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Saint Kenelm's Well

Worcestershire, England, United Kingdom.

 

The legend of St. Kenelm was probably written at, or for, Winchcombe Abbey (where Kenelm's bones were supposed to have been deposited). Since Florence of Worcestershire, who died in 1118AD, quotes the legend, it is also probable that it was written before 1100 and derived from an account given by a Worcester monk named Wilfin. The oldest extant version is held within the Bodlien Library, Oxford.

 

 

St. Kenelm as depicted on the Lyche Gate of St. Kenelm's Church.
St. Kenelm as depicted on the Lyche Gate of St. Kenelm's Church.

The Martyrdom of Saint 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 Cynehelm 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, her brother's tutor and guardian, and gave him money, saying, 'Slay my brother for me, that I may reign'. In the Forests of Worcestershire, on a hunting trip, the opportunity arose.

 

The night before the hunting trip, Cynehelm had a dream in which he climbed a large tree decorated with flowers and lanterns. From on high, he saw all four quarters of his kingdom. Three bowed down before him, but the fourth began to chop away at the tree until it fell. Then Cynehelm transformed into a white bird and flew away to safety. On waking, the young king related his dream to his nanny, a wise old woman gifted in interpreting dreams. She wept, for she knew that the boy was destined to die.

St Kenelm's Well & St. Kenelm's Church.
St Kenelm's Well & St. Kenelm's Church.

In the middle of the hunt's first day, young Cynehelm, tired and hot, decided to lie down beneath a tree to rest. Askobert began to dig a grave, in preparation for the murder, 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'. As he thrust his 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.

 

Kenelm's soul rose in the form of a dove carrying a scroll, and flew away to Rome where it dropped the scroll at the feet of the Pope. The message on the scroll read: 'Low in a mead of kine under a thorn, of head bereft, lieth poor Kenelm king-born'.

Cloutie's at the Spring near St. Kenelm's Well.
Cloutie's at the Spring near St. Kenelm's Well.

Accordingly, the Pope wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who commissioned a party from the Mercian capital, Winchcombe, to seek the body. As they walked, they saw a pillar of light shining over a thicket in Worcestershire and beneath it the body of Kenelm. As it was taken up, a rushing fountain burst out of the ground, and flowed away into a stream, which brought health to anyone who drank from it. The body was then solemnly carried towards Winchcombe, but at the ford called Pyriford over the River Avon, the burial party was met by an armed band from Worcester Abbey who also claimed title to the remains. The dispute was settled as follows: whichever party woke first on the following morning could take the prize. This proved to be the monks from Winchcombe. Despite their agreement, however, they were closely pursued by the Worcester party. Exhausted from their rapid march, they stopped just within sight of Winchcombe Abbey. As they struck their staffs into the ground, a spring burst forth, and this refreshed them so that they were able to press on to the Royal Mercian Abbey at Winchcombe, where the bells sounded and rang without the hand of man.

 

Then Quendryda asked what all this ringing meant and was told her how her brother's body was brought in procession into the abbey. 'If that be true,' said she, '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.

St. Kenelm's Well, overgrown and peaceful following the 1985 development of the spring.
St. Kenelm's Well, overgrown and peaceful following the 1985 development of the spring.

 

 

Of Springs, Wells and Pools.

 

The small 15th century church of St. Kenelm stands close to where the young king was murdered in the Clent Hills. For many years the parishioners celebrated St Kenelm's Day on 17th July, the date of his translation to Winchcombe, with a village fair and the custom of "crabbing the parson" - bombarding the unfortunate cleric with a volley of crab apples. The site of the well has been landscaped with two stepped paths to form a brief circular walk. A low wall has been built around the spring and two further walls form a narrow gully down which the water may flow, collecting briefly in a pool before continuing its journey further down the valley. On the day I visited the spring was nothing more than a muddy wallow, though the development of the site has been sympathetic and time has aged the once stark stonework it remains a place of peace and serenity

The muddy wallow of St. Kenelm's Well.
The muddy wallow of St. Kenelm's Well.

However, this sensitively rendered shrine may not be place of St Kenelms martyrdom as a small number of other springs and pools are located nearby. The bricked-up archway at the east end of St. Kenelms church has been suggested has one possible location, a second is the 'clootie-well' amongst the trees to the side of the shrine, (Link to the Munlochy Cloutie Well), though this spring and its devotions date probably no further back than two hundred years. To the north of the churchyard once stood the medieval village of Kenelmstowe, now no more than a few lumps and bumps in a sheep grazed field. Here, surrounded by bramble and trees is a small pool, situated with a commanding view of the surrounding landscape it has been proposed that this may be the original site of the spring. A further candidate as the original spring stands further up the road from the churchyard amongst a copse of trees!