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The Dark Ages

Composer: Tim Porter. Opera,1966

“The Dark Ages” is based on the mediaeval legend of St Coenhelm (more usually spelt Kenelm), and also on the Angle-Saxon Chronicle. Here is a typical account of the legend as given in MR James’ “Abbeys”:

The foundation of Winchcombe Abbey was asserted to have been as early as 798, and its founder to have been Kenulph, King of Mercia. In or after 821 it became the resting-place of the boy-saint King Kenelm, murdered by order of his wicked sister Quendreda at Clent. In the Abbey was preserved the Psalter which she was reading when the solemn procession bearing her bother’s corpse passed her window. With evil intent she was saying the savage CIXth psalm backwards, and when she reached the verse, “Let it thus happen from the the Lord unto mine enemies” her eyes fell out of her head onto her book, which ever after showed the blood stain.

Various embellishments occur in some version of the story - e.g. that a dove flew to Rome to tell the Pope; that Quendreda persuaded the boy’s tutor, one Aesceberht, to do the deed; that Coenhelm had prophetic dreams before his murder; that a spring of holy water appeared wherever the coffin was put down on its journey from Clent to Winchcombe. The shrine of Coenhelm became a magnet for pilgrims in the Middle Ages. The reuted coffin of Coenwulf and Cownhelm may still be seen in Winchcombe Church, and at least one of the Holy wells can still be visited (near Sudeley).

The Angle-Saxon chronicle supplies this information. That in 796, on the death of Offa, Ecgferth succeeded to the throne of Mercia. He died in the same year, and a distant cousin, Coenwulf, was lifted from obscurity to become king. The outline of Coenwulf’s reign as recorded in the Chronicle is as follows:

796   Rising of Endbert in Kent.
798   Coenwulf invades Wales. Defeats Welsh at Rhuddlan. Subdues Kent, putting out Endbert’s eyes and cutting off his hands. Appoints his brother, Cathred, puppet King of Kent.
801-2   War with Northumbria.
816   War with Wales. “The Saxons overran Rhuweniog (Denbighshire) and carried their devastations as far as Mount Ereyri (Snowdon).”
818   “Wasted all the provinces of Demetia (South Wales).”
821   Coenwulf dies.

It is thought he was killed in battle against the Welsh at Basingwerk, Flintshire. A glance at the map shows what probably happened (i.e. that he was forced into the peninsular West of the Dee and trapped there). The Chronicle makes no mention of Coenhelm, and speculation has arisen as to whether he ever exited. However, it is quite likely that Coenwulf did have a son, and scholars think that if so, he was probably killed in battle: whether he ever in fact succeeded to the throne is not known. Quendreda in real life was an abbess, and can hardly have done the deed. She presumably did not ascend the throne either, and I have taken license with this, as with two of the Chronicle dates (816 to 814 and 818 to 821) to give the story more coherence.

Tim Porter

Cast list

The Chronicler, a monk - speaking part
Coenwulf, King of Mercia - baritone
Quendreda, his daughter - soprano
A Theyn - bass
Hilda of Clent - mezzo-soprano
Caedwalla, a minstrel - baritone
Aesceberht, a Mercian noble - tenor or high baritone
Chorus of monks, soldiers and women


1 flute
1 oboe
1 percussion
2 violins
1 viola
1 cello


Sept 1966: Holy Apostles Hall, Charlton Kings, Cheltenham