Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

On 25 September 1066 a battle was fought which is sometimes said to mark the end of the Viking Age. It's not always wise to fix firm end dates for historical periods, but the death of Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, on a Yorkshire battlefield in 1066 did mark the end of one phase in England's relationship with the Scandinavian world, and set the stage for Harold Godwineson's defeat at Hastings three weeks later. I'm interested at the moment in the medieval legends and stories which accrued round England's two eleventh-century conquests, the Danish and the Norman, but today reminds us of a third which never happened: the Norwegian Conquest, stopped before it began by Harald's defeat at Stamford Bridge. So this is not a post about the history of the battle (for which you would be better off reading other sources), but about one later retelling of it. The story is in many ways unhistorical, but it brings this fascinating event to life.

Like the Battle of Hastings, Stamford Bridge attracted many legends, in English as well as Scandinavian tradition. Perhaps the most famous is one told by several twelfth-century English historians, here by Henry of Huntingdon:

A battle began that was more arduous than any that had gone before. They engaged at dawn and after fearful assaults on both sides they continued steadfastly until midday, the English superiority in numbers forcing the Norwegians to give way but not to flee. Driven back beyond the river, the living crossing over the dead, they resisted stoutheartedly. A single Norwegian, worthy of eternal fame, resisted on the bridge, and felling more than forty Englishmen with his trusty axe, he alone held up the entire English army until three o'clock in the afternoon. At length someone came up in a boat and through the openings of the bridge struck him in the private parts with a spear. So the English crossed, and killed King Harald and Tostig, and laid low the whole Norwegian line.

Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 387-9.

One reason to regret that Stamford Bridge doesn't feature on the Bayeux Tapestry is that we don't get to see what it would have made of this scene!

Apart from the heroic Norwegian warrior, the events of Stamford Bridge were largely overshadowed in English history by Hastings, but Scandinavian traditions about the battle, in poetry and prose, are much fuller and more varied. There are too many to cover in a blog post, so today I want to post about just one story which appears in an Old Norse text called Hemings þáttr. Hemings þáttr was probably written in thirteenth-century Iceland, but draws in part on earlier histories of the Norwegian kings, on folktale, and ultimately on oral tradition, possibly English as well as Scandinavian. I posted an extract from this text about Hastings (and the legend of Harold Godwineson's survival) three years ago, but the section which describes Stamford Bridge is, if anything, even better. What we're dealing with here is really historical fiction of a particularly interesting kind: the anonymous author, though separated from the events he describes by several centuries and many miles, had an excellent grasp of what made the situation in 1066 so tense and dramatic. All the elements are there: the loose cannon Tostig Godwineson, driven by jealousy of his brother into an uneasy alliance with a Norwegian king, who follows his advice but actually despises him; the king of Denmark, weighing possibilities and chances; the king of England, briefly a heroic victor but soon to become a victim. The story is much less about politics and battles than it is about relationships between men: between brothers (Harold and Tostig, Harald and his dead brother St Olaf), between cousins (Svein, king of Denmark, and his cousins Harold and Tostig), between kings and their advisers, between friends and fellow-warriors.

Most of all it's just a great read, so let me introduce you to some of my favourite parts. I'll have to summarise in places because it's fairly long, but if you want to read a translation of the whole thing one can be found in the splendidly-named Icelandic Sagas and other Historical Documents relating to the Settlement and Descents of the Northmen on the British Isles, ed. G. W. Dasent (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1894), vol. III, pp. 374-415. (ETA, 2016: and a new translation is now available from the VSNR here)

The Battle of Stamford Bridge, in a 13th-century manuscript (CUL MS Ee.3.59, f.32v)

The saga begins in Norway with the adventures of the titular character, Heming, who (like many a hero of Icelandic saga) does not get on with the Norwegian king, and finds it wise to leave the country. He goes to England, where he becomes acquainted with the leading figures of the English court: King Edward the Confessor and his powerful brothers-in-law, the sons of Earl Godwine. Heming becomes close to Harold, the eldest son, and trains him in various military exploits so well that everyone wonders where he can possibly have learned such amazing skills. (A touch of Scandinavian pride - a Norwegian education is clearly better than an English one!) We are told that Harold is very popular, a paragon of courtesy and of martial virtues, and Heming's loyalty to Harold positions us firmly on his side.

His brother Tostig, by contrast, is "a big strong man, and a man of many words; he had few friends". We've got a classic pair of saga brothers here: the elder handsome, popular, physically strong, a much-loved son and heir; the younger clever, jealous, sarcastic, untrustworthy - but not unsympathetic. (It's not wrong to be picturing The Avengers' Thor and Loki, is it? The story parallels are pretty close, which I guess makes Harald Hardrada some kind of invading alien monster...) The saga includes a little story about Harold and Tostig's childhood to show us the characters of the two brothers: King Edward comes to visit their family home, bringing with him a precious spear. Harold badly wants the spear, but does not ask the king for it. But Tostig, wanting what his brother wants, and prepared to ask for it, makes a wooden spear for himself and shows it to King Edward, which induces the king to give him the real spear. Edward reads his character in this, and tells him forebodingly "You will never lack greed when you see others more powerful than yourself." The king's prophecy, the story shows us, comes true.

Harold on the Bayeux Tapestry

When Edward dies, and Harold Godwineson becomes king of England, his brother is bitterly jealous. As earl of Northumbria, he already rules a third of England (a þriðjungr, the saga calls it, the word from which we get Yorkshire's 'Ridings') - but Tostig isn't satisfied, and wants the whole thing. He goes to Denmark, where his cousin Svein Estrithson is king, and cunningly asks him whether he doesn't think he (Svein) has a claim to rule England, since it had once been ruled by his uncle and predecessor, Cnut. Svein replies, "I won't hide that I did once think so; but it seems to me that things have turned out well, since my kinsman Harold is ruling there, my cousin on the mother's side." (Harold's mother was the sister of Svein's father). But wily Tostig reminds him that a third of the land already belongs to him, and he is well-placed to win the whole country for Svein. Svein is tempted, but eventually decides that if he tries to overreach himself by invading England, he might lose Denmark too. So he refuses, but tells Tostig to go to Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, and Svein's own bitter enemy.

(Some context for this, because it's crucial to understand the difference between Denmark's relationship with England and Norway's. Svein Estrithson had very close ties to England: he was probably born there, and may have spent some of his youth there. For the first twenty years of his life England and Denmark were ruled, together, by his family, and even after the return of Edward the Confessor meant that Denmark lost control of England, Svein's family were at the heart of the Anglo-Danish aristocracy; his two brothers lived and held earldoms in England, associated closely with their cousins, the Godwinesons. It may perhaps be true that Svein was asked and refused to take part in Tostig's rebellion (that is, he decided not to side with one of his cousins against another). We can't know exactly why - although it was, as things turned out, very prudent - but in Svein's eyes Harold Godwineson ruling England was perhaps a pretty good state of affairs. Svein didn't intervene in English matters until after the Norman Conquest, when the Godwinesons had not only lost control of England but had been effectively wiped out; and then his intervention was on the anti-Norman side, in support of English rebels. With Norway the situation was entirely different: Harald Hardrada had no ties to England, personal or political, and was free to try his luck against a country which seemed ripe for conquest. This is why it's irritating when (as quite often happens) popular accounts of these events claim the Anglo-Saxons fought the Danes at Stamford Bridge. This might not seem like a big mistake, but it is! Not all Vikings are the same. OK, back to the story.)

Anyway, having been unsuccessful with Svein, Tostig goes on to Norway. Even Harald, the most formidable of Viking rulers, is uncertain about Tostig's invasion plan, but he promises to give it some thought and is eventually argued into consenting. Almost before he has done so, the bad omens start: Harald's men have threatening dreams, sailors report mysterious fires at sea and blood pouring out of the sky, a ghost rises up from a graveyard to prophesy that the king will fall. Worst of all, before setting sail, Harald has a vision of St Olaf, his martyred half-brother, who angrily chastises him for what he is about to do. Harald is shaken and Tostig, the "man of many words", has to talk him round, telling him it's just some "English witchcraft" trying to frighten him. But the signs could not be clearer that this invasion will not end well.

By the time they reach the English coast, the relationship between the king and his English egger-on is strained. When they land at Cleveland, they have a tense conversation which is my favourite moment in the narrative:

The king asked Tostig, "What is the name of the hill which is along the land to the north?"

Tostig said, "Not every hill is given a name."

The king said, "But this one has a name, and you're going to tell me what it is."

Tostig said, "That's the burial-mound of Ivar the Boneless."

The king replied, "Few who have landed in England near this mound have been victorious."

Tostig said, "It’s just superstition to believe such things now."

Ivar, son of Ragnar Lothbrok, was one of the most famous Vikings to invade England, and the context for this superstition about his burial-mound is explained in Ragnars saga:
When Ivar lay in his last illness, he said that he should be carried to the place where armies came to harry, and he said he thought they should not have the victory when they came to the land. And when he died, it was done as he had said, and he was laid in the burial-mound. And many people say that when King Harald Hardrada came to England, he landed at the place where Ivar was, and he died on that expedition. And when William the Bastard came to the land, he went to the place and opened Ivar’s mound and saw Ivar, undecayed. Then he had a great fire made and had Ivar burned in the flames. After that he fought battles across the country and won the victory.

The difference between the two invaders of 1066 is shown by how they react to Ivar's burial-mound: William is prepared to risk the wrath of the great Viking by burning his bones, but Harald, already convinced he is doomed to die on this expedition, accepts the bad omen as his fate. Tostig's attempt to fob him off with 'not every hill is given a name' (how do you read the tone - impatient, wheedling, matter-of-fact?) is such a great bit of characterisation.

(It only spoils the legend a tiny bit to know that Ivar the Boneless may actually have been buried at Repton in Derbyshire, which is about as far away from the coast as you can get...)

Harald and Tostig win their first battle on English soil, at Fulford, and there's a fantastic subplot involving Waltheof which is sadly too complicated to go into here. The city of York submits to them, and they raid and harry the land all around. But Harald by this time does not trust Tostig at all, and does not listen when Tostig finally gives him wise advice, not to take his men to York in less than full armour. "You can't trust the English if they get their hands on you," Tostig tells him, but Harald won't heed.

That same night, Harold Godwineson came with a huge army from the south of England to York, and there learned the latest news about the Norwegians. And as soon as the people of the city knew that the king had arrived, they broke their promises to the Norwegians and joined Harold's army.

In the morning, Harold took his army down to Stoneford Bridge, which is now called Stamford, and the two armies were ranged against each other. King Harald said, "What's that in the distance - a whirlwind, or the dust of horsemen?"

"The dust of horsemen, for sure," said Tostig, "and now you'll see how trustworthy my countrymen are!"

(I do love sarcastic Tostig.) The two armies draw up their ranks, but there's one last attempt at a peace-settlement:

Three men rode up to the Norwegian army and asked to talk to Earl Tostig. One of them, the one who spoke, was not a big man, slender, and the most courteous of men; he had a golden helmet and a red shield, with a hawk drawn on it in gold... Tostig told him to say what he wanted.

The rider said, "Harold, your brother, sends you God's greeting, and offers you a settlement."

Tostig said, "What's he offering me now more than before?"

The rider said, "He intends to offer you less, after all that's been done."

"We won't amend that with money," said Tostig, "but what is it he's offering?"

The rider said, "He offers you a fifth part of England, and will take no atonement for his brother [who, in this story, was killed at Fulford], but the damage you have done to the land will have to be paid for."

"I won't accept that," Tostig said.

The rider replied, "I will not conceal what he said should be offered to you at the last: that he would rather give you half of England, and the name of king, rather than that the two of you should fight a battle."

"What will he offer Harald, king of Norway?"

"Since he was not content with his own kingdom," said the rider, "I'll give him six feet of English ground - a little more, perhaps, since he's a tall man. But nothing more than that, since I don't care about him."

Tostig said, "These offers have been made too late. I've often heard the Norwegians say that if a good offer was made to me I'd abandon them at once - but that won't happen."

The rider said, "Then the king bade me tell you, the blame will be on your own head."

And they rode away.

While they were talking, King Harald was riding around on a black horse and telling the army how they should arrange themselves. Just then the horse stumbled under the king, three times. The king cried out, "Why is this happening, Olaf my brother?"

Tostig laughed and said, "You think King Olaf made your horse stumble?"

Harald said, "I won't have anyone to thank but you, if Olaf has turned against me." He got off his horse and went to stand with the army. He said to Tostig, "Who was that rider who was talking to you?"

Tostig said, "King Harold, my brother."

"Why didn't you say so before?" the king asked.

Tostig said, "I wouldn't betray him, when he rode here trusting in my good faith."

"He is a courteous man," said the king, "and manly, and he stands well in his stirrups; but he will not rule his land long."

That's the wisdom of a doomed man. Tostig's behaviour throughout this scene is brilliantly sketched: he knows that the messenger is his brother Harold, but goes along with the pretence that he's not, so as not to endanger Harold in the midst of his enemies; tempted by Harold's last desperate offer, he still won't accept it unless something is given to King Harald too; knowing full well that the Norwegians don't trust him, he is faithful to them at the last, even as he and Harald are now openly hostile to each other. And the 'six feet of English ground'! Wonderful.

Battle is joined, and now Heming (remember him?) comes to the fore again. He's a good archer - Norway's William Tell - and Harold Godwineson tells him to shoot the Norwegian king, since no one else can pick him out. Heming is afraid of incurring the wrath of St Olaf, but nonetheless he shoots an arrow which leaves a cut in Harald's face, so that the English king knows which one he is; and then Harold Godwineson shoots Harald Hardrada in the throat. As he is dying, Harald tells Tostig to take the offer that his brother made to him; "but as for me, I will take that portion of the realm which was offered to me this morning." And he dies.

Tostig picks up the Norwegian banner, and continues to fight. Heming asks Harold why he doesn't shoot him, and Harold says "I won't be the cause of my brother's death." Then Heming asks to be allowed to shoot him instead. "I will not take revenge for any harm that is done to him," says Harold. And so Heming shoots Tostig through the eye, and he is killed. The English - aided by a Norwegian sharp-shooter - have won the battle.

Afterwards, King Harold has the bodies of the dead, English and Norwegians alike, decently buried in church. Then he rides south (via Waltham Abbey, another English story says) - to his own death.

The death of Harold Godwineson (via Wikipedia)

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

An Equinox Miracle

An unusual miracle recorded in Eadmer of Canterbury's Life of St Dunstan, written in the early years of the twelfth century:

[Dunstan], while setting up his hospices at suitable intervals in his villages which were far afield from Canterbury, built a wooden church at Mayfield, just as he had in the locations of his other hospices. And while he was dedicating it and walking around it according to ritual he noticed that it was not aligned with the rising of the sun at the equinox; it is related that while passing near it he pushed it slightly with his shoulder and immediately changed it from its former orientation into direct alignment with the East where he wanted it. No one doubts that he could do this easily unless there exists someone who doubts the words of Christ our Lord in which he promises to those who have faith like a mustard seed that they can move even a mountain with their words.

Eadmer of Canterbury, Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald, ed. and trans. Andrew J. Turner and Bernard J. Muir (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), pp.124-5. The place named may be Mayfield in East Sussex. The editors note:

The reference in this episode to the correct orientation of a church is very rare in the literature of the period, if not unique, although the archaeological record shows that Norman builders were usually concerned to obtain correct orientation, and that rebuilt Anglo-Norman churches were often aligned closer to true East-West than their predecessors.

This incident may, therefore, reflect the interests of Eadmer's time more than of Dunstan's; but it's an interesting curiosity, all the same.

A diagram drawn in the second quarter of the twelfth century at Peterborough Abbey (BL Harley 3667, f. 8), showing the correspondences between the four seasons, months, equinoxes, solstices, astrological signs, twelve winds, and four ages of man. Like Eadmer's Life of Dunstan, this diagram shows the twelfth century looking back to the Anglo-Saxon world: the diagram was devised in c.1011 by Byrhtferth of Ramsey, perhaps the best scientist Anglo-Saxon England ever produced, in his Enchiridion.

Friday, 12 September 2014

St Eanswythe of Folkestone


Today is the feast of one of Kent's more obscure Anglo-Saxon saints, Eanswythe of Folkestone. We know very little about Eanswythe, but the two things we do know about her are interesting: she was the granddaughter of Ethelbert, Kent's first Christian king, and she is said to have been the first woman in England to head a religious community. Her father King Eadbald supposedly founded an abbey for her around the year 630 at Folkestone, on the south coast of Kent, some thirty years after Ethelbert was baptised by Augustine of Canterbury.

The records of Eanswythe's life are so scanty that we can't be sure whether the distinction of 'first English abbess' belongs to her or to her aunt Æthelburh (Ethelburga) who is said by Anglo-Saxon sources to have founded a community at nearby Lyminge, a little way inland from Folkestone, shortly after 633. (Some scholars say both dates are implausibly early for the foundation of a religious community of women in England, but the tradition is interesting in itself.) I wrote about Ethelburga and Lyminge here. We have a lot of information about her because she was married to Edwin, king of Northumbria, and therefore plays an important role in Bede's narrative of Edwin's conversion. If there had been a southern Bede, we might have known more about Eanswythe of Folkestone. However, let's have a look at what evidence we do have for her life, and then at some pictures of the church at Folkestone which preserves Eanswythe's memory - and not only her memory, but, perhaps, the relics of the saint herself.

Eanswythe was one of a number of royal women involved with the foundation of Christian communities in this period: besides Lyminge and Folkestone, abbeys were established at Ely, Barking, Repton, Whitby, Coldingham, Wenlock, Minster-in-Thanet, Minster-in-Sheppey, and more, all founded before the end of the seventh century and closely associated with a particular female patron. Royal abbesses are perhaps the most prominent 'type' of native saint, male or female, in the early Christian history of southern England, and the abbeys they led formed a closely-linked network of secular and spiritual power. In Kent, in successive generations - from Bertha, wife of King Ethelbert, to her daughter Ethelburga, granddaughter Eanswythe, great-granddaughter Domneva (Eanswythe's niece) and great-great-granddaughter Mildred of Thanet - it's royal women who were most closely associated with the spread of Christianity and the first communities of monks and nuns. The Kentish women were also connected by marriage to the 'lady saints' of Ely, St Etheldreda and her sisters and nieces, and to royal saintly women of Mercia and Northumbria, of whom the most famous is St Hilda. (More on all these women can be found in the following posts: St Etheldreda, St Wihtburh, St Eormenhild, St Ethelburga of Lyminge, Domneva, St Mildred of Thanet, St Ethelburga of Barking, and St Werburh of Chester.)

Royal men, by contrast, were often notably less keen on the Christian missionaries, and Eanswythe's father, Ethelbert's son Eadbald, is a case in point. Although Bede doesn't mention Eanswythe, he provides a useful context for her life by telling us that after the death of Ethelbert in 616, Eadbald rejected Christianity:

The death of Ethelbert and the accession of his son Eadbald proved to be a severe setback to the growth of the young church; for not only did [Eadbald] refuse to accept the faith of Christ, but he was also guilty of such fornication as the Apostle Paul mentions as being unheard of even among the heathen, in that he took his father's wife as his own. His immorality was an incentive to those who, either out of fear or favour to the king his father, had submitted to the discipline of faith and chastity, to revert to their former uncleanness. However, this apostate king did not escape the scourge of God's punishment, for he was subject to frequent fits of insanity and possessed by an evil spirit.
Without royal support, the missionaries saw no alternative but to leave England. But just as Laurence, second (and nearly the last) Archbishop of Canterbury, was about to flee, he had a miraculous dream:

On the very night before Laurence too was to follow Mellitus and Justus from Britain, he ordered his bed to be placed in the church of the blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, of which we have spoken several times. Here after long and fervent prayers for the sadly afflicted church he lay down and fell asleep. At dead of night, blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, appeared to him, and set about him for a long time with a heavy scourge, demanding with apostolic sternness why he was abandoning the flock entrusted to his care, and to which of the shepherds he would commit Christ's sheep left among the wolves when he fled. "Have you forgotten my example?" asked Peter. "For the sake of the little ones whom Christ entrusted to me as proof of his love, I suffered chains, blows, imprisonment, and pain. Finally I endured death, the death of crucifixion, at the hands of unbelievers and enemies of Christ, so that at last I might be crowned with him." Deeply moved by the words and scourging of blessed Peter, Christ's servant Laurence sought audience with the king [Eadbald] early next morning, and removing his garment, showed him the marks of the lash. The king was astounded, and enquired who had dared to scourge so eminent a man; and when he learned that it was for his own salvation that the archbishop had suffered so severely at the hands of Christ's own Apostle, he was greatly alarmed. He renounced idolatry, gave up his unlawful wife, accepted the Christian faith, and was baptised, henceforward promoting the welfare of the church with every means at his disposal.
Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1974), pp.108-9, 110-11.

So Eadbald was converted. He made a more acceptable marriage to a Frankish princess named Emma, and with her had three children, Eanswythe and two sons. The name of Eanswythe's mother is provided by the 'Kentish Royal Legend', an Old English text (or rather, group of related texts) dealing with the history of the Kentish royal family; here's one iteration of it in an eleventh-century manuscript, BL Stowe 944, f.34v:


I've posted extracts from this text before for Ethelburga and Mildred, who both have fairly substantial entries, but Eanswythe gets only one sentence:


þonne wæs Imme Eadbaldes cwen, Francena cyninges dohtor, 7 hi begeaton Sancte Eanswiðe þe æt Folcanstane resteð 7 Earcanbyrht Cantwara cyninge 7 Eormenræd æþelinge.
Eadbald's queen was Emma, daughter of the king of the Franks, and they had St Eanswythe, who rests at Folkestone, and Eorcenberht king of Kent, and Eormenred the Ætheling.

It's worth noting that although this calls Eanswythe a saint it does not say she was abbess of Folkestone, nor that she founded it, only that she was buried there. It's possible that later tradition has exaggerated her role, especially as she seems to have died young - the traditional date of her death is 31 August 640, when she might have been not even 25. Her father died the same year, and this time there was no reversion to paganism; his son Eorcenberht married St Etheldreda's sister (Seaxburh of Minster-in-Sheppey) and was the father of St Eormenhild, while his other son Eormenred was the father of Domneva and the two boys whose murder prompted the foundation of Minster-in-Thanet.

(That's the last of the genealogy, I promise; we're coming to the pictures...)

After Eanswythe's death there seems to have been a community at Folkestone for about two centuries, but like several other early Kentish abbeys it was apparently abandoned in the course of the ninth century, when Viking attacks made coastal monasteries vulnerable. After this its history is not entirely clear; there are occasional references to priests based at Folkestone, so there was probably a small community of some sort guarding the shrine and ministering to the town. By the mid-eleventh century Folkestone belonged to Earl Godwine, and formed part of the formidable power-base the earl had built up along the south coast. The monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, claimed Godwine had stolen Folkestone from their possession, after they had acquired Eanswythe's church in the tenth century. The Christ Church historian Eadmer - no fan of Godwine - says the earl had obtained it by bribing Eadsige, Archbishop of Canterbury (1038-50). In the 1080s the monks engaged in a lawsuit to get it back again, and forged charters in support of their claim that first Athelstan and then Cnut had granted them the ruins of Eanswythe's monastery. (The claim might perhaps be genuine, but the charters are not!)

However, they lost the lawsuit, and Folkestone remained in the hands of the king. The post-Conquest story of Folkestone is therefore one of secular patronage: the foundation of a priory in place of the former monastery by Nigel de Mundeville, Lord of Folkestone, in 1095, and then, when that fell into the sea - Vikings aren't the only threat faced by coastal monasteries - a new priory on a safer site in 1137. It was apparently on 12 September 1138 that the relics of St Eanswythe were translated to the new church, and that's the date kept as Eanswythe's feast today. The present-day church in Folkestone, originally thirteenth-century but much restored, is dedicated to St Mary and St Eanswythe:


When I visited the church earlier this year we had atrocious weather (it was April, but this is the English seaside) so unfortunately all my pictures are dark and damp; I prefer to photograph churches when the sun is shining, of course, but sometimes you have to take what you can get! When you live by the sea you learn to love a foggy day as much as a sunny one, in any case. The church is on the cliff above the port of Folkestone; the rain and wind were coming in straight off the Channel, which was rendered invisible by a curtain of mist. But the advantage of the torrent which descended just as we reached the church was that the congregation finishing their Sunday morning service were solicitously eager to welcome us, dripping wet, into the shelter of their church.


The fifteenth-century tower, high on the clifftop, must have been a landmark for shipping (though not on a day like this, when even standing at the foot of the tower the mist hid the top).

The churchyard and the buildings surrounding it are very pretty, and in April full of blossoming trees (damp blossom that day, but still).


The interior of the building is thoroughly Victorian, but there are enough memorials to Eanswythe to make it clear that the church values its Anglo-Saxon history.



To the south of the chancel is a chapel dedicated to St Eanswythe, which contains a motley assortment of memorials to the saint.


This was my favourite, a really lovely window dating to (I think) 1955.


It shows Eanswythe as a determined-looking woman, rather than a sweet-faced princess.


Two scenes from her legend show how 'Saint Eanswythe causes a stream of water to be diverted to the service of her nunnery' (note the cliffs of Folkestone behind her):


And 'Saint Eanswythe forbids the birds to settle on her fields and destroy her crops':


These illustrate stories which appear in the late-medieval legend of Eanswythe, as found for instance in the Nova Legenda Anglie here.

The chapel also has a painting, donated by a past organist of the church, showing 'Saint Eanswythe ministering to the poor' at the door of her monastery, the cliffs in the background:


A little lancet window also depicts the saint:


And there are two banners, an underrated form of saintly memorialisation:


The second here shows the location of Folkestone within Kent, plus Eanswythe as she appears on the town crest of arms. At some point in her iconography she's acquired a fish, apparently because of the town's long association with fishing rather than anything connected to Eanswythe herself.

Regular readers will know that I collect 'medieval people in modern stained glass', and there are a few more examples from Folkestone; Eanswythe's grandfather Ethelbert appears elsewhere in the church:


As does his baptism by Augustine:


As quite often in modern depictions of this scene, he's shown being baptised in something approximating the (Norman) font now in St Martin's, Canterbury.

Augustine also appears in the east window:


And Eanswythe is there too:

There's a good window depicting John the Baptist and St Elizabeth (not 'medieval people', but I do like the angel wings!)


And a medieval effigy, rather incongruous in this very Victorian church, of Sir John de Segrave, baron of Folkestone:


But the real excitement is in the chancel, by the north side of the altar, where the glow of the votive candles are in the picture below:



In 1885, during renovation of the church, a lead casket was discovered in the north wall of the chancel, containing the bones of a young woman. It seems plausible that these are the relics of St Eanswythe, hidden or overlooked perhaps at the dissolution of the priory (the community had dwindled to almost nothing by that point). After inspection the relics were returned to their position within the wall of the chancel, which makes this church one of very few in England to still possess the relics of its patron saint:


The survival of these relics is extremely unusual, and to be in their presence was strangely moving. We know so little about Eanswythe that it's difficult to feel much for her personally, but the whole story of Kentish Christianity, which is so important a part of the history of Anglo-Saxon England, is embodied in this young woman's bones. The bodies of her more famous relatives, laid to rest in less obscure places, did not survive the Reformation: the tombs of her parents and grandparents, after being honoured for more than 900 years at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, were destroyed there at the abbey's dissolution, along with the tombs of St Augustine and his companions and other kings and queens of Kent. The reformers who left St Augustine's in ruins were destroying not only a great monastery but a royal mausoleum, Anglo-Saxon Kent's answer to Westminster Abbey. The sites of their graves are marked out amid the ruins, but there's no physical presence there. Other royal saints of Kent fared little better: Ethelburga's relics probably left Lyminge as early as the eleventh century, and are now lost; St Mildred's body left Minster-in-Thanet during the reign of Cnut, and was also lost at St Augustine's - though some relics of her did return to Minster in 1935, after being preserved on the continent during the intervening centuries. But St Eanswythe has never left Folkestone, and it hasn't forgotten her.