I am definitely stopping at St. Bee’s headland on my way from Workington to Morecambe Bay. Why? Because I have found a way to get the headland’s namesake St. Bega into my novel, in the early tenth century.
Yes, I know Melvyn Bragg’s novel Credo places her in the seventh century with Cuthbert, which is fair authorial license since historians can’t establish a clear sense of when, or even if, said Bega lived. Her Life is a twelfth-thirteenth century creation conflating several stories about an Irish saint who crosses the sea to live as a hermit on the Cumbrian headland that now bears her name, and then moves to Northumbria where she founds a religious house for women. The result is an ahistorical account of an Irish princess escaping a Norwegian royal suitor and later viking pirates, but merged with two 7th century women Bede mentions, when there were no viking marauders. Prominent in the account is an arm ring that miraculously opens locked doors (so she can escape her father’s house and the wedding feast) and around which later miracles occur.
Some scholars argue her legend in fact begins with the potent arm ring as a pagan item and grew from there into a Christian saint’s life. Others find correlations with similarly named earlier Irish heroines. But the more compelling assessment argues that her legend has distinct Scandinavian components that locate its origins in the late 9th-early 1oth century: the arm ring as a powerful object on which oaths are sworn, an Irish-Scandinavian alliance with a forced marriage to a Norwegian prince, fleeing a suitor across the waters to take up a religious vocation (like the Scandinavian legend of St. Sunniva), and of course the viking pirates who drive her into Northumbria, a likely late ninth century-early tenth century scenario fortified by Scandinavian place names and stone carvings (another reason to visit St. Bee’s as well as nearby Gosforth). The articles by John Todd and Clare Downham, below, give me confidence in placing Bega in Cumbria in the 880s, then fleeing Cumbria for Northumbria with Aldred’s parents.
This insight on Bega I have tipped into my garbage heap of a chapter giving Aldred’s background. One of these days I need to unpack that chapter. Right now it is in the stage of description and needs to follow the writer’s dictum, “show, don’t tell.”
In the meantime, I had a brainwave for setting up the book that involves Bega somewhat: a Prologue set circa 880, with a dramatic retelling of the misguided effort of Cuthbert’s familia to take his body by boat to Ireland after they “fled” viking depredations at Lindisfarne c. 875, before being turned back and eventually settling at Chester-le-Street in 883.
The version of these events in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto (20) is relatively spare, while Symeon of Durham’s later account is quite fulsome, and spread over several chapters because of digressions (Book ii, 6-13). The central drama in both accounts is the heartrending decision to take Cuthbert away from his weeping people on the shore, followed by a horrific storm that comes up after they launch from Derwentmouth (present day Workington), with three huge waves, blood colored, crashing over their vessel. Taken as a pretty clear sign of God’s direction, the repentant bishop, abbot, and accompanying monks ask for St. Cuthbert’s forgiveness and head back to shore.
What Symeon adds that I want to use (although the story is not found in Aldred’s day), is that a bejeweled Gospel book was washed overboard, and only recovered through divine guidance on a beach, undamaged. This Gospel book, from Symeon’s description of the makers, is clearly the Lindisfarne Gospels, which Aldred glossed in Old English c. 950. When I blogged about this story detail earlier, I wasn’t sure I would use it. However, one of the commentators, Dan Elsworth, noted that he is publishing a piece arguing that the beach where the Lindisfarne Gospels fetched up was not Whithorn in Scotland, but more likely Morecambe Bay.
So, I can have Bega arriving at her headland (St. Bee’s) right about the same time that Cuthbert’s body was launched from Workington just to the north of her location. Then the Lindisfarne Gospels can miraculously float past Bega on their way to Morecambe Bay, south of her headland. She could, in a state of meditative prayer, have a vision of the Gospels on the sea, blessing them and being blessed by them.
Although inspired by Bragg’s Credo, I have mixed feelings about his novel, which I am admittedly only part way through. Many people recommended it as giving a sympathetic view of belief in 7th century Cumbria, which it does, to a degree. But I confess to being put off by the graphic violence and sex (combined even worse). Yes, I know, people then and now commit such atrocities. I just don’t like to read (or worse yet, see on film) the graphic details. If it “sells,” then my book won’t sell, because I can’t write those kind of scenes.
Instead, I am aiming for “earthy” realism, while plumbing the spiritual depths of their beliefs. I want the book to be transformative–if it has a plot curve, it is on a path of conversion, a long hard road.
Bragg, Melvyn. Credo. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996.
Downham, Clare, “St Bega—myth, maiden, or bracelet? An Insular cult and its origins.” Journal of Medieval History 33 (2007): 33-42.
Elsworth, Daniel W. “Low Tide and a Red Horse: St. Cuthbert’s Relics and Morecambe Bay.” [Dan, is it in print yet?]
Historia de Sancto Cuthberto: A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of His Patrimony, ed. and trans. Ted Johnson South, Anglo-Saxon Texts 2 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002)
McAndrews, Shona E. “The Dragon Stone at St Bees and other Carvings.” Senior Honour Dissertation 1990-91, Department of Art History, University of St Andrews. http://stbees.org.uk/history/essays/dragon/title.html
Symeon of Durham, Libellus de exordio atque procursu istius, hoc est Dunhelmensis ecclesie, ed. and trans. David Rollason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000).
Todd, John M. “St Bega: Cult, Fact and Legend,” Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society 80 (1980): http://stbees.org.uk/history/essays/bega_todd.html
Todd, John M. “The Pre-Conquest Church in St Bees, Cumbria: A Possible Minster?.” Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (2003) . http://stbees.org.uk/history/essays/minster_todd.html