The baptism of St Æthelberht King of Kent by St Augustine of Canterbury in 601 was in many ways the beginning of the conversion of England. Æthelberht’s son, Eadbald was a pagan, but his sister St Æthelburga was a Christian, as was his wife who ensured that her daughter Eanswythe was baptized and raised in the Catholic faith. After the death of Æthelberht in 616 (or 618) Eadbald openly embraced pagan idolatry, as did the three sons of the recently deceased King Saebert of the East Saxons (a convert to Christianity).
St. Laurence of Canterbury, St. Mellitus of London, and St. Justus of Rochester decided to abandon the Kentish mission, and Mellitus and Justus duly returned to Gaul. However, St Peter appeared in a vision to Laurence and admonished him for considering abandoning his flock, and, with the result that Laurence remained in Kent and succeeded in converting Eadbald.
The young Eanswythe possessed the same spirit as her aunt Æthelburga, and was drawn to a life of virginity and monastic seclusion. Eadbald wanted her to marry for dynastic reasons (just as Æthelburga had married King Edwin of Northumbria), but Eanswythe was adamant, and Eadbald relented and built her a monastery in Folkestone – the first women’s monastery in England.
Eanswythe was just sixteen years of age, so it is possible that experienced nuns were brought in from Europe until such time as Eanswythe was old enough to take on the role of abbess. Eanswythe was known as a miracle-worker, an enthusiastic reader of spiritual books, and a diligent worker in the monastery.
She died at around the age of twenty-five in August of 640 (the year of her father King Eadbald’s death) – not, perhaps, a spectacular saint by the standards of Anglo-Saxon England, but an example of great single-mindedness in her devotion to Christ and in her steadfast (even stubborn) commitment to a totally new kind of vocation (totally new in the context of English society, that is) which represented a radical rejection of contemporary political and social values.