Bega of St. Bees: the Irish princess, nun, or pagan relic?

Silver armlet from Cuerdale Hoard, copyright British Museum

Viking silver armlet from Cuerdale Hoard, copyright British Museum

The official line on St. Bega1 is that she was the Irish princess in whose name St Bees’ Priory was founded. Bega decided at an early age that she would devote her life to the church, whereupon an angel gifted her a holy arm-ring as a symbol of her dedication to Christ. Needless to say, Bega was also a very beautiful Irish princess and she was soon in demand for marriage and her father, an Irish king, accepted the proposal of the King of Norway. This was the last thing Bega wanted, so whilst the kings were feasting, Bega used her arm-ring as a magical key to open all the castle’s locks and she escaped across the Irish Sea. She landed near the Cumbrian promontory that is now St. Bees Head and lived a hermit’s life in a hut on the sea shore.

Perhaps the best-known story about Bega is how she came to own the land upon which her priory was built. There are two versions of this tale. The commonest-heard is that Lord Egremont said she could have all the land covered by snow on Midsummer’s Day; of course, it snowed on St. Bees Head on that day. Bega’s life of peace and devotion was shattered with the arrival of the vikings. On invitation from Oswald of Northumbria, she fled her hermitage and crossed England to take her vows at Hackness Priory, near Scarborough. In the 12th century, her body was discovered and translated to Whitby Abbey.

Over the next hundred years ago, a series of nine Bega-related miracles took place in Cumbria. These were recorded by the brand-new Priory of St Mary and St Bega, which was established at St. Bees under the sponsorship of St Mary’s Priory of York in around 1120. One of these is an earlier version of the tale of unseasonal snow, but this one has a ring of reality about it. Ranulf le Meschin,2 the local landowner, fell into a dispute with the monks about boundaries. On the day the bounds were to be settled, snow fell everywhere around except for the headland at St Bees where the priory lay. Anyone who lives near any British coastline – never mind St Bees – will know that it’s not that unusual for a strip of land near the sea to escape the worst of the weather.

The priory had a famous relic, an ancient arm-ring or bracelet, inscribed with a cross, which they believed once belonged to Bega herself. The description from the days of the priory sounds very much like the three arm-rings found in the Cuerdale Hoard3, from Preston; each silver ring is made to fit the upper arm and carries a saltire cross at the widest part. They are Norse viking and have been firmly dated to before 910CE. People gave money to the priory in the name of the ring and many important oaths were sworn upon it in much the same way as people swear oaths upon a bible. The priory lost the arm-ring in a Scottish raid some time in the early 1300s.

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St Bees Priory copyright Doug Sim

And here is the difficulty. In the 1860s, William Bell pointed out that the name, Bega, could be derived from the Old English word for ring: beāg. As people became more interested in pre-christian religions, the story grew. Vikings used arm-rings for oaths sworn in pagan religious and legal ceremonies.The ring ‘…should lie on the altar of every major temple.: a ring every chief should have on his wrist…and which he should hold and redden in the blood of an ox that he has sacrificed there himself. Every man… should take an oath by that ring and invoke two or more deities.’4

It is a fact that Irish-Norse people settled in West Cumbria in the 10th century.5 There is a gap between Bega’s lifetime and the writing of the Life in the mid 13th century, in which all manner of facts could have been forgotten or changed. St Bega’s Well6 is opposite the reputed remains of a St Michael Chapel (St Michael often having been called in to christianise pagan sites). She had nine miracles – nine being a holy number in Norse pagan culture – and according to the Life, she died on 31st October, that is, Halloween, or the pre-christian festival of Samhain. Therefore, according to supporters of this theory, this is another example of christians appropriating a pagan religious site/relic and/or holy person.

I have to divert here. When I was an undergraduate umpty years ago, we had to sit a module called, ‘The history of history’. This is because, contrary to common thinking, our understanding of history changes. Sometimes this is due to fashions in thought, and sometimes it’s a result of new discovery – historical, and, increasingly, archaeological – or new analysis. This is why, whilst I collect antiquarian editions of folklore, all my history books are as modern as I can get, and I bug academic friends for unpublished, brand-new papers. If you don’t do this, you’re in danger of promulgating that poisonous combination of Chinese whispers and wishful thinking that comprises much popular history, especially in remote regions like Cumbria.

Unfortunately, the more we look into Bega the more the ‘appropriated pagan’ theory falls down. It requires Bega, or the person with the 9th/10th century beāg, to arrive in Cumbria with their pagan Norse viking ideas, probably in the earliest wave of Norse settlement on the Cumbrian coast in the years after 902CE – although recent analysis suggests that these ex-Dublin vikings may have been christian by this point.7 She presumably cannot have been an Irish princess, either, or she would have been christian. This line of thought also requires the Life of St Bega to be largely incorrect, as many of the dates precede the appearance of vikings in Ireland and Cumbria: it mentions Bega’s link to Oswald of Northumbria (604-642 CE) and conflates her with a Hackness nun, St Begu (d. 660CE), who was mentioned by Bede (673-735CE). I should add that’s entirely possible that the Life contains nonsense as it was written in the mid 13th century, centuries after whichever death date you choose, but if you’re willing to discount parts of the Life on those grounds you can’t then insist that other aspects listed there must be correct.

More damningly, ‘the Old English word beāg cannot be easily reconciled to any known spelling of Bega’8 and, for heaven’s sake, it’s Old English, not Old Norse, not Irish Gaelic, and not Brythonic, or the language of any other of the contemporary players. In fact, the oldest spelling of ‘Bega’ that we have is in a 12th century charter and it uses quite a different word: it called St. Bees, Kirkebibeccoch. A signatory to the foundation of the abbey is a certain Gospatic Gillebecoc and the village was still Kirkby Becoc at the Dissolution. Becóc is a personal name seen elsewhere in the Gaelic/Celtic world and the -óc suffix is a diminutive added to names within the Celtic church. The Gaelic Becóc is not the Old English beāg. 

Even that sexy date for her feast – 31st October – falls down. The Life said that was her date of death, and it’s often repeated that this was her saint’s day. It’s not, unfortunately. A manuscript that once belonged to the priory’s mother-house, St. Mary’s of York, was found in the Bodleian in the late 20th century and it states very clearly that the feast day was 7th November.

So where does that leave us? It appears that Becóc is probably a person, not a ring, and she may well have been Irish, and singled out by the Celtic church in the 7th century. If she is the same as the Begu mentioned by Bede, she wasn’t fleeing Norse vikings, and she wasn’t the owner of that Norse arm-ring venerated by the priory dedicated to her five hundred years after her death. There is no evidence of a pagan cult in her name in Ireland, and, indeed, we have nothing  to track her between her life – whenever that was – and that 12th century place name. And if, on the other hand, she was fleeing the vikings, why does she have that piece of viking jewellery? And if she was a Norse viking, what is she doing with an Irish name given the pet treatment by the early Celtic church? As for the arm-ring itself,  it need not be a pagan artefact, as the saltires on the Cuerdale examples suggest. But then, what the heck was a christian monastery doing flaunting the oath-swearing powers of an arm-ring, anyway, when it presumably had bibles to hand?

Personally, the only way I can assemble the information into one person is to suggest that Becóc was indeed an early christian from Ireland, whether or not she ended up in Hackness. As for the arm-ring? I can easily imagine the founders of the 12th century priory digging it up and believing fervently that it was St. Bega’s, and a sign of her blessing. And a great way to fame and fortune.

But, she doesn’t entirely fit anyone’s agenda. And I quite like her for that.

© Diane McIlmoyle 30.04.13

PS. Like many of my friends, I love the ‘aha’ moment when we find remnants of ancient, pre-christian history and I’m sorry this isn’t another one. I suggest popping over to the more rewarding posts featured under ‘Cumbrian gods and goddesses’ (look in the right hand column!).


Please note: if you’re interested in the subject, please enjoy reading the sources as I do. But if you then write about it, it’s good manners to mention a) them and b) that you got them from me. Thank you.

St Bega – Cult, Fact and Legend by John M Todd, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 1980.

St Bega – myth, maiden or bracelet? An Insular cult and its origins by Clare Downham, Journal of Medieval History 33 (2007) pp33-42

Religious and Cultural Boundaries between Vikings and Irish: the Evidence of Conversion by Clare Downham, draft article October 2012. Love the phrase, ‘salt water bandits’, by the way.

Oxford Dictionary of Saints, ed. David Farmer (1997)

Some of you may enjoy the counter argument posited by Alex Langstone in his books, Spirit Chaser: The Quest for Bega (2012) and Bega and the Sacred Ring: Restoring a Goddess Archetype (2011).

  1. Life of Saint Bega, written sometime in the mid 13th century.
  2. History tells us that it was in fact William le Meschin.
  3. See the British Museum’s entry. Please note the picture is their copyright. Don’t pinch it from me – you can get a free copy yourself if you just ask them.
  4. See Authority: Construction and Corrosion by Bruce Lincoln (1995), p111. Quote appears to be sourced by Hermann Guntert.
  5. A contingent of Norse vikings kicked out of Dublin in 902CE ended up in Cumbria. The district of Copeland appears to be derived from kaupland, or bought or bargained land. The theory is that those Norse vikings bought or negotiated the land from the Kingdom of Strathclyde.
  6. See Alan Cleaver, who has tracked down this and other holy wells in Cumbria. Buy his books!
  7. See Clare Downham, Religious and Cultural, as above.
  8. See Clare Downham, St Bega, as above, p36.

46 thoughts on “Bega of St. Bees: the Irish princess, nun, or pagan relic?

  1. I love reading about Bega. It was Melvin Bragg’s ‘Credo’ which got me interested in her. He, of course, associates or places her at Bassenthwaite. Rightly or wrongly that is a lovely walk close to the small chapel there.The dark ages certainly had some strong women who freedom/independence in embracing religion.

    • Ah, Credo! I knew I’d forgotten to shoehorn everything in. It’s a funny anomaly, the Bassenthwaite church. Quite a few others can be rooted in St Bees Priory, but not that one. There’s a ‘tradition’ that Bega may have been buried at that little chapel, but of course no evidence, physical, documentary or otherwise. It would be nice to think that the ‘real’ Bega wandered off there, and Begu in Northumbria was an entirely different woman. We’ll never know.

      Thanks for coming over. Your comments are always appreciated 🙂

  2. Wholeheartedly agree with you. Seems very similar to the whole Brigit situation, with lots claiming that she is merely a pagan goddess turned Christian saint by the Church. However, if you look at any number of manuscripts of the Sanas Cormaic, there is a very clear and distinct difference made in the text between Brigit the goddess – listed under the heading ‘Brigit’ and with plenty of additional info about her – and St. Brigit who is listed as ‘Sanct Brigit’: “Sanct Brigit .i. naem Brigit indsin” (Saint Brigit, i.e., she is holy Brigit). Apparently at least one medieval scribe was able to differentiate the two; it’d be a stretch to imagine he was the only one.

    • Funnily enough, I was thinking about Brigid/Bridget when I decided to have a go at tackling Bega. I had a post a couple of years ago on the Brigid/goddess/churches theory in Cumbria, but the more I thought about it, the more doubts I had. I realised I hadn’t taken the effect of the early Irish church into account and that place names beginning with brig- might actually be bridges! Even if St Bridget wasn’t historical, it doesn’t follow that all or any St. Bridget churches are former Brigid sites. If ya see what I mean… I will get back to that one one day, as some of our St Bridget churches are on previously occupied sites. Not necessarily Brigid-ey, though!

      Bega is massively confusing but only because of that Bega/beag red herring. Not sure the rest would have developed if it wasn’t for that erroneous link from the 1860s.

      I feel bad about spoiling some people’s party, but I do wish we’d believe the stuff that seems more true rather than doing the round peg/square hole thing despite the evidence. There are better targets 😀

      Thanks for coming over! 🙂

  3. Nice article. It’s funny only an hour ago I looked at my bookshelves and saw Credo by Melvin Bragg and started reading it again, then I see this! Synchronicity? Stephen

    • Aha! The second mention of Credo. I’ve had it for yonks but never got around to reading it – shame on me! I dare say even that worthy tome was simpler than this attempt to sort her out. Thanks for coming over 🙂

  4. Thanks for your info, always interesting. I read Credo as well and became fascinated by Bega. I wrote the title track of my last cd Moon & Tide about her. Also the graphic designer who put together the cd cover used the beautiful pattern on the door at St Bee’s church dedicated to Bega. is the link to my myspace page (and a copy of Moon & Tide), sorry about the self promotion but thought you might find it of interest.

  5. Yes, well I’m sure the magical arm band did belong to St Bega! Was very amused at your wonderful expression;’ that poisonous combination of Chinese whispers and wishful thinking..’ I fear there is a lot of this in my Thames book!

    • Ha! Well, in that case, Bega is 10th century, has a name mysteriously outside her Norse culture, is not St Begu, didn’t become a nun at Hackness and isn’t buried at Whitby! And was lucky to live in the 10th century, because with that magical arm-ring she’d have been hung as a witch a few hundred years later, not canonised… we do have some strange early saints, don’t we?

      Thanks for coming over! 😀

    • Yup. To be fair, though, we have all sorts of other folks with ancient roots – Eveling, Cocidius, Lugus, Mabon – that perhaps we shouldn’t be selfish and assume the same applies to all cases! Thanks for coming over, and I love your Cumbrian map of holy wells. Glad someone is doing such excellent work, and hope you write at length about them soon.

  6. Great blogpost, Diane. Saint Bega is one of those obscure figures who seem destined to lurk in the mists between history and legend. I’d forgotten how fascinating her story is.

  7. Great post. Very very interesting.

    You get similiar stuff in some of the Irish Saints Lives written in 12th/13th cents: i.e. overwhelmingly products of their times with their own agendas, but occasionally utilising older, residual material as a backdrop.

    How do the locals pronounce Bega? Irish ‘Beag/Beaga’ means ‘small/little’.

    I’m intruiged wih the seventh century element to the stories. If the name was originally Irish Becóc; there is an ecclesiastical figure of the same name who is associated with the seventh century easter controversy. He is mentioned in Cummians Letter on the Paschal Question c.630s AD. (Written to Ségéne, abbot of Iona and a contemporary of Oswald). And Northumbria and Easter question would go on to climax at Whitby etc. There may be something in the St. Begu figure after all. Perhaps a female figure/establishment that retained a folk memory of siding with Irish Easter prior to events of 664? Certainly seems to be a definite mid seventh century ‘horizon’ in that part, no matter what the later corruptions are.

    Oh and the ‘Bec’ element in Bécoc is also an older version of Irish ‘beag’; both meaning the same…’small’.

    • Hi there – nice to see you. Yes, I gather Bega/Becóc does mean ‘little/little’. Littley? Smalley? 😉

      Fascinating information on the Becóc who found their way into Easter/Northumbria/Whitby. It does rather sound like they might be linked, doesn’t it? And it might account for Bega’s Life‘s links to Oswald and co… perhaps there was a dim and distant memory that the 13thc author wasn’t able to fully spell out, as you say.

      I have come across commentators who believe that Bega must be 10thc because of the likely date of that arm ring, but the more I hear, the more I think there is a 7thc Irish person under all the myth. And she clearly resonated with people on Cumbria’s west coast, given all the stories that grew around her. The extant archaeology of a vivid personality, perhaps.

      Thank you for coming over.

  8. Fascinating post for someone like me whose educational odessey started out in St Bega’s CofE primary… It does make a clear case that we are dealing with a real person here, although I’d be interested to see how the name became represented as Bega (is the understanding of Cumbrian words good enough for that?).

    One word of warning with assuming a physical presence of Becoc though. St Bees is the only harbour of any use (unless you’re a smuggler) along a long stretch of coast facing what was clearly a Ireland-dominated sea (note I say Ireland rather than Irish since this influence might be Norse). The next harbour north (Whitehaven) has a Norse name, not normal in coastal Copeland, whilst that to the south, Ravenglass, has an Irish name. So it is quite possible that Becoc was venerated at St Bees, but as an imported cult as part of a normal maritime slant towards Ireland on the Cumbrian coast. There is a cult of Santan, an Irish saint, further down the Copeland coast towards Millom (sorry – haven’t got my references to hand) as a comparator, and we could maybe cite the unusual number of Bridget dedications in Copeland as well. The later life could then be an attempt to create a cult based on no real evidence (I have yet to find a thirteenth-century vita containing genuine information not contained elsewhere, other than where an earlier lost work can be hypothesised) and a few references – the female gendering of Bega would be then a result of awareness of Bede’s Begu as a hypothesis, not an existing fact.

    I also remember reading somewhere (and not noting down…) a reference to a role that the Prior of St Bees had in the thing of the Isle of Man. Can’t help thinking this fact (?) has to be addressed in any debate of this nature if it is more than something invented by an antiquarian/imagined by me.

    Anyway, hope the comments are some help. I do think this post is now the thing that has to be read on Bega though.

    • Thanks very much for that, Allan! The extent of Irish influence on Cumbria is an interesting one. People often say that the ‘ancient motorway’ connection between Ireland and Cumbria must have meant a strong association, but in practice I don’t often find that. Vikings, of course, are another matter. I have also had suggestion that the Bridget churches in Cumbria may be related to missions from Glasgow from people who were influenced by the Irish up there, rather than Irish people hopping off a boat on the Cumbrian coast directly.

      It would be good to find earlier evidence of Becoc/Begu in Cumbria. There is, of course, a famous St Bega church at Bassenthwaite Lake. I don’t know enough about it to verify the publicity, which states that its foundation is pre-Norman (based, as far as I can tell, on some stones which some (who? – never stated) have suggested might be ‘Roman’ – sounds a bit ‘antiquarian’ to me) – although as far as I can work out the earliest definitely dated extant masonry is a 13th century font (…that date again). It certainly appears not to be connected to the Priory.

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

    • PS. ref. Sanctan – I can’t claim to be an expert but I was under the impression that he was one of the ‘men of the north’, descended from the old brythonic-speaking ‘nobility’, even though he seemingly set up camp on the Isle of Man? Ergo, in fact we were influencing the Isle of Man, rather than the other way round?

  9. Hi Allen,

    What a great comment.

    Forgive me If I insinuated a physical presence of anyone. I would tend to agree: much more likely to be the presence of an Irish cult/influence, especially given the Irish sea highways which you so ably pointed out. Great detail about the harbours. I think you’re right, they play an important part in trying to establish logical/potential networks and hubs. The mix of Irish/norse cults on the coast is very very interesting.

    I’m fascinated by Ravenglass and an Irish name. Do you mean the ‘glass’ element? I’d be extremely interested if you have come across anything on this. As far as I have read, Ravanglass is considered to have been Romano-British ‘Glanna Venta’. I’ve always been intruiged with the location and name as it holds a certain etymological possibility in perhaps being the ‘Banna Venta Berniae’ mentioned by the historical (St.) Patrick.

    Many thanks!

    • Hi there – fwiw, my latest Cumbrian etymology tome sits on the fence about the origins of ‘Ravenglass’ (although of course Glanno Venta is also correct). The book reckons that ‘Ravenglass’ might mean, ‘Glas’s portion or share’, then says, ‘although there are numerous other interpretations’ – a great help, eh? ‘Raven’ is usually considered to be of ON origin though, I guess, probably from those who arrived via Dublin after 902CE.

      Ref. Bega being an Irish cult, Clare Downham, who has made a number of studies of Bega (see paper refs above) states that there is no evidence of a pre-existing Bega cult in Ireland.

      I also repeat what I said in response to Allan – everyone thinks there must be huge Irish influence in Cumbria because of the proximity/good sea way, but in fact you don’t see it much in practice. The Isle of Man could be on the side of Ireland, insofar as we don’t seem to share its Irish gaelicness much. But, of course we *do* see the Irish/Norse vikings from 10thc on.

      Thanks for coming over!

  10. Hi Esmerelda,

    Happy to agree that we don’t need to posit particularly great Irish influence in Cumbria. But the importance of the Irish Sea should not be undervalued either, as St Bees was much closer in journey time to the east coast of Ireland than to any identified mainland British centre of power with the possible exception of Carlisle. Furthermore, Copeland was probably not looking to Carlisle but to York – the diocese in which it sat in the thirteenth century (not Carlisle) and where an earlier border on the Derwent with Lindisfarne can be suggested from dedications – a maritime connection again as links to York would be quickest by sea round to the Lune and thence across the Pennines. I’d be interested to see the case for the Copeland Bridget dedications having a Glasgow link, as this seems less likely than direct links to Leinster.

    I would doubt any church in the Lakes proper is pre-Conquest, although Bassenthwaite may have a better claim than many as it was near a route through the hills. I would suspect that we should look for tenurial links here, although the date could as you suggest not be a coincidence and this could be a witness to the spread of the cult. There is also the normal issue with dedications that they are not fixed so we need to not assume the dedication is the same age as the church to which it is attached. If it is possible to get beyond these concerns, then the dedication of Bassenthwaite becomes valuable evidence for the cult of Bega.

    Another thing I’ve not heard before is that Sanctan may have been a Briton. His name appears Irish, but that could be transmission through the partially-Gaelic Irish Sea milieu or even a modern scholarly convention based upon an unsubstantiated assumption. The key point here is however that regardless of origin, Sanctan had a cult active around the Irish Sea, and this could be a marker for the cult of Bega. The lack of evidence in Ireland for the cult is not a problem – if no-one had written the Life of Bega then there may be no evidence in Cumbria either. We have probably lost the majority of local Anglo-Saxon saints from the historical record (who was the saint of Workington or Beckermet?), and the same is likely in Ireland where most cults are first witnessed in (guess when) the thirteenth century. Minor cults could be lost at their original location and resurface elsewhere, which is my logic above. To be fair Bega could also be a local saint at his or her original cult site in an Irish Sea milieu just as easily.

    Ravenglass seems to be an Irish name, meaning ‘Glas’ s share’ or, if like me you are suspicious of stray personal-names in place-names, perhaps ‘the blue-green share’, a name that seems appropriate for the Copeland coastline and the Lakes beyond it, suggesting perhaps the localisation of the Irish name for the area at the major node of entry to the area. There is no v in early forms of the name, which show ren- or ran- from Old Irish rann ‘share, part’, with the Raven forms being a popular etymology from the late (would you be surprised to hear) thirteenth century onwards. This need not have been the name used by the inhabitants (considering that the Roman site is next to the medieval town I would suggest this was all Muncaster once perhaps?) but as the normal seafaring name this would be the name picked up by the outsiders who actually preserved the name on parchment – there need not be Irish settlement to explain an Irish name.

  11. ‘morning!

    Ref. York, of course St Bees Priory reported in to St Mary’s in York, so that’s beyond doubt. And I may not be quite following you about the cross-Pennine route – my understanding is that the common route was to come in at Stainmore and thence along what is now the A66… past Bassenthwaite, of course. Hardknott’s also been in use for an awfully long time, although I could understand people not wanting to tackle it as it’s hazardous even now.

    As it happens, a professor of history – from half way across the world! – is heading for Cumbria later this year and she is looking into Cuthbert’s body’s travels and Workington. Perhaps she will clear up the issue of anglo-saxon saints and quite soon, too. Indeed she may add something about a sea route. If she does I will ask her if she will allow me to reproduce her findings here but I dare say you might get to her work before me.

    St. Bega’s at Bassenthwaite is, I’m afraid, an engima as there is virtually no evidence about it and no report to date that it has ever been linked to the Priory. I’m rather sceptical about the things popularly said about it, especially that ‘Roman’ reference, as it reminds me too much of Victorian antiquarians.

    Talking of Victorian antiquarians – Ref. Sanctan. All commonly-seen references seem to derive from Sabine Baring-Gould, so they could be horribly out of date, but the original says as follows: ‘SANCTAN, Bishop, Confessor. Sanctan was the son of Sawyl or Samuil Pennissel and of Dechtir, daughter of Muiredach Muinderg, King of Ulster… Santan left Britain and went to Ireland… he settles at Cill-da-les… Very little is known of Sanctan. The glossator to a hymn by him in the Liber Hymnorum says, “Bishop Sanctan composed this hymn and it was on his going to Clonard westward to Inis Matoc that he composed it; he was brother to Matoc, both of them being of the British race…”… At first Sanctan could not speak the Scottish tongue, but he acquired it in time.’ But that’s why we think he’s a Briton – son of a British leader. Sanctan and Cill-da-les (sp?) also being corroborated with refs in Aengus.

    I’m probably with you on pre-Norman foundation in the Lake District (as opposed to Cumbria), although some people would fight us tooth and nail on that one.

    Ref. Bridget and Glasgow – those comments came from a couple of academic historians who visited this blog. I wouldn’t want to put words into their mouths and unfortunately, I’ve deleted that post. It is to date the only post I’ve deleted because visitors persuaded me that my idea was completely wrong (not just on those grounds), which is, of course, why I love this blog so much 🙂

    • There are two reasons to suggest an alternative route to West Cumbria than Stainmore. Firstly, travel was at the time much quicker by sea than land (a bishop and his entourage had a probable range of 12-15 miles per day in somewhat more irreversible terrain in southern Britain). Seafaring range clearly depended on the weather but would be generally further.

      Secondly, to get to Copeland over Stainmore involved passing through the diocese of Hexham/Durham. Whilst an archbishop of York no doubt could have reason to enter his suffragans’ territory he could hardly expect to use their resources to support visiting his own. We know that Lindisfarne and/or Durham held estates to support their travel to York outside their diocese, but lack this evidence for York using a route over Stainmore.

      Indeed, the evidence for Stainmore as a major route is limited (to be fair, what isn’t?) effectively to the account of Erik of York’s death there, which is not initially stated to be him fleeing to the coast anyway. It is still an evily exposed route now – I cannot see it as a key link within a kingdom considering its flaws and the existence of decent alternatives.

      • Tbh, I’m not sure we know anywhere near enough about routes around Cumbria in times past. I do know someone who is looking into packhorse routes (so many people seem to assume that they had to travel on roads wide enough for cars/carriages! – which includes the Stainmore hypothesis, I guess), so perhaps that will tell us more. I just can’t reconcile some of the statements made with the fact that we have mountain passes and so on that we know for a fact are at least two thousand years old. As for the sea route from York – around Scotland, then?

        • I’m certain that the passes were in use during the first millennium to some extent. But the question I ask my parents every time I drive home is whether the tops are clear; even today it is better to avoid bad weather and thick cloud across the passes and take the long route round Black Sail or Dent (and to avoid Hardknott as a route at all costs!). I am not convinced that any major route would have relied on passes if they could be avoided.

          Hardknott fort does not prove a major route existed there, as it is equally likely that as part of a network of roads running out of Ambleside including the obviously impractical High Street that this was a network about pacification and policing the Lakes as much as managing traffic. It should be remembered that the roads to Hardknott were lost subsequent to the fort being abandoned which is not suggestive of their being much used.

          The (generally lower) Pennines passes would have to have been crossed, but the evidence for travel into what is now Cumbria is all for the use of the Tyne gap, albeit this may be a function of where the journey started. From York the easiest passes to reach are those to the Lune valley above Ripon, a monastery that seems to have been an archiepiscopal possession after its brief stint as a cathedral. On the other side of the Pennines the Lune valley has a lot of sites with early medieval sculpture, apparently mainly linked to that around Ripon, which is taken to indicate churches or archiepiscopal estates (no-one seems to doubt that northern Lancashire was in York’s diocese). To reach the west coast therefore, an archbishop of York would have been quickest to go west rather than north; and then travel by sea was easy from say Heysham. It might be worth noting here that Collingwood linked the Muncaster cross head with the Lune valley sculpture in style.

          • Aha! So you’re saying that they walk across the Pennines to north Lancs as now is, then sail along the coast to Ravenglass, St. Bees, et al? I had wondered why they might sail around Scotland 😉

            I’m not thinking just of SW Cumbria/the west coast but Cumbria as a whole. Weather would long have been an issue here and not just on mountain tops – there is snow above 250m where I am today, on May 23rd. I would like to know how well-used all our mountain passes – not just Hardnott – have been, and also other pack horse routes around lakes and above the mountain tree line, when we had a tree line. I rather feel that if people were making axes from the top of the central Lakes mountains thousands of years ago, we weren’t as frightened of mountains as we often assume. But that doesn’t necessarily apply to long-distance travellers, of course, who would have been popsicles most of the year without a local guide. Perhaps there were local guides…

  12. Thanks to you both for the great comments. Am enjoying reading.

    Re: Ravenglass

    There is sometimes a tendency to go for the obvious ‘glas’/green element in placenames; yet, as far as I know, a likely alternative in this case has never really been explored . Another common placename attestation in Ireland is ‘Glais/Glaise’, meaning ‘stream, river’ and one that regularly gets anglicized to ‘glass’ too. An OI name, ‘Rann Glais’: ‘the part/share/division of the stream(s)’ would also be particularly appropiate to the local topography, especially given its threefold river/estuary.

    • Interesting idea. My understanding of the evolution of Irish place-names is not good, but to my non-expert eye this looks plausible. The earliest forms in the English Place-names Society volume are mixed with the first vowel including e, a, ey, ay and even i, which if this was somewhere around Worcester I would happily say was evidence of something like an original ai diphthong. I will try and check the earlier (more expert than me) discussions on this.

  13. Appreciate you checking if you get the chance. Sooner the volumes are digitised the better! Dying to get access over here.

    Its an interesting test case, with or without the diphthong, given a possible insular cumbric pronounciation; whatever that may have been. Also, any anglicization would have perhaps occured earlier then Irish places. I place a great emphasis on aural elements and pronounciation; they can sometimes help explain some things. Irish ‘Glas’ would be pronounced ‘Gloss’ and ‘Glais(e)’ would be pronounced ‘Glosh(a)’. In aural terms, both would have been very similiar.

    • Well that’s an object lesson in not paying attention. I managed to discuss the first vowel of the name Ravenglass, when the element in question is obviously the second bit, which has a consistent short a. Probably why it takes me so long to do any research properly.

      Anyway, my lack of care aside, I’ve checked those texts I can find and got some interesting findings. Firstly, what I hadn’t noticed was that the ‘authorities’ (English Place-names Society volume and Dictionary of Lake District Place-names) aren’t certain about Glas’ share anyway – they qualify it with probably. When I found the first modern discussion in Ekwall’ s Scandinavians and Celts the reason for this became apparent – Ekwall was not sure that the genitive of Glas would consistently produce forms in a in the name Ravenglass, and adduced other West Cumbrian evidence to support an expected range of forms very like that for the first element of Ravenglass (unsurprising if we consider that that element derives from Old Irish rainn, which has the same vowel as the genitive glainn). I haven’t been able to check the most recent review of this by Coates, but that apparently suggests following Ekwall that Glas meaning blue-green could be the qualifying element in Ravenglass. I’m nowhere near qualified to give a definitive judgement on this, but I would be surprised to see Glas not lead to consistent use of a.

      I would not rule out glais/glaise here but I think that the consistency of the vowel in the second element suggests Glas ‘blue-green’ most likely. Glas/glaise has the same problem as the genitive of the name Glas in that we should expect a wider range of vowels in the forms of the second element. Hope that’s of some use and interest – I’ve enjoyed tracking it down. I’ll update this if I come across anything more.

      • Thanks, Allan. It’s all been especially interesting because people hereabouts do tend to get excited about anything with Raven in – not for the viking reference as one might imagine but because they think it may link to Taliesin and Urien’s ‘ravens’. I find these sort of leaps disturbing so it’s good to see expert, detailed analysis from you and voxhiberionacum.

  14. @ Allan – on a purely practical, modern day basis, the east-west alternative to the A66/Stainmore route in bad weather would have been via Hawes. Haulier husband used to use that in windy weather when bringing high-sided loads back to Cumbria from Yorkshire. As a horse user, the alternative routes always have to be balanced against speed required and time/labour involved. The packway past my house is high and steep in parts (The Galloway Gate – I’m on the part between Shap and Tebay Gorge) but it is more direct than the river valley route. Your visibility argument against using high passes is contradicted by the intelligence of animals, especially those using a regular route; they have sharper senses than we do and are less reliant on eyesight to orient themselves. I know farmers who have gone shepherding on horseback, had the mist come down and have given the pony its head to get them home safely when they as riders were completely disoriented, and I’ve done it myself when riding in territory where I was unfamiliar with the terrain and the horse was at home. (Apologies, Diane – this is a little off the Bega topic but I felt I had a contribution to make re travel in general.)

    • Thanks, Sue – I’m very interested in the older routes, so thank you for that. I’m not sure we always use the right criteria for analysis so your horsewoman’s – and local historian’s! – input is invaluable.

    • Thanks Sue. I think we may have a useful little model here with local/experienced travellers probably happy to use the passes, whilst outsiders may prefer to avoid them. I’d also suggest that a large party like an archbishop’s entourage would seek to avoid passes if an easier route presented itself. I am now a lot more convinced that routes like Kirkstone and Dry Head could have been busy thoroughfares though.

  15. Allan, Cheers for that. Very interesting indeed. Really appreciate your time. Look forward to you uncovering anything else in the future. Esmeraldamac, heh, heh, I can well imagine. I’ve found similar online.

    I’m begining to think it may be a 50/50 thing. The vowel consistency element makes perfect sense, yet, I still can’t helping going back to oral/aural versus written. Interestingly, a lot of anglicised Irish ‘Glass’ placenames are rendered in older vernacular sources as OI ‘glas’; an equally alternative, if not slightly earlier rendering of ‘glais’/’stream’.

    A good example is Terryglass (Tír Dá Glas: ‘the land/territory of the two streams’) which thanks to being an important ecc. site, has numerous references from an early stage. 650-850s AD it is given as exclusively ‘glas’/’stream’ in vernacular sources and even transliterated by Adomnán into Latin as such. From 900s -1550s AD we get a smattering of ‘glas/glais’ renderings, both of which always mean ‘stream’. The one exception is Pap. Tax roll of 1306 AD (presumably a non-Irish scribe) giving it as ‘glassee’, i.e. a phonetic rendering of ‘glaise’/stream’. From 1590s onwards we start getting English sources attempting to render the name they are ‘hearing’ and it starts to be recorded in documents as both ‘glasse’ & ‘glashe’; in tandem with Irish sources that continue to render it in written form as glas/glais.

    This illustrates a surprising level of continuity in oral/aural meaning and pronounciation versus that of the written form. Despite largely being rendered as ‘glas’ first, and then ‘glais’ in later vernacular sources, the meaning has always been ‘stream’. The only variant spellings are those of non-Irish speakers, rendering the name as they hear it. Their glassee/glasse/glashe examples point to the word ‘Glais(e)’/’stream’ being pronounced as expected; despite being rendered as ‘glas’.

    With that in mind, if one turns to the earliest renderings of Ravenglass, we see 1170: ‘Rengles’; 1208: ‘Renglas’;
    1250: ‘Reynglas’ and 1297: ‘Ravenglas’. One would perhaps expect something similar to be going on and yet we appear to have just ‘glas’. The ren/reyn elements appear to be phonetic versions of Rainn/Roinn alright, but there is no extention to the second element. Which could point to ‘glas’ being ‘green’ after all.

    I’ve come across an internet ref that says Watts (Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names) includes a variant ‘Ravenglas(se)’ under the same period. Not having access to it, I can’t check though. If anyone can, I’d be most grateful for confirmation and whether he dates that version. If it is early, then this is perhaps what one would expect to see, as in the Irish examples.


  16. Pingback: Versatile Blogger? Tag, You’re It. « Heavenfield

  17. from Forbes, Kalendar of Scottish Saints 1872 Edinburgh (available at
    BEAN, B. and C. October 26.— The Breviary of Aberdeen gives us no details of the life of this saint. He is not to be identified with the S. Beanus of Aber- deen, or rather of Mortlach, whose day is the 16th December. This saint was venerated at Wester Foulis, in Strath- eme, and is probably identical with S. Beoan of Tamhlact-Menan. — (Note by Dr. Reeves to Mart. Donegal, p. 339 ; see also Mart. Aberd. ; also Reeves’ Ecd. Antiquities of Down and Connor, p. 113.) Magas gives — Kasad Beoin Mellain. BECAN, H. March 17, A.D. 677. — Becanus Eremita, sumamed Ruim or Ruiminn, was the son of Ercan, the son of Frachan, of the race of Conall Gulban, 278 BEGHA— BEEACH. chiefs of Tyrconnel, He was nearly- related to S. Columkille and to the early abbots of Hy, who were all of the same sept tiU the days of Conaimhail, A.D. 710. — (Eeeves’ Adamnan, p. 378.) Leaving Ireland, he went to a solitary place in Hy, where he remained several years, while his uncle Segenius was abbot of the island. This is known from the inscription of a letter on the Paschal controversy, written about 633 by S. Cumeneus or Cumeanus to Segenius : ” Becano sohtario charo carne et spiritu fratri.” He died in 675 (677). —{Fide Colgan, L 630.) BEGHA, V. October 31, A.D. cir. 660,- — S. Begha, called also S. Bez, and S. Begagh, intended by her parents for marriage, on hearing of the flourish- ing state of Christianity in Britain, left her home in Ireland, and fled in a ship that was waiting for her to Scotia. Then she received the veil in Britannia, at the hands of Bishop Aldan, in the reign of King Oswald. She ruled a community in a cell con- structed by him in a certain desert island. When S. Hilda returned from Gaul (vide Basda, Hist., lib. iv. c. xxiii.), S. Begha prayed to be freed from the burden of government, and that S. HUda should be consecrated abbess in her stead, which accordingly took place. After many years she died in the odour of sanctity, attested by many miracles at her tomb, especially the cure of the two sons of a Erenchman from Chartres. — (Brev. Aberd. pars estiv. f. cxxxvi.) Beeda mentions a nun called Begn in the monastery of Haicanos, thirteen miles from Whitby, to whom the death of Hilda was revealed ia a vision.— (H. E. 1. iv. c. 23.) She is honoured in Kilbucho (Orig. Par. i. 177 ; 0. S. A. iv, 344 ; Chalmere’ Caledonia, ii. p. 958), and at Eilbagie (0. S. A. vol, viU. 605, 3dv, 623), There is a glebe called Kilbegie (Orig; Par. ii. 822), KUbagie in Clack- mannan is also probably named after her (N, S. A, vol. viii. pp. 3, 128), Her greatest foundation was within the kingdom of Strathclyde, at S, Bees, which takes its designation from her. It was founded in 656, Afterwards a Priory was endowed on its foundation by William de Meschines, Lord of Cope- land, temp. Henry I, There was a cell of this house at Nendrum or Mahee Island, in County Down. — (See De scription of Nendrum by Bev. W, Beeves, D.D., 1845, and bis BccL Antiq, of Down and Connor.)

    • I’m not sure what you intended me to conclude from that very long quote, Stuart, but thank you for going to trouble of cutting and pasting it.

      This Victorian version of historical events is, of course, what I intentionally countered in this post. 19th century sources, especially on religious subjects, are usually massively out of line, tending to repeat myth and folklore as if it was history. It misses enormous amount of fact uncovered since that was written – linguistic, especially.

      My rule of thumb is: Folklore: get books that are as old as possible, preferably pre 1850. History: get books that are as new as possible.

  18. I am currently working on the interface between folklore and archaeology and often find that what appears incidental may in fact be of some inportance. I thought that the – as you say – long quote might just trigger something. Early on in my researches on the NIne Maidens I found Forbes’s Kalendars very useful.
    I keep telling my students that in terms of history – if possible go back to primary sources and make up your own mind.

    • I wouldn’t disagree with any of that, Stuart. I remain intrigued by the idea that the many stories of ‘dancing maidens’ or in Long Meg’s case, dancing witches, could be the vestigial remains of something that once happened there. Problem is, though, that I guess it’s just as likely that the dancing business became a popular idea in, say 1000CE which would still be eons after the circle was built. I’m working on the idea of accepting that there’s about twenty gazillion things I’ll never know about history, and neither will anyone else 😦

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