The Ballad of St Kenelm – AD 821

By Francis Brett Young

Francis Brett Young (29 June 1884 – 28 March 1954) was an English novelist, poet, playwright, composer who was born and lived for his early life in Halesowen, near the Clent Hills. He published some 30 novels, the most famous of which was My Brother Jonathan (1928). In 1944, he published an epic poem The Island, covering the whole history of Britain from the Bronze Age to the Battle of Britain. The entire first edition of 23,500 sold out immediately and was then reprinted. Included in this was a ballad about the legend of St Kenelm, which is reproduced below.

A musical setting for the Ballad was recently written by Andrew Downes and first performed in July 2016. A film of this performance is to be found lower down on this page.

In our sweet shires of Mercia 
Five blessed Saints we had; 
Four were proud Princes of the Church, 
And one was a little lad. 
  
Wistan, Wulstan, Oswald, Chad: 
Each hallowed Mercia's realm; 
But the saint we love all others above 
Is little Saint Kenelm. 
  
Kenelm was but a child of seven 
And his father seven weeks dead, 
When in Lichfield town they set the crown 
Of kingship on his head, 
  
And hailed him as their anointed king, 
While all the Mercian lords 
Took oath to stand at Kenelm's hand 
On the cross-hilts of their swords; 
  
And the bronze bells of Lichfield clanged 
And rocked their towers of stone, 
That God had sent an innocent 
To sit on Offa's throne; 
  
While folk that laboured in the fields 
Heard the bells clang with joy, 
And thronged the ways to cheer and gaze 
On the beauty of the boy. 
  
But his sister Quendryth in her bower 
Brooding stayed apart; 
Alone she sate, with naught but hate !
And black gall in her heart, 
  
And a sour face thrawn with bitterness 
That this weak child should own 
The shining prize for which her eyes 
Most lusted: Mercia's crown. 
  
So sent she for her paramour- 
Lord Escebert was his name- 
And whispered near his willing ear 
These words of dark shame: 
  
"We twain are one in will and flesh, 
And but for one small thing 
I should have been thy crowned queen 
And thou my wedded king; 
  
"And that small thing is but the breath 
 Of my father's brat, Kenelm. 
Give me his life, and wed me wife, 
And we will share this realm!" 
  
Then Escebert, her paramour, 
Pondered Quendrytha's rede, 
And searched his mind some way to find 
To compass that dark deed. 
  
And as it chanced, that very month, 
The Lords of Mercia went 
To hunt the wolf in Offa's Wood 
That shags the hills of Clent: 
  
A deep wood and a dark wood, 
For black deeds meet, where grew 
A brambled brash of oak and ash, 
Hazel and holly and yew. 
  
And when into the wood's green heart 
He saw the hunters ride, 
Then Escebert slipped behind, and clipped 
Himself to Kenelm's side. 
  
"Good Escebert, they ride too fast: 
Forsake me not, I pray, 
When through the thorns the wail of horns 
Shivers and dies away!" 
  
"Let them ride on, my little king: 
No matter how far they go, 
You need have no fear of wolf or bear 
With me at your saddle-bow." 
  
"Good Escebert, a thorn has hurt 
My pony's hoof, I fear: 
The dusk now broods on these wild woods 
And the black of night draws near." 
  
"Content thyself, my little king, 
Nor dread the fading light: 
Full well I wot of a woodward's cot 
Where we may bide this night." 
  
"Good Escebert, I am athirst, 
And my tongue cleaves to my mouth." 
"I know of a spring, my little king, 
To slake and quench thy drouth." 
  
But when they came to a woodland brook, 
And the child, unaware, 
Knelt by the brink and bent to drink, 
A sword flashed in the air; 
  
And the shorn head of little Kenelm 
Reddened the brook with blood, 
While Escebert leapt to his saddle and crept 
Like a wolf from Offa's Wood. 
  
Loose-reined he rode through the dark night 
Till he came to the hall of a thane 
Where the huntsmen rolled with ale and told 
Of the fierce wolves they had slain. 
  
Ho, Escebert, good lord," they cried, 
"Come join out wassailing! 
For you have missed our drinking-tryst 
To ride with the little king." 
  
Then Escebert's false cheek grew wan: 
"God witness what I say! 
I have not seen Kenelm, I ween, 
Since noon of yesterday, 
  
"Nor can I guess what ways he strayed: 
So quit your wassail-board, 
That all may search oak ash and birch 
To find our little lord!" 
  
A weary week those woods they searched 
By holt and holm and glade; 
But neither eve nor foot drew nigh 
The place where he was laid; 
  
And never a single whisper woke 
Those brambly solitudes 
But the rustle that spreads from the wind-stirred heads 
Of wild trees in the woods. 
  
(Hazel, hazel, bend your boughs 
Over the streamlet's bed, 
And with your primrose pollen gild 
A halo for his head! 
  
Holly, holly, shake your branch 
Till the brittle leaves rain down, 
And weave about the dead child's brow 
A martyr's thorny crown! 
  
Cherry, cherry, shed your snow 
Of petals in a cloud, 
And on the little limbs below 
Spread a soft shroud! 
  
Yew tree, yew tree, over him 
Your funeral pennons wave; 
But let not your bright berries drip 
Their blood upon his grave, 
  
To fleck the whiteness of the shroud 
That the wild cherry strewed 
On the gentlest fawn that ever was torn 
By wolf in Offa's Wood!) 
  
So home the hunt to Lichfield rode 
And the bronze bells clanged again 
A muffled toll for the innocent soul 
Of the child that had been slain; 
  
And folk who heard the tolling wept, 
For they knew what it must mean; 
And the Mercian Lords swore on their swords 
To hold Quendrytha queen. 
  
Now far away in Italy, 
Under Peter's dome, 
Frail and old on his throne of gold 
Slept Paschal, Pope of Rome. 
  
A weary man, an aged man 
Of four score years and seven; 
And in his listless hands he held 
The Crossed Keys of Heaven. 
  
Holy Holy, Holy! 
The children's voices swell, 
While sweet and loud, through the incense-cloud 
Shivers the Sanctus Bell; 
  
And as they heard the silvery chime, 
From the clouded vault above 
Like a falling flake of cherry-bloom 
Fluttered a milk-white dove 
  
That held a quill in his golden bill 
And laid it on the Host, 
And all the people rose and cried: 
"See, see: the Holy Ghost!" 
  
"A miracle ... A miracle!" 
So loud a cry there broke 
That the old Pope rubbed his rheumy eyes 
And dropt his keys, and woke! 
  
And he called three scarlet cardinals 
To read out what was writ 
On the parchment folded within the quill, 
But they could not fathom it. 
  
"These -words are writ in rhyme," they said, 
And the tongue of a far land 
That none in Rome or Christendom 
Is like to understand. 
  
"Yet all strange peoples come to Rome, 
So let the rhyme be heard; 
Some ear may catch the sound and match 
The sense to fit the word": 
  
In Clent cowbethe Kenelm Kynebear lfth 
Under thorne haevedes bereaft. 
  
Then up spoke an old Saxon clerk: 
"Sirs, you have given news 
Of the bloodiest deed that ever was done 
Since Christ was slain by the Jews: 
  
"That in Cowbeath, which is by Clent, 
Midmost in Mercia's realm, 
Beneath a thorn, his head off shorn, 
Lieth our king, Kenelm." 
  
So the Pope blessed that screed, 
and with The ring of Peter sealed, 
And bade that Saxon carry it 
To his Bishop, in Lichfield. 
  
Then, once again, from Lichfield towers, 
The bells boomed overhead; 
And the Mercian thanes rode out again 
To search for Kenelm's head; 
  
And when they came to the woods of Clent 
And rode into the shade, 
Behold-a shaft of blinding light 
Fell where the child was laid! 
  
So, tenderly, they lifted him 
And bore him to his tomb 
In Winchcombe, where our Mercian kings 
Lie till the Day of Doom; 
  
But as through Winchcombe's mourning street 
They passed by slow degrees, 
Quendrytha at her window sate 
With the Bible on her knees. 
  
She read of false Queen Jezebel, 
And when they spied the hearse 
That carried Kenelm, her wicked eyes 
Spat blood upon the verse. 
  
And the common folk, who saw this thing, 
Knew what it meant full well, 
And flung her down into the street 
To lie like Jezebel; 
  
And Escebert, her foul paramour, 
They slew him where he stood; 
And those twain lay for a week and a day, 
And the dogs lapped their blood. 
  
But the king's lords buried little Kenelm 
With pomp in Winchcombe's fane, 
And built a chantry for pilgrim-folk 
By the brook where he was slain; 
  
And the waters that well from where he fell 
All mortal ills assuage­ 
Not even Saint Thomas of Canterbury 
Hath greater pilgrimage 
  
Than the innocent king of Mercia 
That his sister's leman slew 
And hid in the brash of oak and ash, 
hazel and holly and yew! 
  
Wistan, Wulstan, Oswald, Chad: 
All pray for Mercia's realm; 
But our loveliest saint was a little lad: 
King Kynewulf's son, Kenelm.

Musical Setting

In 2015, The Francis Brett Young Society commissioned the local composer Andrew Downes to set The Ballad of St Kenelm to music, using a 14-piece orchestra and a cast of players to bring the story to life. The haunting music and Francis Brett Young’s powerful verse make a moving combination. The performance in the video below from July 2016 was conducted by Cynthia Downes, joined by the Hagley Community Orchestra and the Central England Ensemble and her daughter Paula who sung the soprano lead.