The Legends of Kenelm - Prince of Mercia
Updated: Jan 14, 2021
The kingdom of Mercia has seen many rulers and prominent figures through the 600 odd years of the Anglo Saxon era. One such character, while having little actual evidence for the course of his life, became a legend with tale after tale added to his myth. His cult connects two areas of the old Midlands kingdom which I'm going to talk about today.
Kenelm was a prince of Mercia around the late 700s, the son of the great Coenwulf of Mercia. In Old English he was known as Cynehelm but as is common in England his name was later Latinised. The boy was born into a turbulent time among the noble elites of the Midlands and was quickly “hallowed” as an aetheling by his father in order to cement his succession to the throne. Aetheling meant “noble child” and was a term used to describe a prospective heir to a royal or noble family. The name of Kenelm appears in some charters as a witness before all historical mention of him fades away – until being reborn as legend.
It's likely that young Kenelm was murdered after his father's death to make way for his uncle's claim to kingship, and later versions of the tale involve his sister Cwynthryth in the plot. She had her lover take the boy hunting in the Worcestershire forest of Clent in order to arrange an “accident”. Young Kenelm had already been warned in a dream of his impending doom and to prove this he supposedly struck his staff into the ground where it immediately took root and flowered, becoming an ash tree. After telling his killer to do his worst his head was cut clean off and he was buried, head and all, on the slopes of the Clent hills. A dove rose from the grave carrying the soul of Prince Kenelm and flew directly to Rome where it dropped a scroll at the feet of the Pope on which was written “'Low in a mead of kine under a thorn, of head bereft, lieth poor Kenelm king-born”. The pontiff sent word to the Archbishop of Canterbury who dispatched a search party immediately.
The monks saw a shaft of light from the sky down to a copse of trees and there was found the body of Kenelm. As they pulled his body from it's grave a fountain burst from the earth, running into a river which was a source of health and vitality for generations to come. We move in and out of legend and fact now as we know that the monks did set off with the body of Kenelm to inter him at Winchcombe in Gloucestershire. As they stopped to rest at a ford on the river Avon a group of bandits surrounded them, intending to take the now sacred remains and sell it as relics. The senior monk in the party supposedly agreed to hand Kenelm over if the ruffians were to wake before them on the next morning. The two parties duly bedded down on opposite sides of the Avon and predictably the power of Kenelm cast the bandits into a coma like slumber, allowing the monks to walk through their camp unhindered.
As they neared Winchcombe the monks noticed to their dismay that the bandits had woken and were in hot pursuit, at this point another spring burst forth and refreshed them, invigorating the men to run the final mile, where as they approached the town the bells of the abbey rang out by themselves. Cwynthryth, on hearing the commotion, swore that if it be true that her brother had been found then may her eyes fall out of her head. Apparently they did, dropping onto the bible she had been reading. Saint Kenelm was interred with full honours at Winchcombe Abbey on the 17th of July which became his feast day when he was martyred and his tomb and relics became a great draw for pilgrims for centuries to come. Chaucer mentioned St Kenelm in his Canterbury Tales and the great chronicler William of Malmesbury declared “there was no place in England to which more pilgrims travelled than to Winchcombe on Kenelm's feast day".
Winchcombe Abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII as part of his Dissolution of the monasteries and was completely destroyed, with stones and statues cropping up in buildings later throughout the local town. The whereabouts of the bones of Saint Kenelm now is unknown. Winchcombe itself is a place full of it's own history which I will return to in the next couple of posts.
As for the place of his death, the fountain became a shrine and a church built by it's side in the 1100s with it's impressive Romanesque lintel still in place today, and on each St Kenelm's Day the local populace took part in the strange ritual of “crabbing the parson” - with the unfortunate clergyman being pelted with crab apples! The Clent Hills locale has plenty more strangeness besides the legend of Kenelm, barely a mile from the shrine is the location of the notorious Bella in the Wych Elm ritual murder and as with Winchcombe, we will return there in a post I'll publish in the next couple of days.
The Clent Hills
12th century Romanesque lintel stone above the door of St Kenelm's Chucrh
The spring and shrine at the alleged place of Kenelm's death