St Kenelm’s Trail

1 week pilgrimages, West & East Midlands

St Kenelm’s Trail – 60 miles – 6 days – St Kenelm’s Church, Romsley to Winchcombe (different to St Kenelm’s Way, but same start and end points). Like the St Kenelm’s Way, this route links the two places most commonly associated with the legend of St Kenelm – Clent Hills, south of Birmingham, identified as the scene of his supposed murder by Kenelm’s older sister (who wanted to inherit his kingdom) and the small Gloucestershire town of Winchcombe, near Cheltenham where his body was eventually buried. The route allegedly follows the historic route walked by monks of St Peter’s Abbey, Winchcombe, who carried the Saint’s remains. The route passes through several ancient villages, and visits ten Middle Age churches and places of historic interest such as the picturesque yet obscure Huddington Court finishes going through the grounds of the more famous Sudeley Castle. It also visits two holy wells associated with Kenelm and two ruined monasteries (Winchcombe and Hailes Abbey), which were also important pilgrim sites of the age.

Saint Kenelm is one of the most important Saints of medieval England, one referred to in the Canterbury Tales and venerated throughout England. Indeed, William of Malmesbury, writing in the twelfth century, reported that ‘there was no place in England to which more pilgrims travelled than to Winchcombe on Kenelm’s feast day’. His legend identifies him as a member of the royal family of Mercia, a Boy-King and martyr, murdered to further the interests of an ambitious relative. After his body was concealed, it came to light by virtue of miraculous intervention and, as described above, was transported by the Monks of Winchcombe to a major shrine where it was venerated for several hundred years.

As legend has it, the child Kenelm, ‘King of the Mark’ (i.e. Mercia) and pious at just seven years old, is murdered by a treacherous servant at the behest of his wicked sister. His body is hidden but a heavenly dove informs the Pope in Rome about Kenelm’s murder, by dropping a scroll on the altar where he is saying Mass; the scroll is inconveniently in English, but the Pope finds someone to translate it and learns that it says ‘In Clent, Cowbach, Kenelm the king’s son lies under a thorn, his head cut off.’ He sends messengers to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who investigates. The body of Kenelm is found where the scroll said it would be, his hidden grave guarded by a faithful cow. The body is taken to Winchcombe, and when the wicked sister sees it coming she tries to curse it by reading from her Psalter – but her eyes fall out of her head and she dies. According to the South English Legendary, this Psalter was kept at Winchcombe, where any pilgrim who cared to see it could ascertain the truth of the story.

Kenelm is mentioned by Chaucer in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. For many years, villagers at Kenelstowe in Worcestershire celebrated St Cynehelm’s Day (July 17) with a village fair and the ancient custom of “crabbing the parson” – bombarding the unfortunate cleric with a volley of crab apples.

Read introduction by route creator John Price

For more academic history, read ‘A Clerk of Oxford’

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