The Legend of Saint Kenelm's Holy Well
Tucked away in the Clent Hills in Worcestershire, the Church of St. Kenelm lies between Clent village and Halesowen. It is easy to pay it no heed as you take in the rolling beauty of the wooded hills, yet this is a location of great historical interest. The site is famed in folklore for being the place where murder and miracles took place. Should you take the time to visit and explore further, it is quite easy to be taken in by the woodland walk and holy well with a unique and striking atmosphere.
A Grim Tale
St. Kenelm's Church carries the namesake of the young man that lost his life in this spot thanks to a grisly murder, as described in Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's 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..."
The legend of the boy who would be king of Mercia was known by many a story-teller, with the site being a popular spot for pious pilgrims.
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."
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?
"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.
Offa died in 819 AD, leaving seven-year-old Kenelm to inherit his title as king of all Mercia. Being so young to come into power, Kenelm's sister Quendryh, and his foster-father Askebert, were instructed to watch over him until he came of age, but like so many royal houses, treachery was in play.
Instead of protecting the boy, they plotted to have him killed, so intent were they on securing power and wealth for themselves. They set a plan into action to take Kenelm on a hunting trip in the Clent Hills, where they plotted for something dreadful to befall the boy.
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 odd things. From the top, he could see all of his kingdom, with the four quarters of his kingdom represented as men. Three of these 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, the wicked Askebert, to Clent regardless. They reached the hills and Kenelm knelt down to pray to give thanks. It was then that his step-father struck. Creeping up behind Kenelm, he 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.
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.
As far as historical accounts go, we know that Kenelm did not die as a boy, but lived into adulthood. 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 Offa died, and later became the Abbess of a convent.
The well is "Much resorted to... for the cure of sore eyes and other maladies."
Drawing in the Pilgrims
Pilgrimages were big business during the Medieval Age, and a good story would be sure to bring the faithful in with their money.
To the north of St. Kenelm's church is the site of the long lost hamlet of Kenelmstow. This settlement rose up in the medieval period and is thought to have thrived from the coming of pilgrims to the holy well, who would have needed somewhere to stay, and a meal to eat.
A chapel located in the site of the current church, was built by the Abbot of Halesowen who promoted the legend of the murdered boy king, and in 1223 altered the date of Halesowen's annual fair to 17th July, declaring 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 festival. 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.
By 1733, the hamlet of Kenelmstow had all but disappeared. Bishop Charles Lyttelton described in his History of Hagley 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".
St. Kenelm's Feast Day is celebrated on 17th July, which is the day that his remains were said to have been transferred to Winchcombe, which was at the time of the body's discovery, the Mercian capital.
In Romsley, Worcestershire, St. Kenelm's 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 act of stealing apples from another man's orchard.
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".
The spring's water was believed to cure eye problems among other things. The tradition would be to wash one's face with the water, and prayer to St. Kenelm would be given.
Modern visitors to the site will find that the trees near to the well are covered in hanging strips of cloth. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, with many visitors to wells leaving offerings at a "Clootie Tree". The origins of this practice are from times when visitors seeking healing to a well, would tear off a piece of their clothing, washing the affected physical ailment with the cloth soaked in the well's water. This would then be hung in a tree near to the well, and left to decay—the ailment meant to disappear when the rag had completely biodegraded.
Many people now simply tie a rag in the tree, not understanding the origins or meaning of this practice, but wanting to leave a bit of themselves there; often a wish or a prayer is made when doing this.
What has been celebrated as a Christian holy well may in fact be far older. This hillside is the source of the River Stour
Finding the Well
The well itself seems to have moved at least three times over the years.
At the easterly end of St.Kenelm's Church can be seen 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.
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 tranquility of the place.
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 , Christianity continuing to honour the importance of this sacred place.
 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
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Pollyanna Jones