The Legend of Saint Kenelm

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The Legend in brief

Kenulf, King of Mercia (an ancient kingdom of the Midlands of England), died in 819 A.D. He had a seven year old son, Kenelm, and two daughters, Quendryda and Burenhilda. The young prince was entrusted to the guardianship of Quendryda, his elder sister. She was an avaricious person and soon after the King’s death she, and her lover, Ascobert, murdered Kenelm at a place called Cowbach whilst on a hunting trip in the Clent Hills so that she could claim the throne. When the hunting party returned to Winchcombe, which was the family seat, Quendryda announced that Kenelm had disappeared without trace; this was treated with great suspicion and concern. When Kenelm’s soul rose from his body in the form of a dove and delivered a message to Rome, the Pope became aware of the matter, and he then despatched messengers to Wilfred, Archbishop of Canterbury, to investigate. The boy’s body was eventually found at Clent alongside a bloodstained sword which had been used to decapitate him (later version also refer to a cow who watched over the grave). Once the body had been uncovered a great fountain gushed forth and for centuries afterwards pilgrims celebrated this as a Holy Well where many miracles were performed. The boy’s body was taken in procession back to Winchcombe; wherever his bearers rested, a spring emerged. When they arrived in Winchcombe, Quendryda’s eyes fell from their sockets, and she died soon afterwards. Kenelm’s body was buried alongside his father in Winchcombe Abbey.

His feast day is 17 July, the supposed days of his translation to Winchcombe.


This picture,  by Irene Pownall Williams, is a composite illustration of the story, and is reproduced courtesy of Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. A key to it follows.

Historical record

It must be said, the story of Kenelm appears to bear little relation to facts about him available from the broader historical record which records that on the death of Offa of Mercia in 796, his son Ecgfrith of Mercia was crowned, but his reign lasted only 20 weeks, presumably killed in battle. He was succeeded by a distant cousin, Coenwulf (Kenulf) of Mercia, whose son was Cynehelm (Kenelm), and this would appear to be the reputed saint. It is likely that Kenelm never became King, although a letter dated 798, allegedly from Pope Leo III to “King Kenelm”, gives his age as 12 so implies a date of birth of 786 rather than the 812 of the legend. Also, in 799, Kenelm witnessed a deed of gift of land to Christ Church, Canterbury, and from 803 onwards his name appears on a variety of charters, so it may be deduced he was an adult at this time. The year 811 sees no more mention of Kenelm; this was likely his death year, and this all points to Kenelm being 26 years old when he died, not a child of 7 years old. Kenulf himself reigned until his death in 821. Historical records also indicate that Kenelm’s sister, Cwenthryth (Quendryda), had entered the cloister at the time of her father’s death and was the abbess of Minster-in-Thanet.

In an attempt to reconcile the chronicles with the older historic records, local historian, Roger Chambers, speculates that there may have been two Kenelm half-brothers, one named after the other, and that the warrior was the elder of the two, Kenelm the younger being the Saint of popular legend. As he acknowledges, however, there is very little by way of objective evidence for such a proposition.

ISBN 978-1846859151

Notwithstanding the lack of any support for the legend in historical records, it has survived to this day and is below examined in more detail.

The legend in detail

The Golden Legend

The earliest full record we possess of the life of St Kenelm comes from a manuscript copied in the twelfth century at Winchcombe Abbey, apparently derived from a Worcester monk named Wilfin. The Saint is also referred to in regular chronicles, although these seem to have come from the same source as the Winchcombe manuscript. The legend of Saint Kenelm was also included in a medieval collection of saints’ lives in Middle English known as the South English Legendary, compiled during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and this added a detail to the story, the role of a cow in the discovery of Kenelm’s body. The enhanced tale is told in the most famous of all Medieval Hagiographies, The Golden Legend, compiled by Jacobus de Varagine around 1260. The text of The Golden Legend tale is as follows:

Here followeth the Life of S. Kenelm, King and Martyr

S. Kenelm, martyr, was king of a part of England by Wales. His father was king tofore him, and was named Kenulf, and founded the abbey of Winchcombe, and set therein monks. And when he was dead he was buried in the same abbey. And that time Winchcombe was the best town of that country. In England are three principal rivers, and they be Thames, Severn, and Humber. This king Kenelm was king of Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire, and the bishop of Worcester was bishop of those three shires, and he was king also of Derbyshire, Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Herefo rdshire, Nottinghamshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Leicestershire, and Lincolnshire. All this was called the March of Wales, and of all those countries S. Kenelm was king, and Winchcombe, that time, was chief city of all these shires. And in that time were in England six kings, and before that, Oswald had been king of all England. And after him it was departed, in S. Kenelm’s days. Kenulf, his father, was a full holy man, and Dornemilde and Quendred were sisters of S. Kenelm. And Kenulf, his father, died the year of our Lord eight hundred and nineteen. Then was Kenelm made king when he was seven years of age, and his sister Dornemilde loved him much, and they lived holily together to their lives’ end. But Quendred, that other sister, turned her to wickedness, and had great envy of her brother Kenelm, because he was so rich above her, and laboured with all her power to destroy him, because she would be queen and reign after him, and let make a strong poison, and gave it to her brother. But God kept him that it never grieved him. And when she saw that she could not prevail against the king in that manner, she laboured to Askeberd, which was chief ruler about the king, and promised to him a great sum of money, and also her body at his will, if he would slay this young king her brother, and anon they accorded in this treason.

And in this while, and at that same time, this young holy king was asleep, and dreamed a marvellous dream. For him seemed that he saw a tree stand by his bedside, and that the height thereof touched heaven, and it shined as bright as gold, and had fair branches full of blossoms and fruit. And on every branch of this tree were tapers of wax burning and lamps alight, which was a glorious sight to behold. And him thought that he climbed upon this tree and Askeberd his governor stood beneath and hewed down this tree that he stood on. And when this tree was fallen down, this holy young king was heavy and sorrowful, and him thought there came a fair bird which flew up to heaven with great joy. And anon after this dream he awoke, and was all abashed of this dreme, which anon after, he told to his nurse named Wolweline. And when he had told to her all his dream, she was full heavy, and told to him what it meant, and said his sister and the traitor Askeberd had falsely conspired his death. For she said to him that he had promised to Quendred to slay thee, and that signifieth that he smiteth down the tree that stood by thy bedside. And the bird that thou sawest flee up to heaven, signifieth thy soul, that angels shall bear up to heaven after thy martyrdom. And anon after this, Askeberd desired the king that he should go and disport him by the wood’s side named Clent; and as he walked, the young king was all heavy and laid him down to sleep, and then this false traitor purposed to have slain the king, and began to make the pit to bury him in. But anon, as God would, the king awoke, and said to this Askeberd that he laboured in vain, for God will not that I die in this place. But take this small rod, and thereas thou shalt set it in the earth, there shall I be martyred. And then they went forth together, a good way thence, till they came to a hawthorn, and there he pight the rod in the earth, and forthwith incontinent it bare green leaves, and suddenly it waxed to a great ash tree, the which standeth there yet unto this day, and is called Kenelm’s ash. And there this Askeberd smote off this holy young king’s head. And anon, his soule was borne up into heaven in likeness of a white dove. And then the wicked traitor drew the body into a great valley between two hills, and there he made a deep pit and cast the body therein, and laid the head upon it. And whilst he was about to smite off the head, the holy king, kneeling on his knees, said this holy canticle: Te Deum laudamus, till he came to this verse: Te martyrum candidatus, and therewith he gave up his spirit to our Lord Jesu Christ in likeness of a dove, as afore is said. Then anon this wicked man Askeberd went to Quendred, and told to her all along how he had done, whereof she was full glad, and anon after, took on her to be queen, and charged, on pain of death, that no man should speak of Kenelm. And after that she abandoned her body to wretched living of her flesh in lechery, and brought her own men to wretched living. And this holy body lay long time after in that wood called Clent, for no man durst fetch him thence to bury him in hallowed place for fear of the queen Quendred.

And it was so that a poor widow lived thereby, which had a white cow, which was driven in to the wood of Clent. And anon as she was there she would depart and go into the valley where Kenelm was buried, and there rest all the day sitting by the corpse without meat. And every night came home with other beasts, fatter, and gave more milk than any of the other kine, and so continued certain years, whereof the people marvelled that she ever was in so good point and ate no meat. That valley whereas S. Kenelm’s body lay is called Cowbage.

After, on a time, as the pope sang mass at Rome in S. Peter’s church, suddenly there came a white dove, and let fall a scroll on the altar whereon the pope said his mass. And these words were written therein in letters of gold:

“In Clent, in Cowbage, Kenelm, king born, Lieth under a thorn, His head off shorn”

And when the pope had said his mass, he showed the scroll to all the people, but there was none that could tell what it meant, till at last there came an Englishman, and he told it openly tofore all the people what it meant. And then the pope with all the people gave laud and praising to our Lord, and kept that scroll for a relic. And the feast of S. Kenelm was hallowed that day solemnly through all Rome. And anon after, the pope sent his messengers into England to the archbishop of Canterbury, named Wilfrid, and bade him, with his bishops, go and seek the place where the holy body lieth, which is named Cowbage, in the wood of Clent. And then this place was soon known, because of the miracle that was showed by the white cow. And when the archbishop, with other bishops, and many other people came thither and found the place, anon they Iet dig up the body, and took it up with great solemnity. And forthwith sprang up in the same place, whereas the body had lain, a fair well, which is called S. Kenelm’s well unto this day, where much people have been healed of divers sicknesses and maladies. And when the body was above the earth, there fell a strife between them of Worcestershire and of Gloucestershire, who should have this body. And then a full good man that was there among them gave counsel that all the people should lie down and sleep and rest them, for the weather was then right hot. And which of the two shires that God would first awake, they to take this holy body and go their way. And all the people agreed thereto and lay them down to sleep. And it happed that the abbot of Winchcombe and all his men awoke first, and they took up the holy body, and bare it forth toward Winchcombe till they came upon an hill a mile from the abbey. And for heat and labour they were nigh dead for thirst, and anon they prayed to God, and to this holy saint to be their comfort. And then the abbot pight his cross into the earth, and forthwith sprang up there a fair well, whereof they drank and refreshed them much. And then took up this holy body with great solemnity. And the monks received it with procession solemnly, and brought it into the abbey with great reverence, joy and mirth, and the bells sounded and were rung without man’s hand. And then the queen Quendred demanded what all this ringing meant. And they told her how her brother Kenelm was brought with procession into the abbey, and that the bells rung without man’ s help. And then she said, in secret scorn: That is as true, said she, as both my eyes fall upon this book, and anon both her eyes fell out of her head upon the book. And yet it is seen on this day where they fell upon the psalter she read that same time. Deum laudemus. And soon after she died wretchedly, and was cast out into a foul mire, and then after, was this holy body of S. Kenelm laid in an honourable shrine, whereas our Lord showeth daily many a miracle. To whom be given laud and praising, world without end. Amen.

The legend of St. Kenelm by Edwin Sidney Hartland

This is a scholarly account which traces the legend from accepted historical events though to the elaborate story that has survived.

Discussion of the textual history of the legend

A detailed discussion of the textual history of the various ancient manuscripts is provided. This text was kindly provided for me by the then Vicar of St. Kenelm’s, Sapperton in Gloucestershire. I must confess, I have no idea who wrote this document or who Mr James Parker actually was or what wider work he was involved in.


Those seeking the truth of the Kenelm legend need to look not to the shadowy figures of the eighth and ninth centuries but to the religious sensibilities and beliefs of medieval England. It was in this period that the legend gained currency, and it was this period that the first accounts of his life and death appeared. Numerous miracles were associated with his name (fifteen in one source), and the presence of his remains brought great fame and prosperity to the town of Winchcombe. Further reference is to be found in the most famous text of the period, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, when the poet reflects on the value of dreams:

Lo in the Life of Saint Kenelm I read – 

That was Kenwulph’s son, the noble King 
Of Mercia – how Kenelm met a thing;
A little ere he was murdered on a day

His murder in a vision he saw.
His nurse him expounded every bit,
His vision, and bade him for to guard him well
From treason; but he was but seven years old,
And therefore ’twas but little he’d been told
Of any dream, so holy was his heart. 

(The Nun’s Priest Tale 290-299)

The end of his great fame, however, came with the Reformation. The new Protestant faith disavowed the cult of the Saints that was the touchstone of Medieval Catholicism and was also opposed to the idea of seeking of the sacred in the physical world, the concept which underpinned the practice of pilgrimage. This opposition was enshrined in the thirty-nine Articles of 1571which decreed that  ‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’ As the new religion took hold in the late sixteenth century the outlook of the populace changed and, in the words of Eamon Duffy, ‘a generation was growing up which had known nothing else, which believed the Pope to be Antichrist, the Mass a mummery, which did not look back to the Catholic past as their own, but another country, another world.’ 

Post Reformation

His legend was not, however, entirely forgotten and has been recalled in a number of ways.

  • The Eighteenth Century Halesowen landowner and minor poet, William Shenstone (1714-1783), wrote about Kenelm in his one of his elegies.
  • The Oxford Movement in the Victorian Anglican Church revived interest in Medieval religion and gave a renewed prominence to the lives of ancient English Saints, among them of course, Saint Kenelm. The key figure in the movement, one who was to become the most famous English Catholic convert and Saint, was John Henry Newman (1801-1890). For a time he  lodged at Rednall, very near the Lickey Hills, and was known to make frequent pilgrimage to the shrine of the martyrdom of the boy-King. 
  • In the twentieth century the story was retold in verse form in The Ballad of  St. Kenelm  AD 821, by the Worcestershire writer Francis Brett Young. Now neglected, he was a major literary figure during the middle years of the twentieth century and lived part of his life near the routes, residing close to the village of Fladbury  from 1937 to 1944.  
  • Sir Geoffrey Hill (from Bromsgrove, Worcestershire) makes mention of St Kenelm and Romsley in his book-length poem, The Triumph of Love (1997).