Early English Saint and Martyr
Also known as Kenelm or more properly as Cynehelm

Commemorated on his death day of 13th December and on the day of the translation of his remains, the 17th July

The Legend of Cenelm

According to popular legend Cenelm was the son of Coenwulf, king of Mercia and succeeded his father as king at the age of seven. However his sister Cwoenthryth1 was jealous of his position and wished to be queen herself so she conspired with her lover Asceberht, who was also Cenelm's tutor to bring an early end to the king's life.

Asceberht therefore led his charge into the forest of Clent in Staffordshire where he duly decapitated poor Cenelm and buried his remains under a convenient thorn tree. Asceberht and Cwoenthryth were not allowed to profit from their crime as a dove deposited a letter accurately identifying the location of the body on the altar of St Peter's at Rome whilst the pope was saying mass. (It is manifestly unclear how the dove got hold of the letter; divine intervention must be presumed.)

A passing English pilgrim picked up the letter, and read out the contents which took the form of the following short verse;

In Clent in Cowbage
Cenelm, king born
Lieth under a thorn
His head off shorn.

The church authorities back in England duly sent out an expedition to recover Cenelm's body. At the very spot where they found the body a well sprang up, which later obtained the reputation for many a miraculous cure. However a dispute arose between the Abbots of Gloucester and Winchcombe over the possession of the body. They agreed to settle the argument by going to sleep and agreeing that whoever God awoke first should be allowed to take charge of the remains.

It was the men from Winchcombe who awoke first and therefore it was to Winchcombe Abbey that Cenelm's remains were taken, and as the procession neared the abbey the church bells began to ring all of their own accord. When Cwoenthryth questioned why the bells were making all that racket she was duly informed that the bells were ringing without human assistance to celebrate the arrival of her brother's corpse. At which point Cwoenthryth glanced up from the book that she was reading and scornfully replied, that if this was true then both her would eyes would fall out on the open pages of her book.

Fateful words indeed, as her eyes duly fell out rendering her blind, after which she 'died wretchedly, and was cast out into a foul mire'. And with Cwoenthryth thus incapacitated the remains of Cenelm could safely be laid within a shrine at the Abbey, which soon became the source of a great many more miracles.

The Historical Cenelm

Unfortunately none of the above is in the slightest bit true. (Which I am sure is a blow to you all.)

Although there was indeed a 'Cenelm' or more properly 'Cynehelm' who was the son of Coenwulf, this Cenelm never ruled as king in Mercia as he died sometime after the year 812 and before his father's death in 821 2. No one is quite certain how or when the historical Cynehelm died, but it was most likely to have been in battle against the Welsh. (Coenwulf spent much of his reign fighting in Wales as it happens so there were plenty of opportunities for 'Cenelm' to get himself killed.)

His sister Cwoenthryth was similarly a real historical figure, but rather than an evil sister she appears to have a quite respectable abbess in Kent and there is no record of anything unusual happening to her eyes.

Winchcome Abbey was a foundation very much associated with Coenwulf and his family and very likely the sort of place that a dead prince of the royal Mercian household would be buried. To this day Winchcombe Church (as the abbey has now become) still retains a coffin said to contain Cenelm's remains.

It is therefore very likely that the historical Cynehelm was indeed interred at Winchcome Abbey, and Cynehelm was sufficiently obscure (even in the tenth century) to permit some imaginative monk from the Abbey to construct the whole tale of 'Saint Cenelm'. Thereby converting a minor royal into a holy saint, and all for the purpose of exploiting the commercial possibilities of the medieval pilgrimage business.

In this endeavour the Abbey was reasonably successful as Cenelm indeed became venerated as a saint and martyr and a significant local cult in the Gloucestershire area by the tenth century. There remain churches dedicated to Cenelm in the Gloucestershire to this day.

Crabbing the Parson

A fair was also held in his honour at Clent in Staffordshire, and on the Sunday after the fair there was an event known as 'Saint Cenelm's wake', when it was the custom to 'crab the parson'; that is to pelt the local priest with crab apples.

This was apparently in commemoration of the activities of a felonious local parson who stole some dumplings from a farmhouse on his way to church which he duly secreted in the sleeves of his surplice. Whilst the parson was later reading the service in church the dumplings fell out and hit the clerk on the head. The clerk duly retaliated by pelting the parson with some crab apples that he conveniently to hand.3

From the sound of things, not everybody played by the rules and stuck to crab apples, with some of the parishioners resorting to missiles with a greater potential impact such as sticks, stones and whatever else they could get their hands on. This is probably would led to the active suppression of the tradition by the church authorities, and it seems to have died out in the early nineteenth century.


1 Otherwise known as Cynefrith, Quoenthryth and Quendreda

2 Coenwulf was in fact succeeded by his brother Coelwulf

3 The ultimate source for this tale is (Brand, Popular Antiquities, 1849, vol. i. p. 344.) who says that the "within the memory of persons now living, it was the annual practice to..."

Sources used;

William S. Walsh Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities (Philadelphia and London J.B. Lippincott Company 1897) at http://www.sacredspiral.com/Database/saints/kenelm.html

Jacobus de Voragine The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saintsat http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/golden227.htm

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