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St. Kenelm's Legend, and other Clent mysteries.

First I want to look at an ancient legend, that of St. Kenelm. The legend was popularized by Geoffrey Chaucer, who was at one time the Master of the Forest of Feckenham in which the Clent Hills lay. In his "Canterbury Tales" the legend is quoted, and we must try to imagine these times, when Saints were venerated with as much excitement as modern day pop stars. Kenelm was the boy King of Mercia (in the late 6th Century), and in his minority his sister (in some accounts Aunt) plotted with her lover to take him riding in the Clent hills. Kenelm dreamed the night before the expedition that he saw a place with a white cow in a pasture. Also he saw a white dove in a tree, which he climbed to survey the 4 corners of the Kingdom. His nurse, hearing the dream, knew immediately that the boy was to die. The next day, Kenelm was taken into the hills and beheaded. A spring was said to rise out of the spot where his blood soaked the soil (a very ancient motif) and the dove (which as predicted witnessed the murder from a nearby tree) was said to have flown to Rome, where it dropped a message to the Pope at Old St. Peter's: "In Clent in Canbago, Kenelm Kinge borne lyeth under a Thorne, his hede off shorn". ("In Clent by cowbatch, beneath a thorn, lieth Kenelm, King born, his head offshorn.") How the message was set down in writing is not clear, though in such cases, who knows what Magical processes may be involved? Envoys were sent to England from Rome, and these were guided to the spot by a mysterious white cow, and an old hag or crone. Here the body was discovered, and the site grew into a large village, Kenelmstowe, now lost. Later, the nearby abbey at Halesowen profited massively from the pilgrimages to the site. The whole story is, however, untrue, an invention to validate Christian worship at the site. So why did it take such a hold on the public mind? Certain indications point to a possible shamanic origin to the Kenelm legend and folklore. He was said to have attained kingship aged 7, and 7 is associated with divine kingship. Nowadays, the notion of "sacrifice" conjurs up images redolant of the film "The Wicker Man" (itself derived from popular misconceptions about pre Roman sacrificial rites and customs. Originally, however, sacrifice in ancient British society would have been literally "Sacrum Facere" "to make sacred", and this would have been a voluntary submission of the individual neophyte to the will of the divinity(ies) --- a process of self realization and unification. This could be achieved with greatest efficacy amidst "Liminal" landscapes, already imbued with an atmosphere of wonder, awe, fear, and secrecy, and well away from profane settlement or "ordinary" aspects of agricultural & pastoral life. These rites were transformed by propagandists in the Christian era, into acts of diabolical murder, and evil. In his dream the night before his death, Kenelm ascends a tree, and takes the form of a white bird or dove. These are possible shamanic indicators too, especially as his dream is a portent of his own death. He is beheaded, and dismemberment is associated with shamanic journeying (see J. Campbell "Primitive Mythology" et al). His name is derived from two runes, "Ken" and "Elm". The first means, spiritual knowledge in the form of a lighted brand. The second, is the tree representing the undifferentiated dark aspect of the goddess in the realms of death. So, Ken Elm literally means --- "He who knows/illuminates the realm of death" --- very apt, in view of the legend. The "old crone" who guides the papal envoys to his grave beneath the thorn, is none other than the waning moon, the "old hag" or layer out of the lunar triplicity, Virgin, Mother and crone. This is the dark aspect of the Goddess (AKA Lilith/Laylah). On the site, the sacred well is the spot where the river (Stour) rises. This entire area is a superb example of what archaeologists call a "liminal" environment (see "Seahenge" by Francis Pryor e.g) and hills, water sources, as well as the numerous meres and lakes which were so prominent in the landscape would have meant that this was probably a sanctifed place from at least neolithic times, with the successive incomers more or less adapting the long established rites associated with the well. Corpses laid out in trees are a very ancient motif indeed, as is the punishment and execution of malefactors to purify and rejuvenate the land. Nearby, in 1943, the body of a woman was discovered by a schoolboy, Bob Farmer, & three friends, entombed in a tree. She had been suffocated and the body placed in the tree very soon after. The body was estimated to have been there 18 months. In July 1941 two men walking in Hagley wood heard female cries. In Stourbridge someone unknown wrote "Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?" as a graffito. This was replicated elsewhere, by the same hand in 3 inch high chalk letters. A "Wych Elm", it ought to be noted, is a tree whose timber has the particular quality that it does not decay when exposed to water beneath ground, a quality that meant it was a particular favourite of coffin makers, and for underground water pipes etc. In fact, the tree discovered by four local lads whilst they were bird nesting, was a Wych Hazel, but was known locally as the Wych Elm, possibly to preserve the runic tree alphabet connection that forms the latter part of the Saint's name, or probably as likely because of simple error. The symbolical connection with the elemental otherworld of water is noteworthy, as is the fact that in this case, the tree itself was a well known local gathering place for pagans, who would have been attracted by the unusual appearance of the tree, with its flexible branches resembling a Witch's wild shock of hair, it was said). Also note, that the graffitist does not ask "Who killed Bella?", but "Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?". Other subsequent grafittos appeared in which the name was amended to "Lubella", but the question was still oriented to the fateful tree. More recently, (see Sunday Independent article below) the cryptic message reappeared on Hagley monument, and there was renewed press interest. The author can reveal that this was a publicity stunt by "The Passion Killers", a 1980's rock group, who wrote an eponymous song. More recently, a successful opera has been written based on the events! The Hwicce, of course, was the name of the local tribe that became the new overlords of Wychbury in the 6th century (pronounced as "Wyche"). These connections may seem recondite, but that is the point. Everyone in the entire urban area was aware of the story, but only a few would have been able to piece together the complex symbolism. The mystery remains unsolved. But who was Bella? Local theories suggested that either she was a German spy (nearby is the Black country and Birmingham with all their war industries, and also the Rolls - Royce works at Hartlebury) who came to grief in some way. Later, someone with connections to British Intelligence confirmed this story to a local Newspaper; or was a victim of a gypsy or Pagan ritual killing (this was the theory favoured by the late Margaret Murray, a popular folklorist of the time. It seems that the hand could not have been physically detached by a wild animal without having gone past the obstruction of the rest of the decaying corpse. She thought that the entire event was steeped in evidence of Black Magic, a "hand o' glory" type killing in which the hand is buried separately. Entombment in the tree was a way of preventing harm from the Witch beyond the grave. Odd things were going on around this time, when Britain stood in maximum danger of being invaded by Germany (operation "Sea Lion"). Aleister Crowley was said to have approached a New Forest Coven, who persuaded an Old male member to sacrifice himself by exposure, so as to raise "the cone of power" to deter an invasion. In Warwickshire a farm labourer was found impaled with a pitchfork at a Pagan site etc. Was this another such scenario?
Other people thought the Woman was a prostitute or barmaid (a barmaid at a local pub "The Chequers" went missing at the right time). The Woman had been suffocated, it seems, and the piece of Taffeta that strangled her had been stuffed into her mouth, where it remained when the corpse was exhumed. But why "Bella"? Was this a ruse to throw police off the scent? And why the tree disposal of the body? In Warwickshire at about this time there was a ritual murder, and this was blamed on a Coven. Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers, but the tree concerned was within a mile of the Wychbury site. Maybe all or some of these theories may be conflated? A modern day press spokesman for the police, a Mr. Carl Baldacchino thinks the "Bella" graffito is merely a "joke". (quoted in an article entitled: "Murder, Mystery, and half a century of suspense." Sunday Independent, August 1999). He must have a pretty wyrd sense of humour. For my own money, what I am suggesting is that Myths are intrinsic and immanent in the landscape, (so called "Earth Mysteries") and it is strange how the macabre does seem to cling around these liminal places separated as they may be by centuries and Millenia, but still reproducing these powerful events. What Mr. Baldacchino does is what generations of the ignorant and profane have done before him, by belittling what he cannot understand or explain. As Levy-Bruhl says, "If the sacred myths were to be divulged, they would be profaned and would thus lose their mystic qualities. Their deeper meaning and efficacy were revealed only to the initiate. Non initiates regarded them merely as amusements". ("La Mythologie Primitive", 1935). Nearby, are the series of monuments erected by Lord Lyttleton (descendant of one of the Gunpowder plotters), the "Temple of Theseus" which was the finest example of neo Doric architecture in Europe at its inception, the Hagley Monument, erected I think in memory of his wife who predeceased him, and atop Adam's hill, the "Four stones" -- an example of neo megalithic romanticism. The poet Shenstone had a grand plan for reordering the landscape hereabouts also. About two and a half miles away, in the village of Romsley, a modern commemorative sculpture park has been set up at St. Kenelm's well and shrine. This is quite nicely done, really, and the contrast of this peaceful and sacred environment, with a birds eye view over Birmingham City centre and the Black country, is pleasant. The old tradition of tying cloth rags to nearby trees, as a form of sympathetic magic (i.e as the cloth rots, so the disease or distress of the bringer is ameliorated) is obviously still practiced here, and coin offerings are also made. Unfortunately, sometime in the autumn of 2005 the tree was desecrated, and the rags and other items removed. Whoever has done this must either have acted out of malice, ignorance or prejudice, it seems to me, but they are only a transitory problem. New offerings have been made, and the tree will soon be festooned with other offerings, and the healing water will always be there to transfigure the profane, and bestow endless blessings. There have been such offerings since Roman times, since they have been discovered. A propitious time to do this is said to be before dawn, approaching the well from the east, in silence, and circling the well 3 times clockwise, before making the offering, and preferably leaving before sunrise. Dates which are propitious will depend upon the inherent belief system of the pilgrim, so, for a Christian, maybe Easter tide or Christmas etc. for a Pagan, one of the quarterly points on the Sun's journey, or on a new (waxing) Moon for actions designed to attract, or waning to expel the unwanted. St. Kenelm's feast day is July 17th, and so this may be suitable, and in olden times, a custom known as "Crabbing" the Parson was practiced, whereby children pelted the incumbent with Crab Apples! The latter has fallen into disuse, apparently. The significant point, I think, is that it is the water itself which is the energizer and healer, and that purification and transformation ---- as well as unification (all water is, ultimately, One) is the goal. For the Celts, and those who had long preceded them here, wells and springs were a literal interface to the otherworlds, and worship and ritual practice at them could not be stopped, even by explicit pronouncements by the Church (instead, they Christianised the practices, ascribing the healing powers to the Saints). There are many other springs and wells in the Clent and Waseley hills (for instance, Alfred's well, near Dodford, and it is said by local dowsers that the area is a centre of convergence for "Ley lines", the mysterious lines running straight to the west, as discovered by the Herefordshire businessman, Alfred Watkins in the early 2oth century. Well worship is a fairly reliable indicator of the survival of pre Saxon culture, I have been told, and there are still a few Wells that are active in Herefordshire (which was a puppet statelet of the English known as "Arkenfeld", with the vast majority of the country people being of Celtic origin. Another area where Wells are still dressed is the Peak district, and of course there are still many active Wells along the Celtic fringe. One fascinating question is, does the survival of St. Kenelm's indicate a local Celtic (or even pre Celtic) survival? Perhaps, and this was the view of the Rev. Baring Gould, who wrote "Bladys of the Stewponey", a kind of Celtic mini epic set in Staffordshire! A silent film based on the novel was made in 1919, using the Whittington Inn at Kinver as the "Stewponey", and local farming and village people as extras. Though the Victorians did lionize the Celts (and "free" Saxon race) and did much harm with their romanticized musings --- there is a "Celtic" feel to this area. Small villages amidst deep gorges between hills like Clent or Kinver, could easily be in Wales. When the Nordic incomers arrived, instead of proscribing such practices, they honoured and continued them, and so we have here not only a potent example of such practice, but one that has a long and probably unbroken pedigree, which seems accepted by both sides of the Spiritual spectrum. Long may it be so.

Posted by Forrester
21st February 2005ce
Edited 10th January 2006ce

Comments (2)

In the Clent Hills, the local folk still speak of "Harry Cannab"--- the local Devil's horseman and his pack of black "Gabriel Hounds" with blood red ears, who used to run his victims to ground in the high open heathland, before conducting their poor souls to hell for all eternity!! Maybe this is another ancient connection with this area as a land of sacrifice?? I deal with the theme, along with much else in Midlands folklore in my book "Ismere: a story of the Lady of the Mercians" available on www.Ismere.Co.Uk Posted by forrester 2
9th April 2009ce
Nowadays those throwaway plastic supermarket bags that get snagged in trees are referred to by youth as "witches knickers"; this term may only be in use in London though? Posted by bxtr11
23rd February 2011ce
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