Saint Kenelm's Holy Well
A Grim Tale
"Now take St Kenelm's life which I've been reading;
He was Kenulph's son, the noble 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..."
These lines by Chaucer, appear in 'The Nun's Priest's Tale' which is part of his famous work, The Canterbury Tales. Already Chaucer's lifetime, the legend of the boy who would be king of Mercia was known by many a story-teller, and lit the imaginations of the pious pilgrim.
Dr Plot, in his 1686 work 'Natural History of Staffordshire' also mentions the tragic young prince;
"In Clent in Cow-back under a Thorn
Lyes King Kenelm his head off shorne."
Nestled in the Clent Hills in Worcestershire, England, a church stands at the site of a grisly murder and carries the namesake of the young man that lost his life in this spot.
But who was Kenelm? Does the folklore record an actual person in the murky history of Britain? And what is the significance of the well at this site? I will try to answer these questions in this article.
"In Clent in Cow-back under a Thorn
Lyes King Kenelm his head off shorne."
The Legend of Saint Kenelm
Local legend tells us that Kenelm (Cynehelm) was the son of a Saxon king named Kenulph, and grandson of the famous king, Offa. His father died in 819 AD, leaving his seven-year-old son to inherit his title as king of Mercia. His sister Quendryh and his foster-father Askebert were instructed to watch over him until he came of age, but instead they plotted to have him killed, so intent were they on securing power and wealth for themselves. The poor boy was taken on a hunting trip in the Clent Hills, where he was meant to meet his doom.
The night before their departure, Kenelm had a troubling and strange dream. In it, he climbed up a tree which was decorated with all sorts of strange things. From the top, all of his kingdom could be seen, and the four quarters were represented as men. Three bowed down to him, yet the fourth cut at the tree with an axe. As the tree was felled, Kenelm was transformed into a white dove and was able to flee.
The young king, upon awaking, told a cunning woman from Winchcombe about his dream. Skilled in interpreting dreams, she wept upon hearing his description, as it foretold treachery, and his pending death. Strangely, this did not dissuade Kenelm, and he travelled with his foster-father to Clent. Whilst he was praying one evening, Askebert crept up behind Kenelm and cut off his head with a sweep of his axe. Kenelm's body was hidden beneath a thorn tree in a spot that Askebert thought nobody would ever find. Yet the murder was betrayed by a miracle. It is said that his spirit was transformed into a dove which carried a scroll to the Pope in Rome with a message reading, "Low in a mead of kine under a thorn, of head bereft, lieth poor Kenelm king-born". (Low in a meadow of cattle under a thorn tree, head missing, lies poor Kenelm king-born)
The Pope sent missionaries to England in search of the remains of the murdered king. Whilst in the Clent Hills, they came upon a herd of cattle tended by an old woman. One of these animals had taken to straying from the rest, and stood vigil by a thorn bush. The woman explained how the beast would neither eat nor drink, yet its health had not diminished in any way. The missionaries took this as a sign, and dug beneath the thorn bush where they found Kenelm's body. As his remains were lifted from the ground, a spring began to flow, and the holy well of St Kenelm was created.
Drawing in the Pilgrims
We know that much of this legend is artistic license. Story-tellers over the years have all added to the tale of the miraculous nature of Kenelm's death and the discovery of his body.
Kenelm did not die as a boy, but it is thought that he lived to be twenty-five and was possibly slain in battle, fighting against the Welsh. His sister, Quendryh, became a nun when her father died, and later the Abbess of a convent.
North of St.Kenelm's church is the site of the long lost hamlet of Kenelmstow. It rose up in the mediaeval period but had disappeared by 1733 where it is mentioned in an account by Bishop Charles Lyttelton. In his history of Hagley, he described how the hamlet was lost when the path of a road that once went through the settlement was changed; "(Kenelmstowe)... continued to be well inhabited till the great road from Bromsgrove to Dudley (which anciently led directly through it) was changed and carried through the town of Hales". Hales is known on modern maps as Halesowen.
It is thought by some that the hamlet catered for visitors to the holy well and did quite well out of it. A chapel, located in the site of the current church, was built by the Abbot of Halesowen. The Abbot promoted the legend and in 1223 altered the date of Halesowen's annual fair to 17th July and declared it the Feast of Kenelm. Thus started the origins of the fair, with a loyal charter obtained in 1253 by the lord of the manor of Clent, Roger de Somery, to hold a four day fair. During this time, visitors and pilgrims were looked after in Romsley and Clent and brought in a fair bit of income to the local area.
St Kenelm's Feast Day is celebrated on 17th July, which is the day that his remains were transferred to Winchcombe, which was at the time of the body's discovery, the Mercian capital. In Romsley, Worcestershire, the day was celebrated with a fair and the tradition of "Crabbing the Parson" where a member of the clergy was pelted with crab apples. This latter event is thought to originate in another local folk story about how a pastor was punished by his congregation for scrumping.
The Holy Well would be visited by many pilgrims, or those seeking a cure for their ailments. It is only with the dwindling of folk memory and the superstitious seeking of cures that the site of this miraculous spring became less well known.
The well is "Much resorted to... for the cure of sore eyes and other maladies."
Finding the Well
Bishop Charles Lyttleton described the attributes of the well in the early 18th Century; "... handsomely coped with stone and much resorted to both before and since the Reformation by the superstitious vulgar, for the cure of sore eyes and other maladies". So we know from this that the spring's water was believed to cure eye problems among other things.
At St. Kenelm's Church, there is evidence to show that the well may have moved three times. At the easterly end of the church a bricked up archway. If there was a spring at this position, the holy water would have been accessible to all at any hour of day or night, particularly to the sick who may not have been permitted to mingle with the congregation. This end of the church is on the head of a narrow valley in which the other springs can be found, and when the ground is wet, water runs all the way down the path to the modern site of the well.
Following a narrow path from the church in an easterly direction, you come across a lush and leafy hollow. Rags hang from hazel trees in this grove, and in a boggy dip near the roots of these trees can be seen blocks of stone marking an older well. Much overgrown, it is believed that this well site dates to the Victorian era. The tradition of hanging rags to the trees still continues. People believe that a wish may come true or a prayer may be answered if they tie a strip of cloth in the branches around this mysterious area.
In 1985, Lord Cobham of Hagley had a new channel and well built, just to the south of this Victorian grove. There are mixed feelings on this construction, with many folk complaining that it ruins the tranquillity of the place. Over time, the well has blended in with the area and does not offend the eye so much.
What has been celebrated as a Christian holy well may in fact be far older. This hillside is the source of the River Stour, which flows through Worcestershire, joining the River Severn at Stourport-on-Severn. In the days of the early Britons, pools and springs were seen to be particularly important, with votive items left to the spirits there.
Across the fields and further up the hillside to the north west of St. Kenelm's church, a small pool can be seen which may have been the original sacred well. Excavations in the early 20th Century unearthed pieces of Roman mosaics, coins, pins, and even broken crosses. Due to the diversity of artifacts found, it is possible that this pool was revered and visited for much longer than the well at St. Kenelm's church was .
 David Taylor, http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/edge/Stkenelm.htm
Saint Kenelm's Well
After watching this video some time after I filmed it, there is a strange trick of the light at 1:21 - 1:22. What appears to be the face of a boy appears in the water. Is this the young prince maybe? Whatever the explanation, it certainly is a magical place to visit.
Finding Saint Kenelm's Church
© 2014 Pollyanna Jones