King Cenwulf of Mercia was said to have begun his reign around 795 or 796, and ruled until the time of his death, which was dated to 819 by most medieval sources, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Florence of Worcester (d. 1118) and Henry of Huntingdon (d. approx. 1160), but has since been pushed back to 821 in more modern estimates. Upon King Cenwulf’s death, he left a young son named Kenelm as his heir, a boy reportedly only seven years of age. Unfortunately, the child-king would not have a long or prosperous reign—he mysteriously disappeared mere months after his ascendance to the throne and never returned.
As the boy’s disappearance dragged on, many began to expect the worst. Tragically, the worries of the Mercians turned out to be well founded. After an unknown amount of time, a wanderer found the remains of a young boy in the woods of Clent, and they were soon identified as those of the missing king. Numerous miraculous tales sprung up about how the remains were found. According to Florence of Worcester, the body was discovered after “heaven revealed it by the testimony of a column of light” and “from it a milk-white dove soared to heaven on golden wings” (Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, AD 819). A vastly different tale was recorded in the Golden Legend (Volume IV, c. 1275), in which a similar white dove visited the Papal States and delivered a gold-lettered message to the pope, which supposedly read “In Clent in Cowbage, Kenelm, king born, Lieth under a thorn, his head off shorn” (Golden Legend Volume IV, Life of S. Kenelm). The odd tale continued with the pope delivering the message to his English bishops, who were allegedly able to follow a white cow to the site of the body. Whatever the manner of discovery, the young king’s remains were indeed found, and many believed that divine intervention played a role in the recovery process.
When the remains were located, the head reportedly was visible on the surface, but the rest of the body was buried under the earth. The flesh (or perhaps the bone) of the child-king’s head was reportedly “pure and milk-white as it was at his birth” (Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, AD 819). In the process of recovering the rest of the body, a large hole was excavated. According to the tale in the Golden Legend, the void in the earth filled like a well, and many medieval locals believed that the water collected there had healing properties.
Although the boy-king’s body was discovered, the cause of his death remained a mystery. The suspicious disappearance, and the separation of the head from the rest of the remains (and perhaps cut marks) led many to believe that foul play was involved. Despite the reality that “heaven alone was witness” to the circumstances of Kenelm’s death (Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, AD 819), the people of Mercia began searching for murderers and assassins who might have wished the boy-king harm. Interestingly, the blame (rightly or wrongly) fell on the regent ruler of Mercia, Ascebert, and Kenelm’s older sister, Quendryth, who were accused of covertly assassinating the king for their own gain. Possibly benefiting from these rumors was a certain Ceolwulf, who became the king of Mercia in 821. Yet, King Ceolwulf I of Mercia soon ran afoul of his people and was deposed in 823.
As for the late Kenelm, the miraculous tales surrounding the discovery of his remains dramatically transformed his legacy. What could have been a gloomy story of a murdered child evolved into a legend of miracles and divine favor. He was soon recognized as a saint and became a highly venerated figure whose saintly feast day and pilgrimage sites were honored by countless medieval Christians.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (scene from A Chronicle of England, illustrated by James William Edmund Doyle (1822–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.