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St KENELM'S TRAIL

PRACTICALITIES

[Introduction] [Route] [Legend] [Practicalities] [Highlights]
     
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1.  THE 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, where the St Kenelm's Way ends. The Saint is also referred to in regular chronicles, although these seem to have come from the same source as the Winchcombe manuscript, which itself claims to be derived from a Worcester monk named Wilfin. 

The story told by that manuscript is broadly this:

 

In AD 819, King Kenwulph of Mercia died leaving two daughters, Quendryda and Burgenhilda, and a son, a child of seven years old, named Kenelm who was chosen to succeed him. Quendryda envied her little brother and thought that, if he were killed, she might reign as Queen. She therefore conspired with her lover, Askobert, who was her brother's tutor and guardian, and gave him money, saying, "Slay my brother for me, that I may reign." Kenelm had already had a premonition of his death in a dream.

When Askobert went with Kenelm into the Forests of Worcestershire on a hunting trip an opportunity arose when the young lad, tired with the heat, decided to lay down under a tree to rest. Askobert, in preparation for the murder, began to dig a grave  but the boy suddenly awoke and admonished 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 sure enough, thrusting a stick into the ground, it instantly took root and began to flower. It grew, in years after, to be a great ash tree, which was known as St. Kenelm's Ash. Unperturbed by this turn of events, Askobert took the little King  up to the Clent Hills, and as the child began to sing the "Te Deum", the assassin smote his head clean off and buried him where he fell.

The new Queen, Quendryda tried to maintain her authority by banning mention of Kenelm's name throughout Mercia. Her hopes that the memory of Kenelm would fade were undermined when a white dove flew into the church of St. Peter in Rome, with a letter in its beak which it deposited on the high altar. The letter stated that Kenelm, the little King of the Mercians, had been cruelly murdered and his body hidden at Clent.

The Pope then wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who commissioned a party from the Mercian capital, Winchcombe,  to seek the body. As they went, they saw a pillar of light shining over a thicket in Worcestershire and, there, they found the body of Kenelm. As it was taken up, a sacred fountain burst out and flowed away into a stream, which brought health to the many who drank from it. The body was then solemnly taken back towards Winchcombe, but then, at the ford called Pyriford over the River Avon, the party was met by an armed body of people from Worcester Minster who also claimed title to the remains.  The dispute was settled by an agreement that whichever party woke first on the following morning could take the prize and this proved to be the monks from Winchcombe. Notwithstanding the agreement, they were pursued by the Worcester party and, exhausted, stopped within sight of Winchcombe Minster; striking their staffs into the ground, a spring burst forth, and this refreshed them so that they were able to arrive at the Royal Mercian Minster at Winchcombe with the body in their possession. Reflecting the mood of great reverence, joy and mirth, the bells sounded and were rung without man's help. 

Then Quendryda asked what all this ringing meant and was told her how her brother's body was brought in procession into the Minster; replying, she said, 'if that is true, may both my eyes fall upon this book', and then both her eyes fell out of her head upon the Psalter she was reading.  Soon after both she and her lover died wretchedly, and their bodies were cast out into a ditch. The remains of Saint Kenelm were buried with all honour and he has since been revered as a martyr. His feast day is celebrated on 17th July, the date of his translation to Winchcombe.

 

 

A much more detailed discussion of the contents of the ancient manuscripts is available by following this link:  Detailed document. This text was provided for me by the Vicar of St. Kenelm's, Sapperton in Gloucestershire.

It must be said. the story of Kenelm appears to bear little relation to facts about him available from the broader historical record. Somewhat older than seven, he signed a number of his father's charters between AD 798 & 811, he owned land in Glastonbury (Somerset) and is thought to have died, fighting the Welsh, in AD 812. 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 no objective evidence for such a proposition.

2.   THE ORIGINAL ROUTE

If we allow the possibility that the journey between Romsley and Winchcombe with the remains of Kenelm did actually take place, the question arises as to what route might have been taken. As it happens a likely answer to this question is available from a study of the Salt-Ways which spread across Mercia from the ancient salt town of Droitwich. One road has been traced along the line of the present Droitwich-Bromsgrove A38, passing through Witton, Wychbold, and Upton Warren before continuing towards Halesowen  over Romsley Hill, along what is now the B4557. 

If this represents the first part of the journey, the second part would have been the Worcester road from Droitwich. On modern maps this route is represented by the A38, followed by the B4090 before returning to the A38. At Martin Hussingtree, it it forked off into a lane, traditionally known as a salt way which passes to the east of Spetchley. It then passes east of Oswaldslow, through Wyre Piddle, crosses the Avon at 'piriforda', continuing south, passing a mile east of Elmley Castle. It then passes through Ashton-under-Hill before going over Alderton Hill to Toddington and from Toddington to Hailes and then over Salter's Hill.

The route of St Kenelm's Way only touches the Salt Way occasionally, but does include the significant stretches as the route approaches Winchcombe, including an ascent of Salter's Hill.

3.  SAINT KENELM IN THE MIDDLE AGES

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:

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 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.' 

Buy the guide to the St Kenelm's Trail

 

4.  POST-REFORMATION DEVELOPMENTS

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

  • The Eighteenth Century Halesowen landowner and 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 Catholic convert, 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 novelist Francis Brett Young. Now neglected, he was a major literary figure during the middle years of the twentieth century and lived for part of his life near our route, residing close to the village of Fladbury  from 1937 to 1944.  
  • Geoffrey Hill makes direct mention of St Kenelm and Romsley, Worcestershire, in his book-length poem, The Triumph of Love.
  • The Kenelm Legend has also been represented in paintings of the Twentieth Century. This picture  by Irene Pownall Williams, a composite illustration of the story, is reproduced courtesy of Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.

 

 
   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5.  PHYSICAL REMINDERS

Several reminders of the final journey are to be seen in The St Kenelm's Way and these are as follows:

  • Over the place where they found his body, a  small chapel was built, the Church of St. Kenelm at Romsley in the Clent Hills. The Well is diverted to the side.  Link 
  • At Upton Snodsbury, there is a local legend that the body rested in the church for one night, hence its later dedication to St Kenelm. Link
  • The Avon crossing at Pyriford is generally agreed to be between the villages of Fladbury and Croppington, where the modern Jubilee bridge is located.  Link
  • The site of the spring above Winchcombe is marked by a small shrine, with an image of the saint above the door. Link
  • The Minster at Winchcombe, which became  an Abbey in the Tenth Century, has now completely disappeared, but in the nineteenth century a few workmen engaged in excavating the foundations of the ruined monastery discovered a small stone coffin, beside a larger, which lay immediately under the great eastern window of the church. They raised the lid and found within a little dust, a few fragments of the more solid bones, a half-grown human skull, and  a long-bladed knife, converted into a brittle oxide, which fell in pieces in the attempt to remove it. These two stone coffins, believed to be those of Kenwulph and Kenelm are now to be found in the parish church of St Peter (left).

6.  ST KENELM ON THE INTERNET

The St Kenelm Legend has attracted some interest in recent years. A selection of the websites dealing with the Saint is set out below:

7.   FURTHER READING

The Story of St. Kenelm: Prince, King and Martyr, Roger Chambers, ISBN 1897934165 - A well researched text. The author acknowledges the weakness in the historic record by devoting half of the book to a overtly fictionalised account.

This book contains a fine Kenelm bibliography which is reproduced here.

A scholarly text, which includes a full translation of the early manuscripts is:

Three Eleventh Century Anglo-Latin Saints' Lives: Vita S.Birini, Vita Et Miracula S.Kenelmi and Vita S.Rumwoldi (Oxford Medieval Texts) (Unknown Binding) , Rosalind Love, ISBN 978-0198205241

More generally, the following books deal well with themes and issues raised on this site

The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy, ISBN 0300060769 - An outstanding revisionist history of traditional religion in England, 1400-1580. The first part of the book, which deals sympathetically with the structures and liturgy of medieval belief, is particularly impressive. 

To be a Pilgrim: The Medieval Pilgrim Experience, Sarah Hooper , ISBN 0750926201 - A undemanding introduction to an important aspect of medieval belief.

The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605, Antonia Fraser, ISBN 0753814013 - Tells the story of the plot well, relating it to the plight of the Catholic community in Early Modern England and provides an insight into the events at Huddington Court.