And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 10. mars 2013

The Tree and the Rod - Common elements in the vitae of Kenelm of Mercia and Edward the Confessor

            St. Kenelm, from MS Royal 2 B VII, England, c.1330-40


Medieval hagiography is a literary category marked by stock characters, types and repetition. In today's world of individualism these are qualities that are not always well-received by the reading public. In the Middle Ages, however, the situation was very different. Hagiography as a category of literature was modelled on the Gospels, in that its structure was episodic and its protagonist imitated Christ through his or her life, actions and death. This is known as the imitatio Christi and was perhaps the most important feature of the hagiographic literature. As the centuries progressed and the catalogue of saints expanded, a range of different saint-types developed, such as the virgin martyr, the martyr and the confessor. These were ranked in a hierarchy, arranged in accordance with the degree to which the type came close to the imitation of Christ. Because of the veneration of the modl inherent in hagiography, the authors sought to connect the saint in question with people from the Bible, the classical literature or Christian history. Conformity was, in other words, the ideal, since it reassured the devotees that the saint had powers similar to saints higher up in the hierarachy or had a particular relationship with them. For instance, Edward the Confessor was said to be considered by St. Peter and John the Apostle as their equal, according to Aelred of Rievaulx (d.1167). The supreme model was of course Christ, but His life could not be imitated in every way by those who became saints. For instance, some people, like Edward the Confessor, proved their faith not through death but through their living and were thus known as confessors. Others, such as those who died in battle, gave their life for the faith, but because of their warlike path also came a bit short in fully embracing the imitatio Christi.

Because of these features of hagiography, it is of course unsurprising to encounter similarities between somewhat disparate saints, and finding such similarities need not suggest connections. However, exploring such similarities may nonetheless alert us to how widespread or popular certain elements were in a certain period, or a certain geographic location. In this blogpost, therefore, I will look at some similarities between the life of St. Kenelm or Cynehelm (supp. fl. 803x11) and the lives of Edward the Confessor (d.1066). The purpose of this juxtaposition is to draw attention to elements shared by these two royal saints, and how these elements differ. I have not included all the similarities, and there are some interesting cases to be explored in the healing narratives of both saints, but these are less surprising and more easily detected, so I have left them out here. 


Kenelm's martyrdom, from MS Royal 2 B VII, England, c.1330-40

Kenelm of Mercia

Before embarking on the comparison we must first take a brief look at what we are dealing with. St. Kenelm was a - probably apochryphal - martyr who died in the early 9th century. According to his
vita from the mid-eleventh century, he was the son of the king of Mercia and was killed by his tutor on commission from his evil sister Cwenthryth. Through a number of miracles the sanctity of his resting-place became apparent, and when the pope received a message from dove containing the details of his story, he ordered Kenelm venerated. As the translation of Kenelm's remains was carried out, the wicked Cwenthryth sat in her chamber reading the psalter backwards. When she saw the holy relics of her brother, her eyes fell out of her head and onto the page.

Although the anonymous author of Kenelm's
vita refer to old English songs as his source for the legend, this may merely be the invocation of ancient authority so dear to medieval scribes, or it may accurately reflect how the legend was disseminated. In any case, Rosalind Love states that the cult of Kenelm "only took on a coherent form" at about 969 (Love 1996: cxi), and from the evidence available there is little to suggest "any formal, liturgical, veneration of Kenelm before the middle of the tenth century." The early ecclesiastically sanctioned cult of Kenelm was, in other words, closely connected to the Benedictine reformers of that age.

The earliest extant evidence of liturgical commemoration of Kenelm's
dies natalis, his heavenly birthday, can be found in calendar from south-west England dated to the second half of the 10th century, and his name can be found "in virtually all the calendars surviving from the eleventh century" (Love 1996: cxiv). Furthermore, books of hours, litanies and similar liturgical evidence point to Kenelm's enduring popularity well into the 15th century. This is underscored by the Middle English life of Kenelm in the 13th century South English Legendary.

Death of Edward the Confessor, the Bayeux Tapestry

Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor is better known than Kenelm and presumably requires less introduction. Those who are interested, however, may find blogposts about him here, here and here. As a confessor, Edward ranked below Kenelm in the saintly hierarchy, but because of Edward's attachment and appropriation by the English monarchy, he enjoyed a more ostentatious veneration, at least in periods. Nonetheless, despite the billowing trajectory of his cult, he remained an important presence in the world of medieval England.

The first biography of Edward was written by an anonymous Flemish monk in the third quarter of the eleventh century (c.1065-75), commissioned by the king's widow, Edith. This was, however, not a hagiography, but part family chronicle, part religious biography, yet it was the foundation on which the later hagiographic literature on Edward was based. The first proper hagiography was written c.1138 by Osbert of Clare, prior of Westminster, and this was rewritten by Aelred of Rievaulx in 1163 on the occasion of Edward's translation. However, while not a hagiography, Vita Ædwardi was heavily influenced by this category and uses a wide range of hagiographic elements, so although Edward is not considered a saint in this biography - unlike Kenelm whose sainthood is asserted repeatedly - he comes very close.

The reason why a comparison between Kenelm and Edward is of interest, is that both their first biographies, Vita et Miracula Sancti Kenelmi and Vita Ædwardi qui apud westmonsteriam recquiescit, came about roughly in the same period, i.e during the queenship or retirement of Edith (1045-75), the Confessor's wife. We don't know either of the authors, but evidence suggests that the author of the former may have been English (due to his purported knowledge of old English songs), while the latter is now accepted to have been a Flemish monk.What is most interesting, however, is that both these work refer to Edith as an active force in their creations. Vita Ædwardi is dedicated to the queen and the monk refers to his commission several times, while the author of Kenelm's vita expresses his gratitude to Edith for having "revealed to us the remarkable documents of proof which she said she had herself read about him" (Love 1996: 53). This snippet of information confirms the claims of the Flemish anonymous of Edith's passion for reading and the fine arts.

Comparing the vitae of Kenelm and Edward, in other words, is not merely a juxtaposition of two completely unrelated texts, but texts which came about in the same period and were ostensibly influenced by Queen Edith. In the case of Edward, I will also draw on Osbert of Clare's vita, which is a pure hagiography, and later than the two primary texts, but heavily influenced by Vita Ædwardi.

The shared features of Kenelm and Edward

The dream of the tree

Both saints have ominous dreams in which a tree plays a significant part. Kenelm, a young child, recounts to his nurse how a tree stood before my bed, so high that it reached right up to the stars, and I saw myself standing in its lofty top, from where I could see everything for miles around. The treee was very beautiful and spreading, with wide-stretched branches, filled from bottom to top with all kinds of flowers. I saw also that the whole thing blazed with countless lights and lamps, and what is more three parts of this land were bending low in devotion to me. As I marvelled at the view from such a great watch-tower, some of my men rushed up below and cut down the tree and it fell with a great crash. And I was straightaway turned into a little white bird and soared into the heavens with easy flight.
- Love 1996: 57.

The dream is then woefully interpreted by the nurse, but Kenelm - called a second Joseph - receives these tidings with saintly serenity. As Rosalind Love points out, one source of this dream is probably the Book of Daniel: I saw, and behold a tree in the midst of the earth, and the height thereof was great. The tree grew, and was strong, and the heigth threof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth: The leaves thereof were fair, and the fruit thereof much, and it was meat for all (...) I saw in the visions of my head upon my bed, and, behold, a watcher and an holy one came down from heaven; He cried aloud and said thus, Hew down the tree, and cut off his branches, shake off his leaves, and scatter his fruit.
- The Book of Daniel, 4:10-14, KJV

Dream of Nebuchadnezzar

However, there is also a touch of Joseph's dream of the sheaves of corn, which bend to him in devotion, a touch strengthened by the overt reference to Joseph, which may also serve to distance Kenelm from the wicked Nebuchadnezzar:

For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves sttod round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf.
- Genesis 37:7, KJV

Edward the Confessor, however, experienced a different dream on his deathbed. After a period of heavy sickness followed by his consecration of Westminster in 1065, Edward awoke and told how he was visited in his sleep by priests he had become acquainted with during his exile in Normandy. The priests told him that after his death England would fall into great distress on account of the wickedness of its priests (many of whom were Norman). Edward is greatly pained by this and asks for some consolation, a promise of divine alleviation. To this the priests reply:

When a green tree, having been cut from its trunk and set apart from its own root at the space of three yokes, returns to its trunk and is restored to its old root - compelled by no human hand, driven by no necessity - and, with its sap restored, flowers again and bears fruit, then some comfort in this tribulation and a remedy for the trouble we have foretold is to be hoped for.
- The Life of Saint Edward, King and Confessor, Aelred (translated by Jane Patricia Freeland), printed in Dutton 2005: 205-06

Although Edward's dream is also ominous, it is very different from the dream of Kenelm. First of all, it contains a parable of a tree, not the tree itself. Secondly, while Kenelm's dream foretells the young king's death, the dream of Edward foretells the disasters that will befall England. Furthermore, while Kenelm is compared with Joseph the dreamer, Edward receives the role of admonitor, the prophet who warns his people in the manner of Elijah threatening Ahab. Nonetheless, I find it interesting that the tree is found as an important metaphorical element in the dreams of both Kenelm and Edward, and this may point to a topos of 11th century literature, for although the quote above is taken from Aelred, the story first appears in the anonymous Vita Ædwardi (which I do not have available right now). It is rather tempting to suggest that the authors may have drawn some inspiration from the Dream of the Rood. However, considering the author of Vita Ædwardi was Flemish he may not have been familiar with this work, and the biblical nature of Kenelm's dream does not suggest any other sources - though they may exist. It is, therefore, an open question, whether the tree imagery draws on the same topos, or whether there are parallel traditions in use.

The miracle of the rod

The second feature is not to be found in Vita Ædwardi, but in Osbert's c.1138 hagiography. This text is from another century, but it relies heavily on the 11th-century work and therefore makes for an interesting comparison.

First, however, we must start with Vita Kenelmi. After having fallen asleep while hunting with his evil tutor, the little boy wakes up to find his soon-to-be murderer preparing his grave. Since Kenelm has been warned of this he expresses little concern about the murder, but states that he shall be buried elsewhere. To prove that this was the will of God, he plants his rod in the ground and it blossoms into an ash tree, which, according to the scribe, is still standing as evidence of this miracle.

Edward the Confessor's miracle is posthumous and is included in the lengthy catalogue of such miracles written by Osbert of Clare, which are not included in the
Vita Ædwardi. The miracle in question concerns Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester (c.1008-95), himself canonised in 1203, and probably recounts what happened at the legatine council at Westminster in 1070. Osbert states that Wulfstan was asked to give up his baculum, his bishop's rod of office, presumably due to controversy over cathedral reform. To this Wulfstan replied:

What you ask of me is not within your right, nor is the care of the church granted to me by you, neither do I hold the holiness and discipline of the house of God in debt to you.
Vita Beati Edwardi Regis, Osbert of Clare, edited by Marc Bloch, printed in Analecta Bollandiana 41, 1923: 117. My translation.

Since only he who has given something can take it back, Wulfstan goes to the tomb of Edward the Confessor, who was king when Wulfstan was installed as bishop. Wulfstan then places his
baculum on the Confessor's tomb and asks someone to remove it. If it can be removed, the Confessor has relieved him of his office. As it turns out, no one can remove the baculum and Wulfstan keeps his position. This story appears to have been invented by Osbert as it does not appear in the biographical material relating to Wulfstan, and may possibly be one of the sources inspiring the sword in the stone of Arthurian mythology. Emma Mason claims that Thomas Becket, out of devotion to the not-yet-canonised Wulfstan, brought with him to Canterbury the part of the tombstone in which his staff had been planted (Mason 1990: 284). Frank Barlow, however, states that Becket took the Confessor's right arm (Barlow 1962: 132-33).

Arthur receiving the sword
MS Additional 10292, Le Estoire de Merlin, France, c.1316

The two miracles in question are from different eras and of different natures, yet the pivotal aspect is nonetheless the same: a rod that cannot be removed from where it has been planted unless by divine mandate. Due to the temporal gap between the texts it is doubtful if any direct link should be suggested, but they may point to a common source. In the cultural lexicon of the Middle ages, two such sources stand out as the most likely candidates, namely the rods of Aaron and Moses as described in Exodus. According to Jewish Encyclopedia, there is an haggadic tradition stating that before the rod of Aaron came in his possession, it had belonged to Joseph who in turn had received it as an heirloom. After Joseph's death the rod was taken by the soon-to-be father-in-law of Moses, Jethro or Raguel, to the following effect:

Jethro planted the staff in his garden, when its marvelous virtue was revealed by the fact that nobody could withdraw it from the ground; even to touch it was fraught with danger to life. This was because the Ineffable Name of God was engraved upon it.
- Jewish Encyclopedia, Isidore Singer (ed.), 1901 (

If this story was known to the monks of the 11th and 12th centuries, it may well have served as the model for the rods of the Kenelm and Edward legends. Whether this was the case, however, I can not state with any certainty, and it may well be that the topos originated in the Norse legends later recorded as the Volsungsaga.

Moses with the staff handing over the stone tablets
MS Harley 616, France, last quarter of 13th century

Enemies in the home

The third and final feature I will look at here concerns conflicts between the saint/protagonist and a close member of the family. In the case of Kenelm it was, as stated, one of his sisters who proved to be the problem. In Vita Kenelmi the role of Cwenthryth is unequivocally to be the antagonist bringing about the king's death, the vehicle of his martyrdom, so to speak. She is described very vividly as "goaded by savage envy and an ambition to rule" (Love 1996: 55), and compared with such famous biblical types as Herodias, Jezabel and Cain, thus encompassing the wicked female royal and the fratricide. The scribe wryly states "there is no more baneful pest than an enemy in th home". Cwenthryth is of course duly punished, as recorded above, when the sight of her brother's remains being paraded into view makes her eyeballs literally pop out of her head.

Cain slaying Abel
MS Royal 2 B VII, England, c.1330-40

Edward the Confessor, on the other hand, faced a much less dramatic conflict, but nonetheless a kind of discord alien to the Christian ideal of harmonious family relations, an ideal cherished by the hagiographers of the Middle Ages. The conflict in question arose between Edward and his mother because of the problem of succession following Edward's exile into Normandy and his mother's marriage to King Canute, who gave her Edward's half-brother Harthacnute. When Edward came to the throne in 1042 upon the death of Hartacnut - some say he drank himself to death - the new king was angry with his mother (an anger perhaps aggravated by his brother Alfred's death at the hands of Danes), confiscated her properties and shut her up in a nunnery, according to William of Malmesbury. This animosity was left out of the hagiographies as it reflected very badly on Edward, the paragon of mildness and generosity. However, it was retained by historiographers long after Edward's canonisation in 1161, and as late as the 1390s Richard of Cirencester included this feature in his near-hagiographic historical account of Edward's life (Mayor (ed.) 1863, vol 2: 211 ).

Family disputes are not uncommon in hagiographies, but what is interesting here is that although the feature of family discord appear in texts pertaining to both saints, they are also different on a very fundamental level. On the one hand, the nature of the discords differ greatly in seriousness. Kenelm's sister commissions his death and reads the psalter backwards as cursing. The scribe's juxtaposition of her and a minor catalogue of deceitful characters leaves no question as to her nature, and her horrible end underlines this very vividly. Edward's dispute is a matter of distrust and it does not result in deadly retaliation, nor are any of the sides in the dispute portrayed as personifications of good and evil, since Edward is not yet called a saint.

Another important aspect is how this discord relates to sainthood. In the case of Kenelm, Cwenthryth's betrayal is an elemental part of the young boy's martyrdom and is therefore crucial to the hagiographic narrative. In the case of Edward the Confessor, on the other hand, the family quarrel becomes an embarrassing element for his hagiographers and is therefore omitted. In fact, Kenelm has more in common with Edward Martyr who was killed in 978 on behest of his stepmother Ælfthryth.


As we see there are certain interesting elements which feature in the literature of both saints. However, not all these elements belong to hagiography, and through this comparison we have seen that although the elements are similar, there are certain crucial differences which decide which category of literature they belong to. We may speculate to what degree the two literary traditions have influenced each other and we will probably never find a satisfactory answer, but it is interesting to note that Queen Edith has played an instrumental role in the crafting of both these traditions. Although, as we have seen, there are certain topological resemblances between the two saints, their differences are more numerous. I will therefore not draw any conclusions beyond the tantalising idea that having been brought about in the same period and perhaps in the same intellectual milieu, the traditions of these two saints are to some unknown degree intertwined.


Barlow, Frank, The Life of King Edward who rests at Westminster, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1962

Bloch, Marc (ed.), “La Vie de S. Edouard le Confesseur par Osbert de Clare,” Analecta Bollandi-ana 41, 1923

Dutton, Marsha (ed.) and Freeland, Jane Patricia (transl.), Aelred of Rievaulx: The Historical Works, Cistercian Publications Inc., 2005

Hart, Cyril, ‘Edward [St Edward; called Edward the Martyr] (c.962–978)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

Love, Rosalinda C.,
Three Eleventh-Century Anglo-Latin Saints' Lives, Clarendon Press, 1996

Mason, Emma,
St Wulfstan of Worcester, Oxford 1990

Mason, Emma, Mason, ‘Wulfstan [St Wulfstan] (c.1008–1095)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

Mayor, John E. B. (ed.), Ricardi de Cirencestria Speculum Historiale de Gestis Regum Angliæ, London, 1863

Mynors, R. A. B., Thomson, R. M., Winterbottom, M., William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum, The History of the English Kings, Clarendon Press, 1998

Rollason, David, ‘Cynehelm (supp. fl. 803x11)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004


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