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 most of his 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.
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.