WHEN little more than a mile out of Hales Owen, I struck off the high road through a green lane, flanked on both sides by extensive half-grown woods, and overhung by shaggy hedges, that were none the less picturesque from their having been long strangers to the shears, and much enveloped in climbing, berry-bearing plants, honeysuckles, brambles, and the woody nightshade. As the path winds up the acclivity, the scene assumes an air of neglected wildness, not very common in England: the tangled thickets rise in irregular groups in the foreground; and, closing in the prospect behind, I could see through the frequent openings the green summits of the Clent Hills, now scarce half a mile away. I was on historic ground--the "various wild," according to Shenstone, "for Kenelm's fate renowned;" and which at a still earlier period had formed one of the battle-fields on which the naked Briton contended on unequal terms with the mail-enveloped Roman. Half-way up the ascent, at a turning in the lane, where the thicket opens into a grassy glade, there stands a fine old chapel of dark red sandstone, erected in the times of the Heptarchy, to mark the locale of a tragedy characteristic of the time--the murder of the boy-king St. Kenelm, at the instigation of his sister Kendrida. I spent some time in tracing the half-obliterated carvings on the squat Saxon doorway--by far the most ancient part of the edifice--and in straining hard to find some approximation to the human figure in the rude effigy of a child sculptured on a wall, with a crown on its head and a book in its hand, intended, say the antiquaries, to represent the murdered prince, but at present not particularly like anything. The story of Keneim we find indicated, rather than told, in one of Shenstone's elegies:--
"Fast by the centre of you various wild,
Where spreading oaks embower a Gothic fane,
Kendrida's ads a brother's youth beguiled;
There nature urged her tenderest pleas in vain.
Soft o'er his birth, and o'er his infant hours,
The ambitious maid could every care employ;
And with assiduous fondness crop the flowers,
To deck the cradle of the princely boy.
"But soon the bosom's pleasing calm is flown;
Love fires her breast; the sultry passions rise;
A favoured lover seeks the Mercian throne,
And views her Kenelm with a rival's eyes.
See, garnished for the chase, the fraudful maid
To these lone hills direct his devious way:
The youth, all prone, the sister-guide obeyed;
Ill-fated youth himself the destined prey."
The minuter details of the incident, as given by William of Malmesbury and Matthew of Westminster, though admirably fitted for the purpose of the true ballad-maker, are of a kind which would hardly have suited the somewhat lumbrous dignity of Shenstone's elegiacs. Poor Kenelm, at the time of his death, was but nine years old. His murderer, the favoured lover of his sister, after making all sure by cutting off his head with a long-bladed knife, had buried head, knife, and body under a bush in a "low pasture" in the forest, and the earth concealed its dead. The deed, however, had scarce been perpetrated, when a white dove came flying into old St. Peter's, at Rome, a full thousand miles away, bearing a scroll in its bill, and, dropping the scroll on the high altar, straightway disappeared. And on the scroll there was found inscribed in Saxon characters the following couplet
"In Clent, in Canbago, Keneim, kinge.born,
Lyeth under a thorne, his hede off shorne."
So marvellous an intimation--miraculous among its other particulars, in the fact that rhyme of such angelic origin should be so very bad, though this part of the miracle the monks seem to have missed--was of course not to be slighted. The churchmen of Mercia were instructed by the pontiff to make diligent search after the body of the slain prince; and priests, monks, and canons, with the Bishop of Mercia at their head, proceeded forthwith in long procession to the forest. And there, in what Milton, in telling the story, terms a "mead of kine," they found a cow lowing pitifully, beside what seened to be a newly-laid sod. The earth was removed, the body of the murdered prince discovered, the bells of the neighbouring churches straightway began "to rongen a peale without mannes helpe," and a beautiful spring of water, the resort of many a pilgrim for full seven centuries after, burst out of the excavated hollow. The chapel was erected immediately beside the well; and such was the odour of sanctity which embalmed the memory of St. Kenelm, that there was no saint in the calendar on whose day it was more unsafe to do anything useful. There is a furrow still to be seen, scarce half a mile to the north of the chapel, from which a team of oxen, kept impiously at work during the festival of the saint, ran away, and were never after heard of; and the owner lost not only his cattle, but, shortly after, his eyes to boot. The chapel received gifts in silver, and gifts in gold--"crouns," and "ceptres," and "chalysses": there grew up around it, mainly through the resort of pilgrims, a hamlet, which in the times of Edward the First contained a numerous population, and to which Henry the Third granted an annual lair. At length the age of the Reformation arrived; Henry the Eighth seized on the gold and silver; Bishop Latimer broke down the well; the pilgrimages ceased; the hamlet disappeared; the fair, after lingering on till the year 1784, disappeared also; and St. Kenelm's, save that the ancient chapel still survived, became exactly such a scene of wild woodland solitude as it had been ere the boy-prince fell under the knife of the assassin. The drama of a thousand years was over, when, some time about the close of the last century, a few workmen engaged in excavating the foundations of the ruined monastery of Winchcomb, in which, according to the monkish chroniclers, the body of the young prince had been interred near that of his father, lighted on a little stone coffin, beside a larger, which lay immediately under the great eastern window of the church. They raised the lid. There rested within a little dust, a few fragments of the more solid bones, a half-grown human skull tolerably entire, and beside the whole, and occupying half the length of the little coffin, lay a long-bladed knife, converted into a brittle oxide, which fell in pieces in the attempt to remove it. The portion of the story that owed its existence to the monks had passed into a little sun-gilt vapour; but here was there evidence corroborative of its truthful nucleus surviving still.
1 Hugh Miller, First Impressions of England and its People, p. 169.