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The Crown and the Well

The divine king and the re-discovery of a 'lost' well

Mike Smith and David Taylor

Carving of St Kenelm on Romsley church (5k)

Carving of St Kenelm on Romsley church
All illustrations by David Taylor

Now, take St Kenelm's life which I've been reading;
He was Kenulph's son, the nobel king
Of Mercia. Now St Kenelm dreamt a thing
Shortly before they murdered him one day.
He saw his murder in a dream, I say . . .

Chaucer The Nun's Priest's Tale

The Legend

The small church of St Kenelm stands with a handful of houses in the village of Romsley, nestling in the Clent Hills in Worcestershire (138:784824). The church was built in the 1400s on the site of an earlier religious settlement.

According to legend, following the death of the Mercian king Kenulph in c.819, his young son Kenelm became king at the age of seven. He was put under the watchful eye of his sister Quendryh and foster-father Askebert. But they were both plotting to kill the boy king. One attempt at poisoning him had failed, so it was agreed to take him hunting in the Clent Hills where he would meet some 'accident'.

The night before they left on their hunting trip Kenelm had a dream in which he climbed a large tree decorated with flowers and lanterns. From this high vantage point he could see the four quaters of his kingdom. Three bowed down before him but the fourth began to chop away at the tree until it fell. Kenelm transformed into a white bird and flew away to saftey. On waking the young king related his dream to his nanny, a wise old woman called Wlwen from Winchcombe, gifted in interpreting dreams. She wept, for she knew that the boy was destined to die.

Kenelm resigns himself to his fate and follows Askbert to the Clent Hills. It is here, while kneeling in prayer one evening, that the goy king is beheaded by Askbert and his body hidden under a thorn tree. Kenelm's spirit rises in the form of a dove carrying a scroll and flies away to Rome where it drops the scroll at the feet of the Pope. The message on the scroll reads: 'Low in a mead of kine under a thorn, of head bereaft, lieth poor Kenelm king-born'.

Missionaries are dispatched to England where they miraculously discover the body of Kenelm. On the slopes of the Clent Hills they encounter an old woman who tends a herd of cattle. One of her herd strays from the rest and stands guard by a thorn bush. Even though it does not eat or drink it never goes hungry. Taking this as a sign, the missionaries begin to dig and discover the boy's body. From this site a spring begins to flow. This is the legend of St Kenelm [1].

 Events in the martydom of St Kenelm from wall paintings in  Romsley church (3k)

Events in the martydom of St Kenelm from wall paintings in Romsley church

The Facts

Of course, a great deal of this is artistic licence. Medieval writers such as William of Malmesbury and Florence of Worcester did much to colour the story. But how much of it is historical fact and how much legend? Let us examine the facts.

It is well known that Saxon kingship was not heriditary in the sense of passing from father to son. On the death of Offa, his son Egfrith was crowned but his reign lasted only 20 weeks as he was presumably killed in battle. He was succeeded by a distant cousin, Kenulph, whose son was Kenelm, born in 786. Most probably Kenulph 'hallowed' Kenelm to thje throne for there is a letter allegedly from Pope Leo III to 'King Kenelm' dated 798, naming Kenelm and giving his age as 12 at the time.

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 [2]. The year 811 sees no more mention of Kenelm, so presumably he was dead. All this points to Kenelm being 25 years old when he died, not a mere 7!

From historical records we know that Kenelm's sister, Quendryh, had entered the cloister at the time of her father's death and was the abbess of a convent in Kent or Essex [3].

The legend of Kenelm may be the unintentional invention of Florence of Worcester writing shorly after the Norman conquest. Kenelm had become a popular saint over a hundred years after his death. A small village called Kenelmstowe had sprung up around the site of his alleged martydom. The village even boasted a public house called 'The Red Cow' in honour of the cow which had stood guard over the saint's body.

Kenelm was big business. Kenelmstow had become a major centre for pilgrimage. It has even been suggested that Halesowen Abbey was built close by so that the monks might benefit from the revenue of wealthy pilgrims. Veneration for Kenelm spread and by 995 at the monastery of St Benoit sur Loire in France prayers and masses were said regularly for St Kenelm, whose name appeared on the calendar of major saints. His feast day was 17th July, even though tradition puts his death as being 3rd November.

Into the well darkly

As I hope we have madde clear, Kenelm did not die a young death aged 7 but lived on into adulthood. So why did the association develop around Kenelm?

One explanation for the Kenelm lgend could lie in an esoteric interpretation of the legend. Although the work of Margaret Murray into the divine sacrifice of kings has come into question, she does make some interesting points. Seven appers to be a significant number in divine kingship [4].

Names may have something to do with it as well. Nigel Pennick has pointed out that Anglo-Saxon kings often chose runic names so they could embody the power of a particular rune, and cites examples such as the Mercian kings Cenwulf (794-819) and Beornwulf (821-832) among others [5].

If we look at Kenelm we see that his name can be split into two. Ken/Cen is a rune of illumination. It signifies a piece of wood cut from a tree and used as a torch. The Old English Rune Poem states:

'Cen is known to every living man, by its pale, bright flame, it always burns where princes sit within.' [6]

The second part of his name, Elm, can be seen as the tree which represented the death aspect of the earth mother. In Norse tradition, Elm was the first woman, making the gender of this tree strictly female.

As we have seen, seven was an important number to the Saxons. It can be seen as a symbol of rejuvination and rebirth and is connected with female lunar devotion.

Could the Kenelm legend be a cryptic tradition of an earlier legned? Kenelm, like most kings, is equated with a legendary 'sun' king. Miranda Green has shown that wells and springs from Celtic times were often associated with solar kings, the sun being renowned for its life-giving properties [7]. But, if we take the runic name into consideration, we have a 'female' aspect as well as a dark aspect of the goddess. Again, these are elements we see clearly in the Kenelm legend. Kenelm's nurse is portrayed as a wise old crone. When the missionaries from the Pope locate the body of Kenelm, they encounter an old crone looking after her herd.

 Map of well sites (10k)

Sketch map showing location of places mentioned in following text

The lost well - found?

We know for a fact that the present site of the well has moved three times. The bricked-up archway at the east end of the church at Romsley may have been one of the original locations of the well. The small stone-covered hollow with its brightly rag-covered tree nestles to the east of the church and probably dates from Victorian times. The monstrous brick wall well head situated close by was built in 1985 by Lord Cobham of nearby Hagley for no apparent reason!

Now, as we have said, although the bricked-up archway may have been the site of the well, we believe there is more than one. To the north of the church is a field, in which once stood the great medieval village of Kenelmstow. All that remains today is a field full of sheep and a few humps and bumps which, to the trained eye, tell where houses and streets once stood. The whole enclosure is surrounded by a bank. It just may be possible that this is all that remains of a prehistoric structure [8]. In the corner of the field stands the remains of a sandstone building. Its worn blocks crumble to the touch.

Behind this building there is a small pool, surrounded by bushes and trees. Its present position in the landscape gives a commanding view of the area. This we believe is the original well.

Photo of the 'original' well (20k)

Photo of the 'original' well

It is not difficult to imagine our prehistoric ancestors worshipping at this dark pool. Excavations at the turn of the century unearthed pins, coins, Roman mosaics and broken crosses. The wherabouts of these artifacts is now, sadly, unknown, but they most certainly seem to have been votive offereings to some now-forgotten deity.

The area is supposed to be the point of origins for the River Stour. The archaeologist Eric Wood made a good observation when he wrote, 'Sacred lakes are identified by the votive offerings in them . . . shrines were often set up at the source of a river . . .' [9]

None of this is conclusive and never can be. It is merely our attempt to get to the bottom of an ancient legend that makes no historical sense and to understand a landscape which we believe is far older than most people realise.

Acknowledgements

This article would not have been possible without the following people: Trudie Smith, Tracey Irvinbe, Simon Fraser-Clark, Chris Wright, the 'other' Mike Smith and Sue Newland.

References

1: Janet and Colin Bord, Sacred Waters, Grafton 1986; G. Calder (trans.), The Legend of St Kenelm from Walter de Gray, Wychbury Archaeological Society 1989; David Taylor 'St Kenelm's Holy Well', Mercian Mysteries No.2 1990
2: J. Hunt, talk to Stourbridge Historical and Archaeological Society, April 1969.
3: E. Sidney Hartland The Legend of St Kenelm, Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 1916.
4: M. Murray The Divine King in England, Faber 1954
5: N. Pennick Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition Aquarian 1989
6: J. Fries Helrunar, Mandrake of Oxford 1993.
7: M. Green The Gods of the Celts, Alan Sutton 1986
8: Persoanl discussions with local amateur archaeologist.
9: E.S. Wood Field Guide to Archaeology, Collins 1975

Suggested further reading

Hilda Ellis Davidson 'Otherworld Cattle', At the Edge No.1, March 1996
R. Fletcher Who's who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England, Shepheard-Walwyn 1989
W.S. Brassington Historic Worcestershire, Midland Educational Co 1894
K.R. Gregory The Lost Village of Kenelmstowe, privately published 1960
D.W. Rollason 'The Cults of Murdered Royal Saints in Anglo-Saxon England', Anglo-Saxon England No.11 1983

This brief article is a basic introduction and overview of the ongoing research the authors are conducting into the legend of St Kenelm. We welcome any material relating to St Kenelm or any thoughts or observations relating to material in this article. Contact David Taylor at:

79 Sandringham Road
Wordsley
Storubridge
West Midlands
DY8 5HL
England

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.22 February 1995; additional notes and illustrations included in this version.


St Kenelm's Well update

David Ashworth

Since the publication last February of 'The crown and the well' by Mike Smith and David Taylor there have been developments at St Kenelm's Well, Worcestershire. The site of the well, adjoining St Kenelm's church near Romsey (138:784824) has been landscaped, with two stepped paths laid to form a circular walk. The area between the well (the 1985 well, not the older one which remains untouched further down the valley) and the spring which feeds it is now the site of two low stone walls opening out at the top into a cup shape, which form a channel down which the water can run. About twelve of these stones have been carved with scenes from the life - or legend - of St Kenelm. These are the work of artist Michael Fairfax, who has also created several pairs of wooden columns, distributed about the site, which bear inscriptions relating to Kenelm.

While I am wary of attempts to 'develop' ancient sites, my feeling is that here the programme has been carried out with sensitivity and, although the new stonework looks rather stark at present, both he materials and the subject matter are appropriate to the place. The precise location of the current well may not be justifiable historically but the area remains a place of serenity, beauty and interest.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.25 November 1995.


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