English: The Parish Church of St Kenelm's, Ens...

Ever worry that there are no undiscovered gems for boys?

Today’s choice fits the bill.  Our Baby Name of the Day is Kenelm.

I first stumbled on Kenelm while writing about Everettand then again while researching Digby.

Like Kendrick, the first element comes from cene, an Old English word meaning brave.  Elm comes from helm – helmet.  Original spellings would have been Cenhelm or Cynehelm.

He’s a semi-legendary saint from ninth century England, the only son of the King of Mercia.  He inherits the throne at the tender age of seven.  His jealous older sister conspires to have him murdered on a hunting trip.

Here’s where the story turns fantastic – Kenelm’s soul leaves his body in the form of a dove, and the dove flies to Rome, carrying a note revealing the circumstances of his death.  The Pope receives the missive, and orders a search for the young king’s remains.  The body is found, and a spring with healing waters bursts forth from his grave.  As they carry the body back to Winchcombe Abbey, the bells ring – even though no one is in the bell tower.  His sister gets her just desserts.

Winchcombe Abbey became a major pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages, and St. Kenelm’s feast day – July 17th – was celebrated with a fair.  Geoffrey Chaucer mentioned the saint in his Canterbury Tales.

There was a Kenelm who ruled Mercia, but he was closer to 15 when he inherited, and his reign lasted a decade or more.

And yet, the tale remains alive in the popular imagination.  Francis Brett Young penned The Ballad of St. Kenelm in the early 20th century, and you can still traverse St. Kenlem’s Walk, between Winchcombe and Clent via the English countryside, passing several small churches bearing his name, like the one pictured above.

Members of the aristocratic Digby family have answered to Kenelm for centuries:

  • The first appears to be Member of Parliament Kenelm Digby, born in the 1500s.
  • A second Sir Kenelm Digby was born half a century later.  He had a fairly successful career, serving two kings, despite being a Catholic in Anglican England.
  • Digbys have remained prominent – writer, lawyers, various civil offices – over the years.
  • The current Baron Digby is  Edward Henry Kenelm.  His son is Henry Noel Kenelm, and his grandson is Edward St. Vincent Kenelm.

Kenelm must have had a mini-revival in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

  • Kenelm Lister-Kaye was a baronet and cricket player.
  • Anthropologist Kenlem Burridge taught at Oxford.
  • The brewing family gives us Kenelm Guiness, better known as a race car driver and inventor in the 1910s and 20s.
  • Kenelm Foss was a silent film actor and director.
  • In 1874, the future Earl of Cottenham was named Kenlem Charles Edward.  His heir was Kenelm Charles Francis.  The name continues to be used in the family to this day.

Kenelm has never been given to more than five boys in any given year in the US, but I did find one notable bearer of the name: a member of the Winslow family who helped to settle Marshfield, Massachusetts in the 1630s.

The Ken sound is current for girls – think of Kennedy, Kendall, Mackenzie, Mackenna, Kendra, and Kenley, and Kenneth feels classic for a son.

Kenelm shortens to the friendly Ken, but he needs no nickname.  There’s something about this old name that feels right at home with Liam and Carson.

If you’re looking for an undiscovered choice for a boy, Kenelm could work.

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About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. Interesting. I’ve never heard this name before.

    Is there some specific way to suggest a name for NotD? I would love to see Jotham profiled.

  2. Colm comes from Columba, so he’s Latin in origin. Kenelm is a probably a little bit younger. I don’t see any evidence of a link …