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The Legend of Saint Kenelm


Kenulf had already been on the throne fifteen years and the prospect of internal strife over the royal succession after his death was a matter of great concern to Kenulf and his people. His daughter, Quendrith, could hardly be considered as a likely successor – she was a woman, ill-equipped for war, and, it was said, a strongly religious person as well. Kenulf and Ælfthryth desperately needed a son and they and the people prayed daily for this, with subsequent rejoicing when the queen became pregnant and when, in AD814, the prayers were answered by the birth of a little brother for Quendrith. The whole of Wincelcumb celebrated and runners took the happy news to all corners of the kingdom. In gratitude to God and in respectful memory of his first-born, Kenulf chose the name Kenelm for his new son. And there were more celebrations when a daughter, for whom they chose the name Borewenild, was born a year later.

Everyone hoped that Kenelm would take after his half brother, schooled in warfare and a worthy successor to his father and were happy when he grew up endowed with every grace of body and mind. We imagine him, with the other boys of the court, exploring the surrounding countryside, getting into scrapes and, perhaps, like other boys, not averse to using his rank to escape their consequences. He would have gone hunting in the woods and fishing from the banks of the streams. Perhaps he watched beavers making their dams in the shallower waters above the town. Perhaps, when the dams became a nuisance and threatened floods, he would have been sent with the other boys to break them up. Undoubtedly, prince or no, he would have had to help with the work around the court, especially any work that involved preparing for war and learning the skills of a soldier – no-one knew he was to die as a child and that the skills of generalship for which he was being prepared would not be needed. He probably visited and studied the great earthwork running from north to south along the border with Wales which Offa had constructed to define his western boundaries and, perhaps, to protect Mercia from her enemies. Standing on its ramparts and looking at the distant mountains of Powys, he must have wondered about the small, dark men who came raiding out of the fiery sunset, not recognising that he was heir to a land stolen from them centuries before.

Perhaps, too, he listened, half fearfully, to the poets as they recited the new poetry of the age. Perhaps he actually met the very poet who created Beowulf, that long and exciting adventure story describing how the fearsome monster, Grendel, entered the hall of Hrothgar and carried off thirty of his thegns. Of how Beowulf tracked Grendel and his water-hag mother to their cave and, after a fierce fight during which their blood melted his sword, eventually succeeded in killing them. And when he had been especially frightened by theses stories, he would play with his little sister, Borewenild, and, in turn, tell her frightening stories of the great wide world outside Wincelcumb. Perhaps she was frightened, more likely she let Kenelm think she was! Certainly, his elder sister, Quendrith, was not the sort to be frightened.

By now, Quendrith’s religious inclinations had resulted in her becoming abbess of both her father’s monastery of Wincelcumb and of the nearby nunnery which Offa had founded some years before, and she was more likely to tell Kenelm ‘improving’ stories of her own – the stories of King Arthur who had fought the ancestors of the young prince. And there was, possibly, just the hint that Arthur’s blood ran in Kenelm’s veins. Perhaps she and the people really believed this – perhaps it was even true. More likely it was a means of encouraging him to believe in his own destiny as a powerful king of England as Offa had been.

But all was not play and adventure. As a prince, he was needed at the palace when important visitors came and he travelled with his father to Lichfield or Tamworth or wherever the business of the kingdom demanded. Even a royal child was expected to act as servant to the illustrious visitors whom the king wanted to impress. And Kenulf needed to impress. Styling himself as King of the English or, even, ‘King of the whole land of the English’, the old king, Offa, had often corresponded with the mighty Charlemagne, the king of the Franks and, although the two monarchs quarrelled, there were many embassies and a constant exchange of visitors between the two courts. There was a flourishing trade with the English trading good woollen cloaks for the products of France. Charlemagne had died the year Kenelm was born and his son was not so great an emperor as his father. Neither, it has to be said, was Kenulf as great a man as Offa had been, but he was still the powerful king of a great people and it was important to miss no opportunity to reinforce this message in the court of the Holy Roman Empire. Kenelm’s role in providing support to his father was not overlooked. By meeting important visitors, the young Kenelm learned about the ways of other peoples and was able to practise the Latin tongue, so different from his native speech.

Kenulf’s political ambitions often took him away from Wincelcumb. Whilst Kenelm was still a young child the Mercians carried out raids in Rhuveniog, penetrated the fastnesses of Mount Ereyri (Snowdon) and attacked Dyfed. Again we have to complain about the silence of the chroniclers about domestic matters. As usual, they say little about the children and womenfolk – even Ælfthryth’s death when Kenelm was only three years old is not mentioned. Now, whenever his father was away, Kenelm was left in the care of Quendrith and his nurse, Woluene. As the king’s son, he would probably not have lived in the abbey but he would have seen his sister most days so she was well able to influence his life. At this time, too, she would have felt it important to ensure that he had the best possible care to prepare him for his future as king – a future in which Quendrith herself could expect rich rewards for her kindnesses and renewed endowments for the abbey.

The king came home in the winters when war was impossible and pondered about the future. War was always uncertain and he knew he was getting older – in those days people did not usually long survive the twin scourges of war and disease. He needed to ensure that, if he were to die in the forthcoming battles, there would be someone to replace him. It was while thinking along these lines that he remembered how Offa had arranged the consecration of Ecgfrith and he decided that he would do the same for Kenelm. He knew that it would need all the authority of the Church to ensure that Kenelm, likely still to be a child, would come to the throne when he died. Having him anointed in front of all the magnates of the land and, in the presence of one another, making them swear allegiance to the young prince was the best way of ensuring this. It was important that the ceremony should be carried out by a powerful and important bishop who had the support of the Pope in Rome. And who more important and powerful than Archbishop Wolfred?

But Kenulf had a problem. He had quarrelled bitterly with Wolfred over monastic rights. The situation was absolutely unprecedented. In those days, the power of the church was almost unchallenged in all religious matters and for any king to be in open conflict with the Archbishop of Canterbury over such matters represented a serious constitutional crisis. Wolfred was effectively prevented from carrying out his duties in Mercia and the people lacked the spiritual guidance that in those days they valued so much. The Pope had become involved and the whole situation was rapidly deteriorating. If Kenelm were to be anointed by Wolfred, and Kenulf was determined that he would be, the dispute would have to be brought to an end. Kenulf knew this and when Kenelm was seven years old the king invited Wolfred to London and negotiated a settlement with him. Some unkind people say he forced a settlement on him. Certainly, Kenulf was a pretty forceful character when the mood took him and he was no lover of the Kentish people. For Wolfred, perhaps, this was an early example of principle giving way to pragmatism! The leaders of the world in those days were at least as politically adept as those of today.

At all events, we must imagine that the settlement was desirable to both Wolfred and Kenulf and it certainly provided the opportunity for Kenelm’s consecration in an impressive ceremony in Wolfred’s great church at Canterbury. Kenulf didn’t know it but his decision was to bring about great evil although it was not to be his own death nor the actions of the nobles that was to be its cause.

At first, Kenulf’s strategy seemed to work. Although still a boy, Kenelm’s importance in the land increased and he was able to take part in state occasions, no longer as a royal servant to the great and powerful visitors who still came to the palace, but as the anointed king of the future. Then, less than a year later, an exhausted rider brought terrible news. Kenulf had died near Basingwerk, a small monastic town on the river Dee in Clwyd. Kenelm, whilst still a child, was the king of a great and powerful nation.

This did not suit Quendrith. She had been happy enough to groom him for kingship whilst their father was alive and while she expected her brother to become another powerful ruler, but playing second fiddle to a child-king was a different matter altogether. As the daughter of Kenulf’s first wife, she was certainly old enough to be Kenelm’s aunt, and she now felt that she should leave the cloister and become queen. Perhaps she felt it was her duty. For a woman to become queen was not the practice amongst the Angles but, perhaps, as an educated woman, she had heard of Seaxburgh, the widow of King Coenwealh of Wessex who had become queen on her husband’s death, and yearned for similar greatness. She still loved little Kenelm, of course – most people did – it was just rather a pity he had become king so soon.

She felt that if Kenelm were to die, the thegns might choose her to be queen. Perhaps he would die? People often did die. People often did die young. There are often accidents aren’t there? There are diseases, aren’t there? Aren’t there? Aren’t there? The thought began to go round in her mind. Despite her being abbess of the double monastery of Wincelcumb, and, some say, of Southminster too, she was, in fact, a stern and ambitious woman who yearned for even greater things. However hard she tried to put aside the thoughts that were tormenting her, the thoughts became ideas and the ideas became plans and the plans became action. So do many people, with less ambition than Quendrith, become prey to feelings over which they lose all control.

There were many poisonous plants in the abbey herb garden and these were readily available to the abbess. She knew their properties and how to administer them in a way that would not throw suspicion on her – not that anyone would doubt the holy abbess, the king’s sister, of course. But she was careful to collect her poison when there was no one about to observe her, no person who might later wonder about the king’s dying and about the strange plants the abbess had picked and who might set tongues wagging. Because of his faith, the king was a regular visitor to the abbey and, in any case, as a child he was still dependent on his sister for spiritual guidance. Waiting until his next regular visit, Quendrith carefully and secretly added a powerful but slow poison to the king’s drink, knowing that by using such a method he would have left the abbey and returned to his own hall before he was taken ill. But, whether through divine intervention or for some other reason, the attempt at poisoning Kenelm was unsuccessful. Perhaps, at first, Quendrith was glad to have failed but her evil thoughts returned to torment her and she devised another plan, being wise enough to decide on another method for her second attempt.

There was at the court a nobleman called Askebert who had been a chief advisor to the old king and who, following Kenulf’s death, had been assigned to Kenelm as guardian and teacher. Askebert was a man of great charm and presence, he carried himself bravely and Quendrith conceived a secret love for him. It occurred to her that if she could persuade Askebert to kill Kenelm she could marry him and, at the same time, rid herself of the child who barred her way to the throne. With a consort as experienced in war and diplomacy as Askebert, Quendrith felt that any reluctance the thegns might have to accept a queen as their sovereign would be greatly reduced.

Perhaps under pretence of needing to discuss Kenelm’s education with him, she called on Askebert to visit her at the abbey. Naturally, she approached the idea of murder with great care and at first Askebert probably pretended not to understand her. But he was a skilled and able diplomat and understood exactly what was going on. He was also ambitious. He allowed her fully to commit herself and to offer him great rewards – a share in the kingdom and her body as his wife – before, with feigned reluctance, agreeing to help with her plans. Thus began the second attempt to murder the young King Kenelm.

At about this time, Kenelm had a strange dream which he later described to his nurse, Woluene. Woluene had nursed him at her breast when he was a baby and subsequently catered for his every childhood need. He had known and trusted her ever since he could first remember.

‘I saw’, he said, ‘a tree that reached to the stars standing by my bed. It was most beautiful, having wide spreading branches; and it was covered from top to bottom with all kinds of flowers and fruit and glowed with many lights. And I stood on the top of it, whence I could see all things. And three parts of my people were bending low in reverence to me. But, as I wondered at the sight, Askebert cut down the tree and it fell with a great crash. And, forthwith, I made for myself white wings, and I flew up to heaven.’

‘Alas! Alas! My dearest child!’ cried out Woluene, as he spoke, ‘Alas! my sweet son whom I have nourished with my milk. Three parts of thy kingdom obey thee but thy family is against thee. I fear that tree cut down foreshadows the destruction of thy life through the wicked plot of thy sister and the treachery of your guardian. Yet the bird soaring to heaven prefigures the glorious ascension of thy soul.’

Now, I have to say that this seems a strange way for a nurse to talk to her seven year old charge but the words have come down to us from antiquity and we must believe them. In saying these things, Woluene was probably taking a great risk for the sake of her ‘sweet son’. Quendrith was a noble lady, the old king’s daughter and, as Abbess of Wincelcumb, a powerful person in the community. To accuse her, thus, of plotting Kenelm’s death, suggests she had a great deal of courage or perhaps a belief in her invulnerability as a seer – for seer she certainly turned out to be.

But Kenelm, as a healthy young boy, took little heed of this stark warning. We might imagine that the excited language of the nurse went completely over his head. At all events, he seems to have carried on his life normally. He still went with his friends in the woods and still tried hard to learn the arts of government and warfare. But it happened that foresters travelling from Cynibre (Kinver) in the north, and passing through Wincelcumb, brought news of great interest to the young lords of the town. It seems that bears had been seen in the forest of Clent. These great animals were already very rare in England and with huge excitement it was decided to send a hunting party to see what sport there was to be had. An expedition was quickly got together and Kenelm begged to be allowed to go along. Pretending reluctance, Quendrith agreed but, secretly, felt that this would be an excellent opportunity for Askebert to make away with her rival.

Hurriedly, the two made their plans. There was not much time. Unlike a state visit, with its scribes and interpreters and lawyers and prelates, a hunting party was routine and could be assembled very quickly. The young nobles needed only a few hours and were, perhaps, a bit irritated at the possibility of delay as a result of Kenelm’s presence. Even waiting until the next day might be too long but Askebert counselled (or demanded) a start the following morning.

It was two days’ journey from Wincelcumb to Clent and the hunting party set off early in the morning just after sunrise. It was late autumn and they travelled north-eastwards at first high on the escarpment of the Cotswolds to join the line of the old Roman road along the uplands which avoided the wide valleys of the Severn and Avon where there was always likely to be flooding at this season. The Roman road was still the quickest route for men in a hurry. Buckle Street, as we now call this part of Ryknield Street, ran almost due north and they made good time and were able to reach Bidford by nightfall. Some people say that Buckle Street is named for Kenelm’s sister, Borewenild, and it is pleasant to think that the king’s sister is now remembered in this way, but, of course, the travellers were not thinking of little ‘Bucge’ as they hurried on. They camped on the banks of the river Avon just up stream from the ford so they could wash and drink from the swiftly flowing river. Kenelm wasted some time looking for beavers but the river here was far too broad and deep. There were swans flying south overhead, perhaps heading for their wintering grounds on the Gloucestershire marshes, and the hunters took shots at them with their bows and arrows but none found its mark as the birds were flying far too high and fast. No-one really cared because they expected to get to Clent on the following day and there was the exciting anticipation of the big hunt.

The next day, they again set off early and travelled on northwards with mounting excitement. To the north-west, the familiar outline of the hills of Romsley and Clent came into view only occasionally through breaks in the, by now, leafless trees of the woodland. At Stodleah they paused briefly and again at Beoleah where they turned and followed the Arue valley, sometimes keeping close to the river and sometimes moving away from marshy areas where side channels joined the main flow. The track here was not so good as it had been on the route of the old Roman road and the forest grew close. From time to time, they could hear animals in the woods – wolves, said the men – but wolves were no threat to well-armed huntsmen and they didn’t delay. Shortly after, the track rose steeply to the summit of the Lickey Hills and here they stopped briefly and gazed with eagerness at the rounded outline of Clent rising out of the surrounding woods, its summit bare except for the usual glimmer of late autumn gorse. They travelled more slowly now, casting about for signs of bear but, late in the afternoon, arrived at the king’s hunting lodge near to where is now Penorchard Farm above Offa’s Moor. It would have been more sensible to have waited for the next day to start their hunt but news of the bears having been seen beyond Wychbury proved too enticing, and the hunt was on.

Kenelm went with the rest but they had not gone far when, perhaps as a result of the unaccustomed travel, perhaps as a consequence of his predestined martyrdom, a great weariness overtook him and, calling to Askebert, he dismounted from his horse and lay down on a dry bank. He quickly fell into a deep sleep for all the world as if there were no danger. In normal circumstances, Askebert would have liked to go on the hunt – bears were not an everyday quarry – but, as the king’s guardian, he must of course stay with Kenelm. Also, he recognised that this was the opportunity for which he had been waiting and, wishing the others ‘good hunting’, and pretending reluctance while they were still near, he remained behind ‘to care for our young king’.

The hunting party was quickly out of sight but, for a while, the sounds of horses and of men calling to one another could be heard through the woodland. Eventually all was silent except for the occasional call of a bird or the faint rustling of some small creature in the undergrowth. Kenelm continued to sleep. Askebert began to dig. He knew that there would be a search for the young king – probably he would have to lead it himself – and, despite the dense forest of medieval Mercia, experienced hunters with dogs, perhaps guided by scavenging kites, could be expected quickly to find a carelessly hidden body. A deep and well disguised grave was essential. But, perhaps because of his prophetic mind, Kenelm awoke and saw what Askebert was doing.

He cried out, ‘It is in vain that you have dug for me this grave in this place. I shall not rest here but in a further place, which God has provided for me. And this shall be a sign. This stick (he carried a stick), when planted in the ground, shall burst into leaf and there shall you do your will.’

Askebert was probably taken aback by this outburst but it was too late to have second thoughts. Nevertheless, smitten by truth and conscience, he filled in the grave and led the way deeper into the woods. Kenelm followed until they came to a deep valley between the two hills that are now called Walton Hill and Adam’s Hill.

It was here and in the surrounding hills and woods, many hundreds of years before, that a British army had fought with a Roman legion under the command of Ostorius Scapula. Perhaps there still lingered some aura of that ancient battle which the holy child could recognise? Perhaps the spirits of those ancient warriors called to him? Here, the staff was placed in the ground and it immediately took root, sprouted leaves and grew into a vast ash tree. And Kenelm knelt on the ground to pray and cried out in the Lord’s words, ‘That thou doest, do quickly’ and Askebert immediately struck off his head. But the king did not die at once for he instantly caught up his severed head and held it aloft in the sight of the Lord. And they say that as he was about to be killed he sang the canticle Te Deum laudamus and when he came to the words ‘The white-clad army of martyrs praise thee’ he fell to earth. And straightway, as foretold in his dream, his soul in the form of a white dove with golden wings flew heavenwards.

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