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St Bega C. 900 (?)

THERE was a powerful king in Ireland, and he had a virtuous daughter called Bega. A mysterious visitor, fair of face and with a venerable appearance, encouraged her leanings to chastity:. he gave her a bracelet or arm-ring, having the sign of the cross showing clearly on the surface of it; Then came an illustrious youth, son and heir of the king of Norway, who sought her hand in marriage. Bega's father encouraged him. Bega did not. Her father
and suitor drank hard together, then slept. Bega prayed. Her prayer was answered by a heavenly voice, bidding her take the bracelet and go to England. Locked doors opened at the touch of the bracelet. At the sea's edge, she found a ship ready for her and crossed the Irish Sea. She landed on the coast of Copeland, the district of Cumbria where St Bees now lies.
There Bega built a cell in a wooded spot, and lived alone for many years. Then pirates started to raid the Cumbrian shores. Fearing for her virginity, Bega fled eastwards. But she did not take her arm-ring, having forgotten it by the will of God'.

The obvious context for the story thus far is the late ninth century. The Vikings had their bases on the east coast of Ireland, and some were intermarrying with Irish rulers' families. Viking raids on the coast of north-west England began soon after 900: they might be the 'pirates'. The author of the thirteenth-century Life of St Bega (from which the above
account is summarised{ puts her story over two hundred years earlier, because he knew that Bede mentioned a nun called Begu at Hackness near Whitby, and he assumed - incorrectly - that Begu and Bega were one and the same. But no Norwegian princes troubled Ireland in Begu's time.

It has been strongly argued that the Bega story had no foundation in fact, either in the seventh century or the ninth. Because the name Bega is so similar to the Anglo-saxon word meaning ring, beage, it has been suggested that the arm-ring, which was undoubtedly the focus of the cult of St Bega from the twelfth century to the sixteenth, came first and the legend was invented, and borrowed from Bede, to account for it. Thus 'holy ring' became
'holy Bega'. Equally strange things have happened elsewhere: in Oxford, St Aldate is but the 'old gate' canonised. On the other hand, place-names indicate that the earlier form of the name was Bechoc, an authentic Irish personal name. The very existence of the saint remains an open question.

Rings were used as the touchstone of truth by pagan Vikings: solemn oaths were sworn on them. Bega's ring was used for oath-taking at St Bees in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It was a sign of the reconciliation of pagan Vikings into the Christian world of ideas that here in St Bees a pagan practice, taking oaths on a ring of power, was hallowed by the church. It is also significant that the cult of St Bega was enough of a living force in the twelfth century to be taken up by the ° Norman monks to whom the church of St Bees was given - reconciliation of  native faith and another race of new lords.
Two persistent falIacies must be mentioned. There is no evidence, in the Life or elsewhere, for the often-repeated statement that St Bega founded a nunnery at St Bees. It is likely that there was an important church there in the Vi king period, and possibly earlier; and such a church could have been served by monks or nuns.We can say no more than that. There is no evidence either for the colourful story that the Lord of Egremont gave Bega as much land as the snow covered on Midsummer Day. This is a seventeenth-century 'improvement' of an incident involving a twelfth-century boundary dispute from the Life of St Bega: it has nothing to do with Bega's times.

DEDICATIONS:
St Bees and Bassenthwaite (old church).
COMMEMORATION:
7th November: this is the day in the calendar of Saints at St Mary's, York,
the mother-house of St Bees priory. The date of her death was reputed to be
31st October, however, and the local Roman Catholic church celebrates the
day on 6th September.

SOURCES: Vita et Miracula Sancte Bege Virginia, ed. J Wilson. in Register Of
the piory of St Bees (Surtees Society, vol. 126, 1915), pp.497-520;
translated by G C Tomlinson, Life and Miracles of Sancta Beqa (Carlisle,
1842). See also three articles in the Transactions of the Cumberland and
Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeoloqical Society, new series; C E Last,
'SI Begs and her Bracelet', vcl.lii (1952); L A S Butler, 'A Bacelet for St
Begs', vol. lxvi (1966); and J M Todd, 'SI Begs: C'jlt, Fact and Legend',
vol. lxxx (1980).