The Legend of Saint Kenelm

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St Kenelm’s Church – Image by Geoff Gartside – CC BY-SA 2.0

The earliest known account of the legend of Saint Kenelm was given by a monk from Worcester named Wilfin a derivative of which was found in a manuscript from the 12th century at Winchcombe Abbey.  The legend tells how Kenelm inherited the throne of the English kingdom of Mercia as a young boy and fell victim to the jealousy of his sister  and was murdered by his guardian and became venerated throughout Anglo-Saxon England.

Quenhendra

When Coenwulf, King of Mercia died in AD 819 he left behind two daughters, Quendryda and Dornemilde and a seven-year-old son, named Kenelm who was his heir.  His sister, Dornemilde, loved him greatly and he loved her but Quendryda was jealous of her brother and wanted to be Queen and reign instead of him.   To this end, she brewed a poison and tricked her brother into taking it but the poison proved to have no effect on him at all and he remained hale and hearty.

Frustrated by her failure but still determined to  bring about her desire she hatched a plot with her brother’s guardian.  She gave him money and made him her lover and told him,

“Slay my brother for me, that I may reign’

and he being an evil man he agreed.

The Dream of Kenelm

One night Kenelm had a dream in which he climbed to the top of a huge tree brightly decorated with lanterns and flowers.  When he reached the top he looked out all around him and could see the four quarters of his kingdom.  As he looked he saw three of those quarters bow down before him, but the fourth quarter attacked the tree with an axe bringing it down.  As the tree crashed to the ground a white bird flew out of it safely out of it out of harm’s way.  When he awoke he told his dream to his nurse who was wise in such matters, but she wept and prayed for she knew the dream was an omen of his impending death.

The Murder of Kenelm

It so happened that an opportunity for this foul deed arose while Kenelm and Askeberd were out hunting in the Worcestershire forests.  As Kenelm and Askeberd passed the morning hunting Kenelm grew hot and very tired and told his guardian he would rest for a while under a tree.   He fell asleep and Askeberd set to task digging a grave ready for when he killed Kenelm.  When he was ready and about to do the awful deed Kenelm woke suddenly and told him,

You think to kill me here in vain, for I shall be slain in another spot. In token, thereof, see this rod blossom,’

and thrust his ash staff into the ground.  Instantly the staff took root and branches sprouted and leaves unfurled and it shot upwards to a great height and later became known as Kenelm’s Ash.

Askeberd was not impressed by this miracle and took the boy to the Clent Hills.  As Kenelm prepared himself for death by singing the Te Deum, a hymn of praise, Askeberd struck his head from his shoulders and buried him in a shallow grave he had scratched from the dirt.

Returning to Quendryda he told her the wicked deed had been done.  She then forbade anyone to  ever mention her brother’s name on pain of death hoping that his memory would fade quicker.  As Queen, she then turned to a life of evil and wantonness abandoning herself to the pleasures of the flesh.  For a long time, the body of her brother Kenelm lay hidden and forlorn in that lonely grave in the Clent Hills.

The White Cow

Nearby the grave lived a poor widow who had one white cow which she would leave to graze nearby every morning as many local people did.  Without fail, it would make its way to the spot where Kenelm was buried and lay down beside and not move to either eat or drink but would rise at dusk and make its way home as the other beasts did.  Although it never appeared to eat or drink it appeared to grow fatter and fuller and gave much more milk than any other cow.  The cow followed this routine for years and everyone in the area learned of the cow’s strange behavior and the place became known as Cowbach, or Cowbage.

The White Bird

One day a white bird was seen to fly from the spot where the cow would lie upon and flew all the way to Rome bearing a message for the Pope which said,

‘Low in a mead of kine under a thorn, of head bereft, lieth poor Kenelm king-born’.

The Pope read the message and immediately sent word to the Archbishop of Canterbury to instigate a search for Kenelm.  The Archbishop obeyed and formed a group of monks into a search party. When the search party came to the locality where Kenelm was secretly buried the local people, realizing that the mysterious cow was a sign of where to look showed the searchers the way.  The search party found the grave.  As they uncovered the body a fountain burst from the earth and formed into a fast flowing stream which sped off into the distance.  All who drank from that stream were refreshed and brought to glowing health.

The Burial of Kenelm

The searchers made a stretcher and carried the body of the boy king solemnly back to Winchcombe which at the time was the capital city of Mercia.   When they came to a ford over the River Avon the party was met by monks of Worcester Abbey who claimed the body which was disputed.   Between them, they decided that whosoever of them should wake first the next morning should have the body.  Rightfully this proved to be the monks of the Archbishop of Canterbury but despite the agreement the Worcester monks took to pursuing them forcing them to a hard and exhausting march to prevent their pursuers from catching them.

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St Kenelm’s Spring – Image by John M – CC BY-SA 2.0

It was a hard march and the monks carrying the body of Kenelm were struggled to maintain their lead but eventually they had to rest as they came in sight of Winchcombe Abbey.  Striking their staffs into the earth they were astonished to see a spring of cool clear water leap forth.  From this, they drank and refreshed themselves and feeling fully revitalized pressed on to the abbey.  As they neared the abbey the bells pealed out though no man had rung them.

At the time of Kenelm entering the abbey his sister, Quendryda was reading from a book and asked her servants why the bells were being rung.  On being told of her dead brother’s return she exclaimed,

‘If that be true may both my eyes fall upon this book!’  

As soon as she uttered these words both her eyes fell out of her head onto the book she was reading.

Not long after both she and her lover Askeberd died miserably and their bodies were thrown into a ditch,   The remains of Kenelm were buried with great honor and respect  and many churches were dedicated to him and the date of his feast day was set as  the 17th of July.

Accuracy of the Legend

The accuracy of the legend is open to question in many areas. There are many variations of the story and some historians think the available evidence points to Kenelm being about 25 years old when he died and it is recorded that Quendryda was actually the Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet when her father died.   Nevertheless, there still remain some very beautiful churches dedicated to Saint Kenelm and his spring can still be seen.

© 09/08/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright August 9, 2016 zteve t evans

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2 thoughts on “The Legend of Saint Kenelm

  1. It’s fascinating how folktales and legends have such an appreciation for what today would be considered, I think, in the horror genre (played another way, dark humor of the type of, say, Bruce Campbell’s stuff–movies and TV show). I hate to say it, but as a fan of dark horror and fantasy, this appealed to me: “As soon as she uttered these words both her eyes fell out of her head onto the book she was reading.” Thanks, once again, for sharing this, Zteve. Haven’t I read a story/legend about the white cow of (I’m forgetting the name; Northumbria? I don’t know) something before, here on your blog?! In any case, have a wonderful weekend!

    • Hi Leigh, Indeed there are all sorts of strange macabre stories about saints. I did a story about the White Cow of Mitchell’s Fold on this blog. White animals including cows, dogs, stags, birds, horses etc in Celtic mythology they often have red ears. White is associated with the otherworld and red with death. They are often carriers of a message, or sent as a guide or provide a beneficial function of some kind. Thanks for commenting, appreciated!

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