THE ENIGMA OF ST. BEGA
I shall never forget my first sight of St. Bega's Church in the Lake District.
The sun was hanging low in the sky, striking shimmering highlights from the ripples on Lake Bassenthwaite and dipping towards Sale Fell and the Wythop Woods. A murmuring rill meandered across a field of contented grazing sheep. Birdsong from a nearby copse and the occasional inquisitive bleat only emphasised the afternoon's drowsy stillness as I approached, and against a tranquil backdrop of lake, trees and hills there it stood; the holy place which William Wordsworth described in his 1835 A Guide To The English Lakes, the Parish Church Of St. Bega, Bassenthwaite, where Christian worship has taken place for more than a millennium, but whose origins are cloaked in mystery.
In the 18th and 19th centuries many distinguished visitors came to this charming place, including Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1835. At this time the poet was writing his Morte d'Arthur, in which St. Bedivere carries the dying King Arthur to
...a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark straight of barren land.
...a passage which is believed to have been inspired by St. Bega's and its setting. In a nearby wood can be found a small open-air theatre built by the Tennyson Society to mark the spot where it is thought the poem was composed.
The historian Thomas Carlyle, a frequent visitor, wrote from his native Scotland, ' I looked from the Firth into your Skiddaw Mountains, and thought of Bassenthwaite's still churchyard.'
The lyrical beauty of this scene has inspired and enchanted many over the years, but how did this lonely house of God come to be established, this '...little church that stands to the North of a spit of land jutting out into the lake,' as Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley described it in his 1900 Memories Of Tennyson, and who was St. Bega?
The majority of the information we have regarding this mysterious saint comes to us via an unnamed 14th century monk whose manuscript, Life Of St. Bega, is held in the British Museum, but the author, artist and antiquary W.G. Collingwood has suggested that she may have been a mythical figure. The document states that much of the story of Bega's early life is lost, but does tell us that she was the daughter of a 7th century northern Irish chieftain. Deeply devout, she dedicated herself to the service of God and therefore, when her father wished to marry her off to the son of the king of Norway in order to gain favour with the Norsemen, she had no recourse but to flee. Making for the coast, she took passage on a ship which carried her across the Irish Sea to Cumberland, where she landed at the promontory now known as St. Bee's Head. More extravagant versions of the tale have her cutting a piece of turf on which to float across the water.
Sometime later, concerned by the increasingly frequent depredations of Viking raiders along the Cumbrian coast, Bega made her way inland, and it is thought she may have dwelt mostly in the Bassenthwaite area until the end of her days.
The author of the Life tells us that miracles such as healing the sick were attributed to the holy woman and that 'she was handsome in form above all the daughters of religion.'
The story is a delightful one. Unfortunately it contains a chronological discrepancy which cannot be ignored. We know that the Vikings established bases on the east coast of Ireland and were intermarrying with the clans of the Irish chieftains in the 9th century, and that they subsequently began raiding the north-west coast of England in the early 10th century, but these events were taking place some 200 years after the documented time of Bega.
A more likely time-frame for our anonymous monk's account of Bega's flight would be around 870 A.D., when the Norse were invading Ireland and before they began to raid the Cumbrian coast.
The only purported artefact of Bega's existence was a bracelet or arm-ring bearing the sign of the holy cross, said to have been given to her by an angel or other divine being while she was still in Ireland. The existence of this article is attested to by more than one source, but unfortunately it seems to have disappeared sometime in the Middle Ages. Whether this relic actually belonged to the saint or whether the story of her life grew in folklore to account for an already extant sacred object is a matter for conjecture.
We are on firmer ground regarding the history of the church itself, which is documented from the mid 12th century. This building does not stand adjacent to the site of any settlement dating from the time of its construction, and so could well be built on land where Bega had her dwelling, or even where she may be buried.
The building predates Norman times, the older masonry courses being consistent with a Norse or Saxon period of construction. The chancel and nave, constituting the original church, were probably built c.950 A.D. The arch between the south transept and the chancel may date from the mid-12th century.
The church underwent extensive restoration in 1874 in order to ensure its continued use. The exterior was completely renovated in the Gothic style, and the Norman interior was preserved and restored so expertly that the building has stood virtually unchanged since.
During this restoration a hidden lead crucifix was discovered which is thought to be of 14th century origin, and which was possibly concealed during the period of Cromwell's Protectorate. A replica of this now hangs over the pulpit, the original being stored in the treasury at Carlisle Cathedral.
The church now occupies a part of the grounds of Mirehouse, a family-run historic house and gardens built in 1666 by the Earl Of Denby.
St. Bega's Church and its magical setting is one of the most beautiful and profoundly peaceful places in England. The historicity of Cumbria's local saint may never be determined for certain, but as we contemplate the story that has come down to us, whether verifiable fact or colourful legend, it is still a source of inspiration and wonder.