In 1214, King John gave the manor of Hales, Shropshire, to Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, to build there a religious house of ‘whatever order he pleased’. The abbey at Halesowen was established four years later, dedicated to the Virgin and St John the Evangelist.
The canons who lived at the Abbey were known as the ‘white canons’ as they dressed in undyed habits. They followed a timetable for daily devotion, starting early in the morning, and held important charity, obedience, and individual poverty. There was a focus on contemplation as a way of avoiding the distractions of life.
The main abbey buildings were originally situated within a rectangular precinct, defined by man-made fishponds to the north, south, and southwest.
The monastery acted as a resting point for pilgrims to nearby St Kenelm’s Church, Romsley, said to have been built near the site where Kenelm, King of Mercia, had been martyred. The waters of St Kenelm’s spring there were thought to have healing properties.
visiting Halesowen Abbey
West Midlands, B62 8RJ
Open to view from the public footpath only.
Please Be Aware: The land immediately around the site of the abbey is privately owned and no access is permitted. The ruins can be viewed from a nearby footpath.
Access: From the A456 the footpath can be found 150 metres west of the Black Horse pub. The path to the Abbey includes a stile and the ground may be uneven. The Abbey can best be viewed from just over the stile.
For further information on Halesowen Abbey, the following site has proved very useful.
The Legend of Saint Kenelm
Local legend tells us that Kenelm (Cynehelm) was the son of a Saxon king named Kenulph, and grandson of the famous king, Offa.
Offa died in 819 AD, leaving seven-year-old Kenelm to inherit his title as king of all Mercia. Being so young to come into power, Kenelm's sister Quendryh, and his foster-father Askebert, were instructed to watch over him until he came of age, but like so many royal houses, treachery was in play.
Instead of protecting the boy, they plotted to have him killed, so intent were they on securing power and wealth for themselves. They set a plan into action to take Kenelm on a hunting trip in the Clent Hills, where they plotted for something dreadful to befall the boy.
The night before their departure, Kenelm had a troubling and strange dream. In it, he climbed up a tree which was decorated with all sorts of odd things. From the top, he could see all of his kingdom, with the four quarters of his kingdom represented as men. Three of these bowed down to him, yet the fourth cut at the tree with an axe. As the tree was felled, Kenelm was transformed into a white dove and was able to flee.
The young king, upon awaking, told a cunning woman from Winchcombe about his dream. Skilled in interpreting dreams, she wept upon hearing his description, as it foretold treachery and his pending death.
Strangely, this did not dissuade Kenelm, and he travelled with his foster father, the wicked Askebert, to Clent regardless. They reached the hills and Kenelm knelt down to pray to give thanks. It was then that his stepfather struck. Creeping up behind Kenelm, he cut off his head with a sweep of his axe.
Kenelm's body was hidden beneath a thorn tree in a spot that Askebert thought nobody would ever find. Yet the murder was betrayed by a miracle.
It is said that his spirit was transformed into a dove which carried a scroll to the Pope in Rome with a message reading, "Low in a mead of kine under a thorn, of head bereft, lieth poor Kenelm king-born" (Low in a meadow of cattle under a thorn tree, head missing, lies poor Kenelm king-born).
The Pope sent missionaries to England in search of the remains of the murdered king. Whilst in the Clent Hills, they came upon a herd of cattle tended by an old woman.
One of these animals had taken to straying from the rest and stood vigil by a thorn bush. The woman explained how the beast would neither eat nor drink, yet its health had not diminished in any way. The missionaries took this as a sign and dug beneath the thorn bush where they found Kenelm's body. As his remains were lifted from the ground, a spring began to flow, and the holy well of St. Kenelm was created.
We know that much of this legend is artistic license. Story-tellers over the years have all added to the tale of the miraculous nature of Kenelm's death and the discovery of his body.
As far as historical accounts go, we know that Kenelm did not die as a boy, but lived into adulthood. It is thought that he lived to be twenty-five and was possibly slain in battle fighting against the Welsh.
With thanks to https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Legend-of-Saint-Kenelm
According to the legend, St Kenelm's church at Romsley was built on the site of the murder of St Kenelm. A shrine was built where the holy spring arose from the ground which became a chapel of ease to Halesowen Abbey and was later made a parish church in 1841.
Eadwys - the tale
Eadwys knelt on the cold flags of the chapel floor, his hands clasped as he repeated his prayer. Candlelight did little to disperse the dark of early morning. It would be hours until the sun shone its blessed rays above the horizon.
Ignoring the cold that chilled his very bones, Eadwys cast aside all earthly thoughts and gave himself to his god. At last, he rose to his feet and left the sacred space. He would return within the hour to pray again. It would be a while before he could sit down with his fellow monks to break their fast.
His day would then be filled with labour, tending the gardens where they grew peas and beans, and fruit. In autumn, apples would be picked and put into storage. Eadwys enjoyed the days when it was his task to catch the shining fish from the large fish ponds that had been constructed by the abbey to provide food for the monks. The clouds from the heavens rippled on the waters which helped him in quiet contemplation as he worked.
At noon, the monks would gather again in the abbey to offer their praise.
After the toil in the gardens would be work in the kitchen that catered for the monks’ every meagre need. The bread made from rye, not so tasty as the loaves made from wheat, helped resist temptation to gluttony. The monks ate for sustenance, not pleasure.
There would be prayer again in the early evening after which the monks retired to their pallets filled with straw to sleep in preparation for their early rise for prayer on the morrow.
Eadwys loved the quiet and peacefulness of the abbey. The only speech was when voices were raised in prayer, or when the abbot passed instruction. Eadwys loved the simple robes they wore of undyed cloth which gave rise to the monks being known as the White Canons. Eadwys was proud of his devotion, of his hard work, of his dedication to his life as a monk. And therein lay a problem. Pride was not fitting to his station.
He tried hard to overcome this and in early years he was successful, pushing the pride aside, keeping it buried deep in his heart. Yet it never went away, just stayed hidden, lingering, lurking, ready to surface in years to come.
Over the years, pilgrims came to the abbey at Halesowen and were offered a place to rest their weary heads as they made their way to St Kenelm’s church in Romsley. People went there to visit the site where the King of Mercia had been martyred, killed by jealous family who fought for his throne. The pope had sent missionaries to investigate the young king’s vision that foretold of his tragic death and it was they who uncovered his body. Waters sprung miraculously from the ground and were said to have healing properties.
Eadwys had dark thoughts. People came from far and wide to visit this church newly established at Romsley on the basis of ‘healing waters’, yet just used his beloved abbey as a place to rest on their way. They should have been in awe of the devotion that sprang from the monks who dedicated their lives to god. That in itself was miraculous. They deserved more recognition. Eadwys deserved more recognition.
Unable to contain his pride, the foundations of his faith weakened. What good was he, a weak man who had no longer the strength of faith to sustain him in his godly life. Eadwys, in shame, left the abbey that had been his refuge for so many years.
At first, he wandered lost and bewildered, hungry and cold. Peasants who worked in the fields took pity on this poor man, shared with him what little they had, let him sleep by the embers of the fire. Humbled by the generosity of these people who had nothing, Eadwys found a purpose in his life. He repaid their kindness by soothing troubled spirits, giving guidance and support on a human level, far removed from his spiritual isolation. He spoke to them of the Bible that he no longer believed, knowing that most still did.
Yet despite of everything he tried to atone for his sin of pride and abandoning his calling as a monk, he could not forgive himself. He did not believe that his god would forgive him either.
One day Eadwys was called to the side of an elderly lady who was damp with fever. He sat by her bed, wiping her brow. He was sad. He knew that she was dying. Yet she was content, smiling despite her pain. She watched Eadwys, saw his questioning, his fear.
‘Do not weep for me,’ she said. ‘I am soon going to meet my maker. How wondrous that will be.’ She reached for his hand which now lay limp on her bed. ‘He will forgive you, for you are a good man.’
Eadwys watched as she passed with a gentle sigh, a smile still on her face. The strength of her faith inspired him. He decided in that moment to return to the abbey, to his life of prayer, to seek forgiveness.
Alas, this was not to be. Eadwys felt the heat that rose from inside him, that brought sweat to his skin despite his chills. He found himself watching his own feeble body as it lost strength, lost its battle with life. Eadwys had not found the forgiveness he sought.
His spirit still wanders this earth, doing the good that he had done in life, hoping one day to find peace. He wanders between the abbey and the church, finding joy in the peacefulness, joy in the new shining waters, joy in the woodland that he recognises from old. Watch for the sudden flight of birds when he is near. Listen to his sighs in the soughing of the wind in low branches. Feel the trickle of chill as he lays his hand on your shoulder to offer you comfort. For Eadwys is always there for you.