SAINT KENELM, MARTYR-KING OF MERCIA (9th c.)
By Vladimir Moss
The holy Martyr Kenelm was the son of King Cenwulf of Mercia. He ascended the throne in succession to his father in the year 821. However, since he was still very young, his sister Cwendritha became regent, while her lover Asconbert became the little king’s guardian.
One night he had a dream which he related to his nurse Wolwere: “I saw, O dearest mother, a tree that reached to the stars standing by my bed, and I stood on the top of it, from where I could see everything. It was most beautiful, having wide-spreading branches, and it was covered from top to bottom with all kinds of flowers and glowed with innumerable lights. But as I wondered at the sight, some of my people cut down the tree, and it fell with a great crash, and forthwith I made for myself white wings and flew up to heaven.”
“Alas,” said the nurse, “my sweetest son whom I have nourished with my milk, I fear that the falling tree means the destruction of your life through the wicked plot of your sister and the treachery of your guardian, and the bird which went up to heaven signifies the ascension of your soul.”
One day the king and his guardian were riding in the valley between the Clent and Romsley hills. The little king became very tired, and, having dismounted, fell fast asleep. While he was asleep, Asconbert dug a grave for him, and was about to kill him when he woke up. “This is not the place ordained for you to kill me,” he said. Then he drove an ash twig into the ground, and it immediately grew and flowered.
Undeterred by this miracle, Asconbert took the king to another place, and there struck off his head. The corpse was buried in the grace under the flowering ash tree with the blood-stained dagger by his side. Asconbert then rejoined his partner-in-crime, Cwendritha, and the two returned to Winchcombe, where they spread the story that the king had mysteriously disappeared and was nowhere to be found. Cwendritha succeeded to the throne which had been purchased at the price of her brother’s blood; but the whispering of her courtiers and her own guilty conscience pursued her everywhere. Desperately she ordered that anyone who should seek for Kenelm’s body or even name his name should at once be beheaded.
When Kenelm was killed, and before his grave had been completely filled in, a white dove appeared at the base of his skull and flew away in the direction of Rome. One morning, the Pope was celebrating the Divine Liturgy in Rome in the presence of many worshippers. Suddenly a snow-white dove appeared from above and dropped a scroll which it was carrying onto the Holy Table. Then it disappeared. The scroll was written in English, but an English pilgrim who happened to be present translated it:
In Clent, in Cowbach, lieth under a thorn,
His head shorn off, Kenelm, king-born.
The Pope decided to send messengers to Archbishop Wulfred to investigate the crime and bring the criminals to justice. Guided by the scroll, they came to Clent Hill, and began to search between the hills in the little valley called “Cowbach”. The lowing of a white cow and the shining of a radiant light led the searchers to the spot where the body lay under the tree. When it was discovered together with the knife, all the church bells in the region suddenly began to ring spontaneously. And when it was taken up from the ground a fountain gushed up which became known as a holy well because of the many miracles wrought through it.
As the body was being reverently conveyed to Winchcombe, the people came out from the town to meet their martyred king. At that time the queen was standing at the west end of the abbey church. Hearing the noise, she went out to see what was happening. Then, returning to the church, she seized a psalter and started to read Psalm 108 backwards, in the manner of those who practise black magic, trying in this way to halt the advancing procession. But when she saw the coffin her eyes fell out of their sockets, covering the psalter with blood. (For a long time afterwards this blood-stained psalter was shown to pilgrims.) She died in agony; and her body, refused burial, was thrown to the wolves and birds of prey.
The holy martyr-king was buried beside his father at the east end of the abbey church. Pilgrims flocked to the shrine, where many miracles were wrought through his intercession. In 1815, the two coffins were rediscovered, the one containing the body of an adult, and the other that of a young child together with a rusty knife. On being exposed to the air, the bodies crumbled to dust and the knife fell to pieces. The two coffins may still be seen in Winchcombe Abbey.
St. Kenelm is commemorated on July 17.
Holy Martyr-King Kenelm, pray to God for us!
(Sources: William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, 1, 94-95, 262-263; Gesta Pontificum Anglorum; John Humphreys, Studies in Worcestershire History, Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1938; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 231)