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The Truth of Eanswythe's Bones


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[‘Mirie It Is’ – the earliest known fragment of music written in English] Hello from the Lunatraktors studio in Margate And welcome to The Truth of Eanswyth’s Bones. I’m Clair Le Couteur, a singer and research artist, and one half of Lunatraktors. Basically I’m an artist who loves researching things so much that the research process becomes part of the art.
 And I’m Carli Jefferson, the other half of Lunatraktors. I’m an artist, tap dancer, choreographer, percussionist and clown, sort of a multi-functionalist. Like Clair, I’ve always felt a bit out of place, or out of time; always a bit of a stranger in my own land, or unsure where my land even is. Three years ago, Carli and I decided to move to Margate and start a folk music project called Lunatraktors. Lunatraktors strips down traditional folksongs to the bare bones of voice and rhythm. We rediscover old songs, and make new works, growing roots down into our shared folk heritage. We also make costumes, sets and objects, dance, and tell stories. We call what we do broken folk: a way of thinking about folk music and traditional culture as hybrid, fractured forms, instead of the myth of a pure or original national identity. British folk heritage is a colourful patchwork, not a national flag. We love music, and are drawn to myth and magic, but we’re just as interested in history and science. Lunatraktors perform at festivals, and theatres, but we also do residencies in museums and galleries. We use song and dance as a way of exploring cultural resonances, and sharing ideas and experiences. For National Science Week, Lunatraktors have a residency at Folkestone Museum. We’re making a new work, investigating the story of one of the first female saints in Britain, St. Eanswyth of Folkestone. So who was Eanswyth? Well, she was born in Kent, probably in Canterbury in the early 7th century, so around one thousand four hundred years ago. There are few records about Kent in the 7th century. The ones we have were mostly written over 500 years later. Among these documents we also find the earliest recorded music written in English, like this fragment of song from the 13th century tucked into a 12th century book of psalms, which we heard at the beginning of the programme… [Mirie It is] It sounds a bit Scandinavian, but that’s Anglo-Saxon or Old English, a Germanic language which evolved in Britain after the Romans left, eventually mixing with Latin and French influences after the Normans took over, becoming the English we speak today: a sort of mongrel of several other languages. Mongrels always make the best dogs. In the 5th century the Roman empire started to fall apart, and when they stopped propping up the power structure in Britain, things got messy. Germanic speaking Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, who lived on the coast of what is now Denmark and down through the Netherlands to France, came across the channel in increasing numbers, first as hired mercenaries and traders, and later as invading war bands and settlers. This is where we get place names like East Anglia – named after the Angles – and Essex, Middlesex and Sussex – named after the Saxons. None of these peoples were native to Britain, they were all invaders and immigrants about 50 generations back. Not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, especially considering other people had been living in Britain for at least 50,000 years already.

Before the Anglo-Saxons started arriving, there was a hybrid culture that historians call Romano-British. A mix of influences from the Roman Empire, and the Celtic and Pictish peoples of Britain, who spoke languages like Welsh and Cornish. In Kent, where the sea is narrowest, the mix was always international. The first kings of Kent in the 5th century were probably Jutes from what’s now Denmark. but the other side of the crossing – the Dover-Calais ferry of the Dark Ages, if you like – was controlled by the Franks. So the kingdom of Kent, one of the most powerful kingdoms in Britain, built its power through links with France’s Frankish rulers: trade, military support and marriage. This is Kent’s backstory, and St. Eanswyth’s family history. Eanswyth’s father King Eadbald and her grandfather King Æthelberht were members of the Anglo-Saxon culture, and followed the Germanic religions – related to the Norse gods like Odin, Thor and Freya – but they both eventually converted to Christianity. Traditionally, the person who gets credit for this is Saint Augustine, but the real credit for converting the Kentish kings, who took over after the Romans left, should probably go to Eanswyth’s mother Emma and grandmother Betha, sometimes known as St Bertha. They were both Franks, raised as Christians in what is now northern France. Bertha’s own great-grandmother was Saint Clotilde, who converted Clovis I – the first king to unite the Frankish tribes – to Christianity. When Bertha agreed to marry King Æthelberht, Eanswyth’s grandfather, and cross the Channel to Kent, it was on condition that he respect her religion. She had her own chapel in a restored Roman church in Canterbury, and a personal Bishop called Liudhard. It is probably thanks to Bertha and the Franks that Augustine was sent to Britain in the first place; the people he was sent to convert were not the British exactly, but the Germanic Angles, Jutes and Saxons who had taken over, like Eanswyth’s father and grandfather. And the Northumbrian king who converted to Christianity after marrying Eanswyth’s aunt Ethelburga. So while Eanswyth was born in Kent, she came from a long line of powerful Frankish Christian women with a history of converting kings; Eanswyth’s grandmother and great-great-grandmother were both saints already. These were intelligent, educated women who spoke multiple languages and could probably read and write. They were part of an international community in which women had important roles to play, at a time when Christianity was conquering some of the most powerful forces of Europe, not through battle, but through culture: debate, stories, images, and of course prayers, which were closer to song than to speech. The accounts we have of the life of Eanswyth, which date from much later, describe how she was a passionate Christian from a young age. Her father, King Eadbald, wanted to marry her off to secure his allegiance with Northumbria. Eanswyth’s aunt Ethelburga had recently come back from there. She sent her two sons to France, fearing they’d be assassinated. So it’s no wonder that Eanswyth didn’t fancy the idea. Instead she demanded that her father build an abbey in Folkestone, on a cliff by the sea, so she could marry Jesus instead. When the Northumbrian suitor turned up at the abbey building site, her father suggested perhaps she could marry him and convert him to Christianity too. She said she’d marry him if his Norse gods could fix a roof beam that was too short. He tried and he failed, but when Eanswyth prayed, or so the legend goes, God lengthened the beam. This isn’t Eanswyth’s only engineering-style miracle; she was also credited with making the contour aqueduct that served her seaside abbey with fresh water, which was so flat it gave the impression water flowed uphill. These are Eanswyth’s miracles, along with getting rid of a plague of noisy geese that turned up at her abbey, perhaps by bringing some back to life that had been eaten by her naughty servants. So zombie geese, plus a few of your usual miracle cures; blindness, skin disease and demon-related insanity. Then she dies young, around 24 years old; people decide she deserves a sainthood and her remains become a place of pilgrimage. Gradually, the sea eats away Eanswyth’s abbey and parts of it fall into the waves. Eanswyth’s relics are moved – a process called ‘translation’ – to a nearby church, but that starts to get eaten by the sea as well. So after a hybrid Frankish / Norse group called the Normans take over Kent a few hundred years later, they move Eanswyth’s remains again; this time to a purpose-built shrine in a church they build nearby, along with some new fortifications and a contour aqueduct. Turns out the Normans built Folkestone’s aqueduct, although maybe they just rebuilt Eanswyth’s existing one. More centuries pass with lots more pilgrims visiting the shrine of Eanswyth’s, until Henry VIIIth’s reformation thugs seize the priory in the 1500s, take all the gold, and generally trash the place. It’s at this point that Eanswyth’s remains disappear, hidden away by the faithful until, one day in 1885, some builders find a hastily bricked-in arch under the plaster in Folkestone church. Inside is an unusual lead casket filled with ancient, broken bones, some already turned to dust. Canon Robertson described that ‘on the surface of the bones there was a beautiful hue of deep crimson-like purple, and a formation of minute crystals which sparkled brightly.’ The bones were re-examined in the 1980s, and unfortunately put into plastic bags which retained moisture, causing damage. For Science Week, these bones are being properly looked after, cleaned and studied by Canterbury Archæological Trust. Whose bones are they? What can the casket tell us? Might it really house the remains of Saint Eanswyth, who died almost 1400 years ago? [Dana Goodburn-Brown] As we heard from Dana, the casket is from the right period, complete with traces of gold. Osteo-archaeologist Dr Ellie Williams, based at Canterbury Christ Church University, has discovered that the bones all belong to the same person – almost certainly a young woman of the right age. The only thing missing is radiocarbon dating of the bone fragments, the results of which will be announced to the public in Folkestone Church at 7pm on Friday the 6th of March, the start of Science Week.

Dana and Lunatraktors will be in residence in Folkestone Museum on Thursday March the 12th, so come along and say hello. We’ll be working with visitors to finish writing our song about Eanswyth’s life, which we will perform in the museum that evening.


Lunatraktors were commissioned by Folkestone Museum and Canterbury Archaeological Trust to create a contemporary folk song about the life of Saint Eanswythe, Britain's first female saint. As part of the commission, we made this biographical piece about Eanswythe's life, which was broadcast on BBC Radio Kent.


released March 7, 2020





Broken folk experiments by Clair Le Couteur (vocals, drones) and Carli Jefferson (vocals, percussion). MOJO Magazine Top Ten Folk Albums of 2019: This Is Broken Folk. Number 2 2021: The Missing Star

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