THE BALLAD OF ST. KENELM       AD 821    

 

By Francis Brett Young

 

In our sweet shires of Mercia

Five blessed Saints we had;

Four were proud Princes of the Church,

And one was a little lad.

 

Wistan, Wulstan, Oswald, Chad:

Each hallowed Mercia's realm;

But the saint we love all others above

Is little Saint Kenelm.

 

Kenelm was but a child of seven

And his father seven weeks dead,

When in Lichfield town they set the crown

Of kingship on his head,

 

And hailed him as their anointed king,

While all the Mercian lords

Took oath to stand at Kenelm's hand

On the cross-hilts of their swords;

 

And the bronze bells of Lichfield clanged

And rocked their towers of stone,

That God had sent an innocent

To sit on Offa's throne;

 

While folk that laboured in the fields

Heard the bells clang with joy,

And thronged the ways to cheer and gaze

On the beauty of the boy.

 

But his sister Quendryth in her bower

Brooding stayed apart;

Alone she sate, with naught but hate !   

And black gall in her heart,

 

And a sour face thrawn with bitterness

That this weak child should own

The shining prize for which her eyes

Most lusted: Mercia's crown.

 

So sent she for her paramour-

Lord Escebert was his name-

And whispered near his willing ear

These words of dark shame:

 

"We twain are one in will and flesh,

And but for one small thing

I should have been thy crowned queen

And thou my wedded king;

 

"And that small thing is but the breath

 Of my father's brat, Kenelm.

Give me his life, and wed me wife,

And we will share this realm!"

 

Then Escebert, her paramour,

Pondered Quendrytha's rede,

And searched his mind some way to find

To compass that dark deed.

 

And as it chanced, that very month,

The Lords of Mercia went

To hunt the wolf in Offa's Wood

That shags the hills of Clent:

 

A deep wood and a dark wood,

For black deeds meet, where grew

A brambled brash of oak and ash,

Hazel and holly and yew.

 

And when into the wood's green heart

He saw the hunters ride,

Then Escebert slipped behind, and clipped

Himself to Kenelm's side.

 

"Good Escebert, they ride too fast:

Forsake me not, I pray,

When through the thorns the wail of horns

Shivers and dies away!"

 

"Let them ride on, my little king:

No matter how far they go,

You need have no fear of wolf or bear

With me at your saddle-bow."

 

"Good Escebert, a thorn has hurt

My pony's hoof, I fear:

The dusk now broods on these wild woods

And the black of night draws near."

 

"Content thyself, my little king,

Nor dread the fading light:

Full well I wot of a woodward's cot

Where we may bide this night."

 

"Good Escebert, I am athirst,

And my tongue cleaves to my mouth."

"I know of a spring, my little king,

To slake and quench thy drouth."

 

But when they came to a woodland brook,

And the child, unaware,

Knelt by the brink and bent to drink,

A sword flashed in the air;

 

And the shorn head of little Kenelm

Reddened the brook with blood,

While Escebert leapt to his saddle and crept

Like a wolf from Offa's Wood.

 

Loose-reined he rode through the dark night

Till he came to the hall of a thane

Where the huntsmen rolled with ale and told

Of the fierce wolves they had slain.

 

Ho, Escebert, good lord," they cried,

"Come join out wassailing!

For you have missed our drinking-tryst

To ride with the little king."

 

Then Escebert's false cheek grew wan:

"God witness what I say!

I have not seen Kenelm, I ween,

Since noon of yesterday,

 

"Nor can I guess what ways he strayed:

So quit your wassail-board,

That all may search oak ash and birch

To find our little lord!"

 

A weary week those woods they searched

By holt and holm and glade;

But neither eve nor foot drew nigh

The place where he was laid;

 

And never a single whisper woke

Those brambly solitudes

But the rustle that spreads from the wind-stirred heads

Of wild trees in the woods.

 

(Hazel, hazel, bend your boughs

Over the streamlet's bed,

And with your primrose pollen gild

A halo for his head!

 

Holly, holly, shake your branch

Till the brittle leaves rain down,

And weave about the dead child's brow

A martyr's thorny crown!

 

Cherry, cherry, shed your snow

Of petals in a cloud,

And on the little limbs below

Spread a soft shroud!

 

Yew tree, yew tree, over him

Your funeral pennons wave;

But let not your bright berries drip

Their blood upon his grave,

 

To fleck the whiteness of the shroud

That the wild cherry strewed

On the gentlest fawn that ever was torn

By wolf in Offa's Wood!)

 

So home the hunt to Lichfield rode

And the bronze bells clanged again

A muffled toll for the innocent soul

Of the child that had been slain;

 

And folk who heard the tolling wept,

For they knew what it must mean;

And the Mercian Lords swore on their swords

To hold Quendrytha queen.

 

Now far away in Italy,

Under Peter's dome,

Frail and old on his throne of gold

Slept Paschal, Pope of Rome.

 

A weary man, an aged man

Of four score years and seven;

And in his listless hands he held

The Crossed Keys of Heaven.

 

Holy Holy, Holy!

The children's voices swell,

While sweet and loud, through the incense-cloud

Shivers the Sanctus Bell;

 

And as they heard the silvery chime,

From the clouded vault above

Like a falling flake of cherry-bloom

Fluttered a milk-white dove

 

That held a quill in his golden bill

And laid it on the Host,

And all the people rose and cried:

"See, see: the Holy Ghost!"

 

"A miracle ... A miracle!"

So loud a cry there broke

That the old Pope rubbed his rheumy eyes

And dropt his keys, and woke!

 

And he called three scarlet cardinals

To read out what was writ

On the parchment folded within the quill,

But they could not fathom it.

 

"These -words are writ in rhyme," they said,

And the tongue of a far land

That none in Rome or Christendom

Is like to understand.

 

"Yet all strange peoples come to Rome,

So let the rhyme be heard;

Some ear may catch the sound and match

The sense to fit the word":

 

In Clent cowbethe Kenelm Kynebear lfth

Under thorne haevedes bereaft.

 

Then up spoke an old Saxon clerk:

"Sirs, you have given news

Of the bloodiest deed that ever was done

Since Christ was slain by the Jews:

 

"That in Cowbeath, which is by Clent,

Midmost in Mercia's realm,

Beneath a thorn, his head off shorn,

Lieth our king, Kenelm."

 

So the Pope blessed that screed,

and with The ring of Peter sealed,

And bade that Saxon carry it

To his Bishop, in Lichfield.

 

Then, once again, from Lichfield towers,

The bells boomed overhead;

And the Mercian thanes rode out again

To search for Kenelm's head;

 

And when they came to the woods of Clent

And rode into the shade,

Behold-a shaft of blinding light

Fell where the child was laid!

 

So, tenderly, they lifted him

And bore him to his tomb

In Winchcombe, where our Mercian kings

Lie till the Day of Doom;

 

But as through Winchcombe's mourning street

They passed by slow degrees,

Quendrytha at her window sate

With the Bible on her knees.

 

She read of false Queen Jezebel,

And when they spied the hearse

That carried Kenelm, her wicked eyes

Spat blood upon the verse.

 

And the common folk, who saw this thing,

Knew what it meant full well,

And flung her down into the street

To lie like Jezebel;

 

And Escebert, her foul paramour,

They slew him where he stood;

And those twain lay for a week and a day,

And the dogs lapped their blood.

 

But the king's lords buried little Kenelm

With pomp in Winchcombe's fane,

And built a chantry for pilgrim-folk

By the brook where he was slain;

 

And the waters that well from where he fell

All mortal ills assuage­

Not even Saint Thomas of Canterbury

Hath greater pilgrimage

 

Than the innocent king of Mercia

That his sister's leman slew

And hid in the brash of oak and ash,

hazel and holly and yew!

 

Wistan, Wulstan, Oswald, Chad:

All pray for Mercia's realm;

But our loveliest saint was a little lad:

King Kynewulf's son, Kenelm.

 

 

From The Island by F Brett Young, 1944, Heinemann.