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Kenelm

(d. 812)


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(d. 821),

prince of Mercian royal family. The historical Kenelm was the son of Coenwulf, king of Mercia 796–821. Kenelm signed a number of charters from 803 to 811; already in 798 Pope Leo III had confirmed to him the ownership of Glastonbury. But Kenelm died before his father, possibly in battle against the Welsh, and was buried at Winchcombe Abbey. When Oswald revived Winchcombe in the second half of the 10th century, Kenelm was regarded as a martyr and figured as such in liturgical books, including a sacramentary, written at Winchcombe and presented to Fleury, where he ranks next to Stephen.

The next stage was the development of a Kenelm Legend. This took place in the 11th century; it was used by William of Malmesbury and is represented in abridged form in N.L.A. According to this, Kenelm was only seven years old and reigned for a few months as his father's successor, but was put to death by his tutor at the instigation of his jealous sister, the princess Quendreda. The chapel of St Kenelm at Clent near Halesowen (Hereford and Worcester) was believed to mark the site of his murder. Even more astonishing, the body was discovered by an Anglo-Saxon document being dropped by a dove on to the high altar of St Peter's, Rome; it was duly deciphered by English pilgrims. The body was accordingly translated to Winchcombe and while the evil Quendreda was reciting a psalm backwards (presumably for magical purposes), her eyes fell out.

In fact the historical Quendreda was abbess of Minster (Kent). The Legend of Kenelm is a good example of how a writer with a vivid imagination and some half-understood historical data produced a completely fictitious account of a prince who certainly existed but of whom virtually nothing is known. The crypt of the church of St Pancras at Winchcombe has been recently identified as the shrine of Kenelm, buried there with his father. Seven English churches are dedicated to Kenelm. Feast: 17 July.

R. C. Love, Three Eleventh-Century Anglo-Latin Lives (1996); G.R., i. 94–5, 262–3; G.P., pp. 294–5; N.L.A., ii. 110–13; W. Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (1956), pp. 249–59; G. T. Haig, History of Winchcombe Abbey (1948); B.T.A., iii. 127–8; E. S. Hartland, ‘The legend of St Kenelm’, Trans. Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. xxxix (1916), 13–65; S. R. Bassett, ‘A probable Mercian royal Mausoleum at Winchcombe’, Antiq. Jnl., lxv (1985), 82–100.

Subjects: Christianity.


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