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Murder mystery of boy king St Kenelm; Chris Upton focuses on child martyr Saint Kenelm and how his mysterious disappearance gave birth to a Hamlet-esque legend.

IN April 2015 the classical composer Andrew Downes premiered his Oratorio for St Kenelm at the Hagley Festival. Commissioned by the Francis Brett Young Society, this was a modern take on a very old legend indeed.

Medieval England has a whole host of stories about child martyrs.

The most famous of them is Little Sir Hugh of Lincoln, who was reputedly murdered by a Jewess and dumped in a well. But you can't keep a good saint down, and his body was rediscovered and buried with all saintly honours in Lincoln Cathedral.

It was a tale that not only gave further justification to anti-semitic discrimination, but also presented the cathedral with a lucrative shrine to attract pilgrims and rich donors.

The Midlands too had its child martyr, and if the legend played fast and loose with the historical facts behind it, well, it was all for a good Christian cause.

An abbey, a minster and several churches all made St Kenelm their headline act.

The history behind Kenelm is pretty run-ofthe-mill, perhaps explaining why he was afforded an improved and bloodier biography later on. Kenelm was the son of King Coenwulf (other spellings are available), who ruled the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia late in the 9th century.

Although the idea of son following father to the throne was far from set in stone by this date, it's clear that Kenelm was being groomed for possible succession.

Born in the mid-780s, by 799 Kenelm was already putting his name to land charters as one of the leading figures in the kingdom. Those autographs continue until 811, when they stop abruptly.

Clearly Kenelm was no longer at court, or on this earth, for that matter.

And that might have been that. Within a couple of centuries, however, the story of Kenelm's mysterious disappearance had been turned into a good old murder mystery.

The tale has something of Hamlet about it, laced with elements from the folk ballads about a cruel sister.

Envying her brother's effortless rise to stardom, Kenelm's sister, Quendrytha, lures him onto the Clent Hills with the promise of a spot of hunting.

Quendrytha has, we are told, her own designs on the succession. Kenelm is said to be about seven years old when the dastardly deed is done.

Up on the hills Kenelm is set upon by his sister's lover, Askebert.

The boy is brutally beheaded and his body buried where he fell.

Bodies never go AWOL for very long in medieval legends, and in such circumstances it is often an animal that draws attention to the spot, remaining there until the saint's remains have been revealed.

In one version of the Kenelm story, it is a magical cow that marks the place, never grazing, but always full of milk. The modern farmer would give his right arm for a herd of those.

In another version, Kenelm's soul flies off to heaven, but takes a detour via Rome and passes a message to the Pope, who sends out missionaries to locate him.

And thus the saint's remains are found, at a place now marked by St Kenelm's church in Romsley. Surviving 14th-century wall paintings inside the church recount the legend, and a holy well nearby is venerated as the spot where the young prince fell.

So you will find Kenelm's church and Kenelm's well at Romsley still, but you won't Kenelm himself, for the lad - like some highly-prized early medieval footballer - was transferred to a bigger club.

The little settlement of Romsley fell under the patronage of the rich and powerful Benedictine abbey of Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, a town which by this date was practically the capital of Mercia.

Why leave their star tucked away in the middle of nowhere, when he could be doing good business in the Cotswolds? And if that wasn't unseemly enough, the monks of Worcester priory had the equal and opposite notion of moving the bones over there.

A 12th-century account from Winchcome Abbey tells of a saintly procession that becomes a race, as the Winchcombe monks are pursued across Worcestershire by their rivals from down the road.

And wherever the saint's relics are set down to rest, a holy spring miraculously appears.

There are a dozen or so churches dedicated to St Kenelm, all of them in, or close to, the Cotswolds.

Once established, the legend of St Kenelm grew with the telling. In the version of Geoffrey Chaucer, described in the Nun's Priest's Tale, Kenelm has a dream warning him of his coming fate. All of this, of course, flies in the face of the real Kenelm.

In the legend, he is a small boy; the historical evidence suggests that he died in his mid-twenties.

Perhaps martyred saints are prone to lie about their age.

Likewise, Quendrytha hardly fits the profile of the murderous sibling. By 811 she was an abbess.

But as long as Winchcombe Abbey prospered - that is, until the Reformation - Kenelm lay in a place of honour at the east end of the abbey church, close to the grave of his father.

In 1815 two stone coffins were uncovered on the site, and claimed to be the burial places of Coenwulf and Kenelm.

Today they can be seen in the parish church, which stood next door. All of which serves to underline that there are times when the historian must give way, and the storytellers and the artists take over.

The legend of St Kenelm grew with the telling. In the legend, he is a small boy; the historical evidence suggests that he died in his midtwenties '


A wooden carving of St Kenelm mounted in the Lych Gate of the church at Romsley
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 30, 2015
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