Amongst the Cloutties..St. Kenelm’s Well, Romsey

Now, take St Kenelm’s life which I’ve been reading;

He was Kenulph’s son, the nobel 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 . . .

Chaucer The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Ever since my visit to St. Kenelm’s Well at Winchombe some twenty years ago I have wanted to see his other well. For some unknown reason it has taken me until recently to complete the pilgrimage to the site of his martyrdom. However, unlike his other well at Winchombe the search is less clear cut here!

His legend spawned a town Kenulstowe, which boasted a pub named the Red Cow named after the cow who stood over his temporary grave in his legend – more of which latter. It was a major source of pilgrimage causing major settlements like Halosowen Abbey.

The first site we can identify is the 14th century church. Dedicated to the saint it lays in Clent Hills and despite its more recent date is supposedly built upon an older foundation. Sadly it was locked on the day I visited.

Here in this remote corner of Worcestershire, still remote and isolated despite the beckoning conurbations of Dudley and Wolverhampton on the horizons, the story of the saint begins. It is said that in around 819, Kenelm became the King of Mercian at the death of his father Kenulph. A powerful title but a dangerous one for a boy of seven with many jealous and plotting eyes looking on.

To protect the new King he was placed under the care of his sister Quendryh and foster-father Askebert. However, like many familiar stories of children with inheritances given over to step parents, black days were ahead. At first they tried poisoning but this failed. Then they agreed on a plot which would work. Take the boy hunting and then kill in such a way which would suggest an accident. However, the night before the fateful event, Kenelm had a prophetic dream. In the dream he climbed a tree decorated with lanterns and flowers and from here he was able to see all his kingdom in four parts. All but three bowed down before him but the last refused and instead tried to cut down the tree and in doing so he fell. Upon falling he was transformed into a white bird and flew away. He work and wondered the meaning of the dream and was told by an old Winchombe wise-women who wept with sorrow. Resigned to his fate, he rode with Askbert as arranged and as he knelt to pray was decapitated by the traitor. His body was then hidden beneath a thorn tree or else placed a twig in the ground which sprouted into an ash tree. But Askbert would not escape justice because as the boy died a dove rose from his body and it carried a scroll to Rome dropping it at the Pope’s feet. Reading it, it states:

“Low in a mead of kine under a thorn, of head bereaft, lieth poor Kenelm king-born”.

Realising what the message meant, the Pope sent men to England to recover the body. These missionaries met upon an old cattle herding woman and they noticed that one of her herd would always be separate from the flock and stand by a sole thorn tree, never drinking nor eating. This they saw as a sign and so they begun to dig. Soon they discovered the boy’s body and by doing so a spring arose:

“as the holy and gracious sod was lifted up, right from his dusty grave a holy spring burst forth, which to this day flows into the stream and gives healing to the many who drink from it”.

Shorter Life of St Kenelm tells how:

“where the martyr fell stained by his rich red blood, there a holy well flowed out, a source even now of both water and health to the faithful.”

St Kenelm's Well Clent (41)St Kenelm's Well Clent (16)

A confused legend?

Obviously the legend has suffered from considerable embroilment over the mediaeval years. What is known is that a Kenulph did reign and he did have a son called Kenelm who was born in 786. This Kenelm is mentioned in a number of documents, charters, deeds and letters, until 811. Then he died. It fits the legend except the age – Kenelm was a 25 year old not 7! He did have a sister, Quendryh but she was a nun at Kenulph death! Smith and Taylor (1995) suggest the significance of number 7 as a mystical number, his name deriving from the words rune and tree, and the sacrificial importance of kingly death suggest a story resonant in pagan origins.

Evidence of the well

It was evident that his cult spread quickly as churches in France were already remembering him by the 10th century. However, the first historical mention of the well is in the endowments of Halesowen Abbey’s foundation in 1215 when a chapel was erected by the well. By the 14th century this was enlarged presumably as the church we can see today. An estate on the Clent Hills around this spring formed part of the foundation endowments of Halesowen Abbey in 1215. There was a chapel by the well, which was rebuilt on a larger scale in the fourteenth century. It stood at the head of a valley with the ground sloping downwards to the east, so the east end of the building was reconstructed in two storeys with a crypt or under croft below the chancel to enclose the spring. There was an arch (now blocked) in the south wall of the chancel, opening on a stairway which led down to the well. This would appear to be based on the original chapel mentioned in the 1473 Patent Roll where a grant was made for repair and installation of a chaplain.

Treadway Nash (1781–2) in his Collections for the History of Worcestershire notes:

“at the east end of St Kenelm’s chapel-yard is a fine and plentiful spring, and till of late years there was a well (now indeed filled up) 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”.

Yet by the end of the century it was described as

“now dry, and nearly hid with weeds and brush.”

However, in 1848 the local Lyttleton family restored the building but:

“the water, which up time had flowed from the east end of the church, was in some way diverted, and the well is now some yards from the building.”

St Kenelm's Well Clent (77)

St Kenelm's Well Clent (71)
Which is the well?

This appears to have been the beginning of the confusion by 1890, Amphlett was stating:

“there is no spring under the present St Kenelm’s church; there is one, however, but a very small one, under a hedge some fifty yards away. But a little further off, perhaps some five hundred yards, in the garden of the Spring Farm, is a magnificent spring of water; and this is, perhaps, the original spring round which the tradition has formed”.

It was as if the well beneath the church did not exist and the original well lie elsewhere. Soon Richardson (1927) in his Survey of Worcestershire water supply stated that it was:

“a small dip-well under a stone that carries the footpath from the Church down the valley.”

This was probably the same noted by The Bords (1985) in their Sacred Waters they appear to have reinforced this location and Bord (2008) produces a photo of the said well in her Holy Wells of Britain. Nevertheless, in his The Crown and the Well for On the Edge Journal Mike Smith and David Taylor (1995) identifies as a pool among the earthworks of the deserted village north of the church. They add that:

“a small stone-covered hollow with its brightly rag-covered tree nestles to the east of the church and probably dates from Victorian times. The monstrous brick wall well-head situated close by was built in 1985 by Lord Cobham of nearby Hagley Hall”.

The site today

Behind the church can be easily found the valley where the spring arises and flows. Although where is the actual well? If it is said to arise beneath the church it is certainly not here – but does that mean geographically below? The most obvious finding is a large stone or concrete well head with a semi-circular dip well. Is this the well? Some say yes, but it does not appear to be that shown in the Bords and was only built in 1985 as above states, was it the confusion over where exactly it is that prompted its construction? However,  it is the proliferation of cloutties around a nearby tree give us a clue. Here prayers, gloves, teddy bears, bunting, even socks litter the trees and bushes nearby. Just below appears to be a small arch of stone, natural or man-made? It is difficult to tell, but this would appear to be match that shown by Bord as the genuine well – sadly dry. However, does this really matter as it appears that the true well has moved around as the spring line has changed? Yet among the thickets and gnarled old trees, the sound of birds and mud under foot, one can cast oneself back to the scene of this strange story – which whatever the truth has captivated through the centuries, whatever its origins..

Where did his body go next?




About pixyledpublications

Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on February 19, 2016, in Pilgrimage, Royal, Saints, Worcestershire and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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