Wanted: a new home for earliest remains of an English saint
The Church of England is seeking a new home for bones thought to be the “earliest verified remains” of an English saint.
St Eanswythe is the patron saint of Folkestone, Kent, and was a granddaughter of Ethelbert, the first English king to convert to Christianity.
Human remains were discovered in a lead container in 1885 and in 2020 Kent archaeological and history experts, working with Queen's University in Belfast, confirmed that they were almost certainly those of St Eanswythe.
The container currently housing her remains is now no longer suitable, and the Diocese of Canterbury is seeking applications from designers and artists to create a new reliquary for St Eanswythe's remains.
Dr Andrew Richardson of Isle Heritage, a Community Interest Company focusing on archaeology and cultural heritage, said: "Eanswythe will always belong in Folkestone - and she will always be a part of this church, but she needs a new 'home' within that home.
"The lead container in which her relics were found in 1885 is an important artefact in its own right, but it is now very fragile and no longer suitable to house her remains.
"So, we're looking to commission the creation of a new reliquary fit for a Kentish royal saint, one that will protect and preserve these relics for generations to come."
St Eanswythe is believed to have founded one of the earliest monastic communities in England, most likely around the middle of the seventh century on the Bayle, the historic centre of Folkestone.
She is thought to have died in her late teens or early 20s and her relics are from a period at the very beginning of Christianity in England.
Speaking when the remains were verified in 2020, Andrew Richardson, an archaeologist with the Canterbury Archaeological Trust said: "I suspect that her early death at such a young age – 17 to 20, 22 at the most – perhaps just after becoming the founding abbess of one of England's first monastic institutions that included women, plus the fact that she was of the Kentish royal house, beloved by the Church as the first to convert to Christianity, would have easily been enough to get her acclaimed as a saint, perhaps within only a few years of her death."
Her remains might have been destroyed in the Reformation if they had not been hidden away in the north wall of the Church of St Mary and St Eanswythe.
The reliquary needs to be housed in a new containment system, set within the shrine's existing alcove, that ensures the security and long-term stability of the reliquary and relics.
Contemporary designs are encouraged, as are those which draw upon the artistic traditions of seventh-century Kent.
The deadline for expressions of interest is March 1 and the design brief and application form can be requested from Dr Richardson through the Isle Heritage website.
Ethelbert was King of Kent from about 589 until his death in February 616 AD. In the late ninth century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he is referred to as a bretwalda, or "Britain-ruler". He was the first English king to convert to Christianity.