Posted by: kljolly | June 28, 2013

St. Bee’s

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.

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):

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) .


  1. Hi Karen, It will be in the next Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, which is out next month I believe! It will be interesting to see what people make of it as I am no expert on the subject.

  2. Hi Karen
    I’m interested that you think Credo is full of sex and violence. I thought it was full of seventh-century Christianity! But there you go. On the whole, your version of Bega’s background sounds rather more convincing than Bragg’s, although I did very much enjoy the parts of Credo set in Ireland.

  3. Hi Sally,
    I don’t know that Credo is full of sex and violence–keep in mind I haven’t gotten much past the brutal rape of Maeve by O’Neill, Padric’s sex with Bega, and her bloody ?miscarriage?.
    I am a also bit dubious of his portrayal of Cuthbert as an egotistical but charismatic young preacher, but then again I am prejudiced in the saint’s favor (until we get to Symeon of Durham’s nasty stories about Cuthbert shunning and punishing uppity women).
    Having said that, I am enjoying my read of Credo because I do think he is capturing the spiritual landscape pretty well, and the flawed, conflicted nature of people’s beliefs and behaviors.

  4. I finished Credo last night. I enjoyed it very much, though didn’t find the sex and violence too gruesome after the rape of Maeve, which is disgusting, but then again, should be. There’s nothing comparable to that in the rest of the book.
    One thing that I picked out was the Northumbrians being largely brutish invaders, as opposed to the good guys – the christian enlightened British. Probably rather stereotypical there. Mind you, I’ve been researching about how Northumbria became the greatest (biggest) kingdom of it’s time, and I live up this way, so perhaps I’ve overlooked any thought as to how that could happen.
    Also, Cuthbert…I was a little disappointed in the portrayal of him but again, given my research, I wanted him to be more of that loving nature Celtic monk, rather than someone racked so much by guilt and temptation.
    But these hing simply forced me to address my own surface stereotypes and of course, realise that for success and glory, you need an opposing view.
    I thoroughly enjoyed Credo and I was thinking of writing a novel,based on the journey of the Community of St Cuthbert (given I’ve just researched it, travelled it with a great photographer and then co-curated an exhibition of photography and writing about it), but I’m not going to now. Credo makes me realise how naive I was. There is so much I don’t know. I’m going to write a book that combines historical fact and legend, plus my own personal journey, with a large percentage of photography… and leave the novel to the likes of yourself Karen.
    Good luck. My research and travel will influence my own writing and next novel massively, but it won’t be historical fiction…

  5. I didn’t realise this was all for a novel!

  6. Karen, I enjoy your blog so much! I was at St Bee’s in April, looking for the stone outcrop the Gosforth Cross may have been quarried from. Do you think there were any other literate, text-producing communities in Aldred’s Northumbria, other than Chester-le-Street (and York Minster?). I came across this the other day and thought you might enjoy it.

  7. Richard, I find your prose lyrical and wonder if indeed you could turn what you do know from your pilgrimage into a novel or short story. We write what we know, with some research. What I know is pretty stodgy–scribes, old texts, boring facts–and write stodgy historical prose. I am trying to break out of that,and your blog is a breath of fresh air (along with Paul’s photos).

  8. Victoria: thanks for the link. I might have given a different perspective on Aldred’s handiwork–scribbles indeed! He was not marring a piece of art, he was commissioned to write the gloss to complete the book. I do appreciate the examples the author gave (based on Eric Stanley’s lecture I presume).
    As for other text-producing communities in Northumbria: On the one hand, the late 10th century is pretty barren and Chester-le-Street is considered at a real low point. On the other hand, evidence suggests communities remained at Lindisfarne, Wearmouth and Jarrow. The priests Owun and Farmun came from Harewood (uncertain location, poss. West Yorkshire) to copy Aldred’s gloss into their Gospelbook (MacRegol, also called Rushworth Gospels).
    Did you find the stone outcropping? How was the drive time getting out there? I am planning an itinerary of Penrith – Dacre – Bassenthwaite – Workington-St. Bees and Gosforth – Ullsworth and then back to Penrith in one day, a Sunday. Is that impossible?

  9. […] St. Bega made it into the itinerary of the Gospelbook, but I wasn’t able to develop her much, yet.  I do want more female characters.  When the community got to Crayke, I did decide to go with the minority view that the otherwise unknown “abbot” Geve of Crayke was an Abbess Geva presiding over a double house (Hadley, Northern Danelaw, pp. 259-60). […]

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