returned to Rochester. The people of London, who lived in the realm of the East Saxons, refused to accept St Mellitus back to his See. Following the death of St Laurence in 619, St Mellitus succeeded him as Archbishop of Canterbury.
From her childhood, St 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. St Eanswythe told him that she would not have any earthly suitor whose love for her might also be mixed with dislike. There was a high rate of mortality for children in those days, so she knew it was likely that at least some of hers would also die. All of these sorrows awaited her if she obeyed her father. 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.
The king 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 St Ethelburga (April 5) married the pagan King Edwin (October 12) two or three 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.
Around the year 630, the building of the monastery was completed. This was the first women’s monastery to be founded in England. St 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.
St Eanswythe was not made abbess at this time, for she was only sixteen years old. We do not know of any other abbess before St Eanswythe, but a few experienced nuns may have been sent from Europe to teach the others the monastic way of life. A temporary Superior could have been 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.
We know few details about the rest of St Eanswythe’s life. Following the monastic Rule, she 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 also for church vestments. They cared for the sick and aged nuns of their own community, as well as for the poor and infirm from outside. Then there was the daily routine of cooking and cleaning.
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 the saint’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 Sts 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.
As time passed, the sea continued to encroach on the land. In 1138 a new monastery and church, dedicated to St Mary and St Eanswythe, were built farther inland. The relics of St Eanswythe were transferred once again, this time from the church of Sts 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. The shrine of St Eanswythe was destroyed, but 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 Orthodox iconographer has presented the parish of St Mary and St Eanswythe with an icon of the saint.