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The Legend of St Kenelm

17th July

The legend of St Kenelm

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.