In the mid-7th century, the plague was not so much an existential threat as a regular event in England. Time and time again in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, St. Bede tells us, almost in passing, about its impact on the country. In AD 659, for example, the Bishop Cedd “happened to visit [a] monastery during a time of plague, and there fell sick and died.” The matter of fact way that Bede recounts the story is what most shocks us today.
What interested Bede was not the plague itself but the way that people responded to it. On more than one occasion, he described English converts turning away from the Faith because they believed that the pagan gods might better protect them from the ravages of the disease. By contrast, what distinguished the saints was their acceptance of God’s will and their ability to see earthly plagues sub specie aeternitatis.
St. Etheldreda, for instance, “not only foretold the plague that was to cause her death, but also the number who would die of it in the convent.” Predicting the future was one sign of Etheldreda’s sanctity but more significant was her ability to set the plague in its eternal context. Physical death was to be expected but spiritual death was to be avoided at all costs, and sometimes the arrival of the plague was the prompt that the English needed to turn away from their sins and back to God.
One of Bede’s most moving stories concerns Egbert, a future monk of Iona, who was studying in Ireland when the great plague of AD 664 devastated both that country and England. Contracting the plague himself and believing that he was about to die, Egbert
went out one morning from the room where the sick were lying and, sitting down in a place by himself, began seriously to consider his past life. Tears fell from his eyes as he sorrowfully recalled his sins, and he begged God from the bottom of his heart not to let him die until he could atone for the offences of his boyhood and youth, and exert himself to better purpose in good deeds.
Recovering from his illness, he did indeed live a saintly life until eventually he died at the age of ninety, having “brought great blessings both to his own nation, and to the Picts and Irish among whom he exiled himself, setting them an example of holy life.”
Another probable victim of the plague was an English nun called Eanswythe. We know very little about Eanswythe’s life, partly because she was only about twenty years old when she died, so it would be easy to write her off as utterly insignificant. The truth is quite different: Eanswythe was a saint and her early death was far from being the end of her story.
St. Eanswythe came from a distinguished family. She was the grand-daughter of King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha of Kent. It was Ethelbert who welcomed St. Augustine into his kingdom and it was his conversion that paved the way for the conversion of all England. Put like that, the Christianisation of England sounds entirely straightforward. The reality was much messier. When Ethelbert died, he was succeeded by his son, Eadbald, who promptly married his stepmother and so fell out with the Church. The bishops of Rochester and London fled the country and Laurence, Archbishop of Canterbury, was only prevented from following in their footsteps by a dream in which St. Peter rebuked him for planning to abandon his flock. So the Church in England stood firm, Eadbald saw the error of his ways, and the conversion of the country continued apace.
The work of the great English and Irish missionary saints in this endeavor is well known. Less well known but equally crucial were the prayers, work and example of many royal women who renounced the privileged lifestyle they had been born to in order to pursue a religious vocation. One of the trailblazers was St. Eanswythe, Eadbald’s daughter, who became a nun in Folkestone. In fact, according to some relatively early sources, she was the abbess and founder of Folkestone Abbey, which would probably make her the first English abbess.
St. Eanswythe may have died young but she was soon revered as a saint and her relics were preserved in Folkestone, where they still reside to this day. That they have survived almost fourteen hundred years is nothing short of remarkable. They made it through Viking attacks which forced the abandonment of the abbey and were moved to a new priory which then collapsed into the sea in the twelfth century. Having survived that calamity, they were preserved in another church slightly further inland until Henry VIII’s commissioners arrived in the early sixteenth century.
Many relics were lost or destroyed during that unhappy time but not St. Eanswythe’s. Showing Henry’s henchmen a few pieces of the saint’s skull, the faithful people of Folkestone managed to distract them from a casket which they had hidden in a cavity in the church wall. This casket contained virtually the complete skeleton of St. Eanswythe and the plan, no doubt, was to restore the relics to their proper place of honor when the king returned to his senses.
What happened instead was that the relics were forgotten, being rediscovered only in 1885 when workers renovated the church. The local vicar was certain that they had unearthed the relics of St. Eanswythe but he had no way of proving it. This year all that changed. Sending off a tooth and some bone fragments for radiocarbon dating, the Finding Eanswythe team could scarcely bring themselves to wait for the results, but when the results came, they were conclusive: the relics dated back to the mid-seventh century. The earthly remains of St. Eanswythe had survived.
So what does all this mean for us today? What can we learn from St. Bede and St. Eanswythe?
Taking the long view is certainly important when we are faced with a rapidly changing medical emergency. The plague, Viking attacks, and Henry VIII’s apostasy were all disasters that rocked the communities of their day, and yet these traumas were not the end of the story. The plague was eventually beaten and so were the Vikings. Henry VIII changed the course of British religious history for ever but he could not prevent a second spring.
The story of St. Eanswythe is particularly instructive here. A highly significant person in her own time, she was soon largely forgotten, even in England, but centuries later she hit newspaper headlines across the country. The truth is that she never went away and has been interceding for us in heaven even when we were wholly unaware of her existence.
There are many differences between the problems St. Bede wrote about and the ones we face today, but way we respond to them should not be so very different. The disasters of our own day, like the plagues of the 7th century, should remind us of the essential truths of the gospel. We are mortal. We are wholly dependent on God. And God never abandons his people. In a time of Coronavirus, there is only One answer: and He is God.
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