The village of St Bees is just south of St Bees Head, the most westerly point of Cumbria, 50 miles from the Scottish border.
The name St Bees is a corruption of the Norse name for the village, which is given in the earliest charter of the Priory as “Kyrkeby becok”, which can be translated as the “Church town of Bega”. It’s well known for the Norman St Bees Priory dating from 1120 dedicated to Saint Bega.
Saint Bega was reputedly a saint of the Early Middle Ages. Her life was described in a medieval manuscript “The Life of St Bega”, part of a collection of various English saints’ lives that belonged to Holmcultram Abbey and is dated to the mid-13th century. According to this manuscript, she was a virtuous Irish princess who valued virginity. She was promised in marriage to a Viking prince who was “son of the king of Norway”. On hearing this, Bega, fearing for her virginity, fled across the Irish sea to land at St. Bees on the Cumbrian coast. There she settled for a time, in a virgin cell which she built herself in a grove, leading a life of exemplary piety. Then, the Viking pirates started raiding the Cumbrian coast, and fearing (again) for her virginity, she moved over to Northumbria.
The place where she fled was Bassenthwaite, only a short distance away from St Bees peninsula, in the Lake District, where we find church dedicated to St. Bega.
The Bassenthwaite church of St Bega’s is located on the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake. Legends tell that St Bega settled at Bassenthwaite, and may indeed have been buried in this spot. The architectural history of the church offers more mystery. There are large, uneven stones in the north and east walls, which suggest a Roman building. In the interior, a simple, rounded chancel arch supported on thick pillars certainly suggests a pre-Norman date. The most likely foundation of the current building, then, is about 950, but it is possible that the current church was created on the foundations of a much earlier building. The large arch between the chancel and north aisle is 12th century, and a later 14th century arch is located in the nave. Sadly, Victorian restoration has done away with any earlier evidence that might illuminate the history of the church. The simple font at the west end of the nave dates to about 1300. Above the south doorway hangs a royal coat of arms dating to 1745. It was erected, we are told, after the rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and was meant to remind citizens of where their loyalties should lie.
When Saint Bega fled the Cumbrian coast and moved to Northumbria, she allegedly left behind her one worldly possession, a bracelet. The writer of the Life of Saint Bega relates that St Bega was given a bracelet in Ireland by a heavenly being. which she left behind in St Bees when she travelled to Northumberland. It was described as having a holy cross upon it, which fits a style of the 9th and 10th centuries. The bracelet is mentioned several times in the charters of St Bees Priory; one instance is in the middle of the 13th century, when an oath was taken by John of Hale “having touched the sacred things … and upon the bracelet of St Bega”. An account roll from as late as 1516/1517 records offerings of 67s. 9d to the bracelet of St Bega; so the cult and the relic were still a going concern at that late time.
The phraseology of the early charters indicates a pre-Norman church at St Bees dedicated to St Bega. At the granting of the first charter of the Benedictine priory one of the witnesses was Gillebecoc; meaning devotee of Beghoc, indicating a Bega cult already in existence when the Norman-era Priory was built in St. Bees in the 12th Century, around 1120. The remains of a 10th century high cross from the graveyard of the St. Bees church confirm that the Norman-era Priory was built on the site of an older church, pre Norman church.
Cult or person?
Present day scholarship tends to treat St Bega not as a historical personage but a cult. As one scholar states; “The discovery of inconsistencies between these medieval texts, coupled with the significance attached to her jewellery (said to have been left in Cumbria on her departure for the north-east), now indicate that the abbess never existed. … More plausible is the suggestion that St Bega was the personification of a Cumbrian cult centred on ‘her’ bracelet (Old English: beag)”. The 1999 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography includes an article (by Professor Robert Bartlett) that treats St Bega as a mythical figure. A 1980 paper by John Todd offers a comprehensive review of the historical references to that date, including a discussion on her existence. He finishes with the words “We must search for the historical St Bega, not in the glorious years of the Northumbrian Kingdom, but the dark years of its fall. But our search may well be disappointed”.
So cult or person?
I would suggest person, or even better persons.
In Serbian we have this word cluster:
beg, begstvo, bijeg, bježanje, bižanje – escape, running away
begaj, bjež, biž – go away, run away, escape
begati, bežati, bižati – to escape, to run away
beganje, bežanje, bižanje – escaping, running away
bega, beži, biži – runs away
bega, pobegulja – the one (feminine) who ran away
beganija, bežanija – exodus, refuge
izbegati, izbegnuti, izbeći – avoid, to find refuge
odbegnuti, odbeći – to run away from
pobegnuti, pobeći – to escape, to be safe
So lets go back now to the legend about Saint Bega. She run away from Ireland and she was a refugee in Cumbria. She was the one who is on the run, which is in Serbian the one who “bega, beži, biži (beeži)”. She landed on a peninsula which is now called Bees (beez) and the place where she originally lived was called Bega and Bees (beez).
Do you think that this is a Coincidence? Is it possible that the legend of Saint Bega actually records an exodus from Ireland of a group of people who ran away (bega, beži, biži) across the see to Cumbria? The question here is who in this scenario would have used the word “bega, beži, biži” to describe the refugees? Refugees themselves or the locals from Cumbria?
“Origin of the Anglo – Saxon race” is a book published in 1906 by Thomas William Shore, author of ‘a history of Hampshire,’ etc, Honorary secretary London and Middlesex archaeological society; honorary Organizing secretary of the Hampshire field club and Archaeological society. In it the author gives detailed analysis of the “Anglo Saxons”, and shows us that both Angles and Saxons were just terms used for complex federations of south Baltic Germanic, Norse and West Slavic tribes. He describes the late Iron Age and early medieval northern central Europe as a melting pot where future great nations of Franks, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Norse, Slavs, were being created from tribal federations of mixed Germanic and Slavic ethnic, linguistic and cultural origin. I presented all the parts regarding the Slavic tribes in my post about this book.
If you read this post you will see that one of the tribes which comprised the Anglian confederation forces were Wends, and among them Sorbs, the Baltic Serbs. These same Serbs were also part of the later Danish Viking confederation forces which included a lot of South Baltic Slavs. I believe that later the Serbs were also part of the Norse forces which were a direct descendants of the Danish West Slavic Viking confederation. Serbs were always described as darker than the other Slavs, and the book “Origin of the Anglo-Saxon race” says this about them among the Angles and the Danes of the Early Medieval time:
“…This consideration of the probable origin of the great proportion of brunettes in two of the south midland counties of England leads us to that of the colour-names as surnames and place-names, which may probably have been derived from their origin settlers. For example, there is the common name Brown. This has been derived from the Anglo-Saxon brun, signifying brown. It is not reasonable to doubt that when our forefathers called a man Brun or Brown, they gave him this name as descriptive of his brown complexion. The probability that the brunettes were common is supported by the frequent references to persons named Brun in Anglo-Saxon literature. Brun was a name not confined to England in the Anglo-Saxon and later periods. On the contrary, we find that it was common name in ancient Germany. The typical place-name Bruninga-feld occurs in a charter of AEthelstan dated A. D. 938, `in loco qui Bruninga-feld dicitur.` Bruesham, hants, is mentioned in a charter of Edward `the Elder` about 900. Brunesford is another suggestive name. Bruman is mentioned as a personal name in Anglo-Saxon records of the eleventh century, and examples of the name Bruning are somewhat numerous in documents of the same period. At the present time old place-names, such as Braunschweig or Brunswick, are common in Germany. The custom of calling people by colour-names from their personal appearance, or places after them, was clearly not peculiar to our own country. It is probable that the name Brunswick was derived from the brown complexion of its original inhabitants. The map published by Ripley, based on the official ethnological survey of Germany, shows that parts of the country near Brunswick have a higher percentage of brunettes than the districts further north. Beddoe also made observations on a number of Brunswick peasantry, and records some remarkable facts relating to the proportion of brunettes among those who came under his observation.
The name Brunswick appears to be one of significance, and the Wendish names in that part of Germany, Wendeburg, Wendhausen,and Wenden, may be compared with the Buckinghamshire Domesday names Wendovre, Weneslai, and Wandene, and with Wenriga or Wenrige in hartfordshire. The probable connection of the Wends – some tribes of whom, such as the Sorbs, are known to have been dark – with parts of Germany near Brunswick, and with parts of Herts and Bucks, is shown by these names. Domesday Book tells us of huscarls in Buckinghamshire, and of people who bore such names as Suarting, Suiert, Suen, Suert, and Suiuard, among its land- owners, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that such names refer to people of dark complexions. Among the lahmens of Lincoln, a very Danish town, there were also apparently some so-called Danes of a dark complexion, for Domesday Book mentions Suartin, son of Gribold ; Suardine, son of Hardenut ; and Suartine Sortsbrand, son of Ulf.
In view of this, and the evidence relating to the use of the Anglo-Saxon word brun in English place-names,we are not, I think, justified in deciding that all English names which begin with brun, modernized into burn in many cases by the well-known shifting of the r sound, have been derived from burn, a bourn or stream, rather than from brun, brown. Such names as Bruninga-feld and Brunesham point to the opposite conclusion, that Brun in such names refers to people, probably so named from their complexions. If a large proportion of the settlers in the counties of Buckingham and Hertford were of a brown complexion, it is clear that they would have been less likely to have been called Brun or brown by their neighbours than brunettes would in other counties, where such a complexion may have been rarer, and consequently more likely to have attracted the notice of the people around them. It is not probable that people who were originally designated by the colour-names Brown, Black, Gray, or the like, gave themselves these names. They most likely received them from others.
The evidence concerning brown people in England during the Anglo-Saxon period which can be derived from the place-names Brun is supplemented by that supplied in at least some of the old place-names beginning with dun and duning. Dun is an Old English word denoting a colour partaking of brown and black, and where it occurs at the beginning of words in such a combination as Duningland, It is possible that it refers to brown people or their children, rather than to the Anglo-Celtic word dun, a hill or fortified place.
As regards the ancient brown race or races of North Europe, there can be no doubt of their existence in the south-east of Norway and in the east of Friesland. There can be no doubt about the important influence which the old Wendish race has had in the north-eastern parts of Germany in transmitting to their descendants a more brunette complexion than prevails among the people of Hanover, Holstein, and Westphalia, of more pure Teutonic descent. We cannot reasonably doubt that, in view of such a survival of brown people as we find at the present time in the provinces of North Holland, Drenthe and Overijssel, which form the hinterland of the ancient Frisian country, numerous brunettes must have come into England among the Frisians. It would be as unreasonable to doubt this as it would to think that during the Norwegian immigration into England all the brown people of Norway were precluded from leaving their country because they were brunettes, or that the Wends, who undoubtedly settled in England in considerable numbers, were none of them of a brunette type.
The survival of some people with broad heads and of a brown type in parts of Drenthe, Gelderland, and Overijssel appears unmistakable. They present a remarkable contrast in appearance to their Frisian neighbours, who are of a different complexion in regard to hair and skin, and are specially characterized as long-headed.
It was in Gelderland that ancient Thiel was situated, and the men of Thiel and those of Brune were apparently recognised as different people from the real Frisians, for in the later Anglo-Saxon laws relating to the sojourn of strangers within the City of London it is stated that `the men of the Emperor may lodge within the city wherever they please, except those of Tiesle and of Brune.
The consideration of the evidence that people of Brunette complexions were among the Anglo-Saxon settlers in England leads on to that of people of a still darker hue, the dark, black, or brown-black settlers. Probably there must have been some of these among the Anglo-Saxons, for we meet with the personal names Blacman, Blaecman, Blakeman, Blacaman, Blac`sunu, Blaecca, and Blachman, in various documents of the period. The same kind of evidence is met with among the oldest place-names. Blacmannebergh is mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon charter; Blachemanestone was the name of a place in Dorset, and Blachemenstone that of a place in Kent. Blacheshale and Blachenhale are Domesday names of places in Somerset, and Blachingelei occurs in the Domesday record of Surrey. The name Blachemone occurs in the Hertfordshire survey and Blachene in Lincoln. Among the earliest names of the same kind in the charters we find Blacanden in Hants and Blacandon in Dorset. The places called Blachemanestone in Dorset and Blachemenestone in Kent were on or quite close to the coast, a circumstance which points to the settlers having come to these places by water rather than to a survival of black people of the Celtic race having been left in them.
Among old place-names of the same kind in various counties, some of which are met with in later, but still old, records, we find Blakeney in Glouceatershire ; Blakeney in Norfolk; Blakenham in Suffolk; Blakemere, an ancient hamlet, and Blakesware, near Ware in Hertfordshire. This Hertford name is worthy of note in reference to what has been said concerning the brunettes in that county at the present time. Another circumstance connected with these names which it is desirable to remember is the absence of evidence to show that the Old English ever called any of the darker-complexioned Britons brown men or black men. Their name for them was Wealas. So far as I am aware, not a single instance occurs in which the Welsh are mentioned in any Anglo-Saxon document as black or brown people ; on the contrary, the Welsh annals mention black Vikings on the coast, as if they were men of unusual personal appearance.
There is another old word used by the Anglo-Saxons to denote black or brown-black – the word sweart. The personal names Stuart and Sueart may have been derived from this word, and may have originally denoted people of a darker-brown or black complexion. Some names of this kind are mentioned in the Domesday record of Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire. These may be of Scandinavian origin, for the ekename or nickname Svarti is found in the Northern sagas. Halfden `the Black` was the name of a King of Norway who died in 863. The so-called black men of the Anglo-Saxon period probably included some of the darker Wendish people among them, immigrants or descendants of people of the same race as the ancestors of the Sorbs of Lausatia on the border of Saxony and Prussia at the present day.
Some of the darker Wends may well have been among the Black Vikings referred to in the Irish annals, as well as in those of Wales, and may have been the people who have left the Anglo-Saxon name Blavmanne-berghe, which occurs in one of the charters, Blachemenestone on the Kentish coast, and Blachemanstone on the Dorset coast. As late as the time of the Domesday Survey we meet with records of people apparently named after their dark complexions. In Buckinghamshire, blacheman, Suartinus, and othersare mentioned; in Sussex, one named Blac; in Suffolk, Blakeemannus and Saurtingus; and others at Lincoln. The invasion of the coast of the British Isles by Viking of a dark or brown complexion rests on historical evidence which is too circumstantial to admit of doubt. In the Irish annals the Black Vikings are called Dubh-Ghenti, or Black Gentiles. These Black Gentiles on some occasions fought against other plunderers of the Irish coasts known as the Fair Gentiles, who can hardly have been others than the fair Danes or Northmen. In the year 851 the Black Gentiles came to Athcliath – i.e., Dublin. In 852 we are told that eight ships of the Finn-Ghenti arrived and fought against the Dubh-Ghenti for three days, and that the Dubh-Ghenti were victorious. The black Vikings appear at this time to have had a settlement in or close to Dublin, and during the ninth century were much in evidence on the Irish coast. In 877 a great battle was fought at Loch-Cuan between them and the Fair Gentiles, in which Albann, Chief of the black Gentiles, fell. He may well have beena chieftain of the race of the Northern Sorbs of the Mecklenburg coast.
The Danes and Norse, having the general race characteristics of tall, fair men, must have been sharply distinguished in appearance from Vikings, such as those of Jomborg, for many of these were probably of a dark complexion. There is an interesting record of the descent of dark sea-rovers on the coast of North Wales in the `Annales Cambriae,` under the year 987, which tells us that Gothrit, son of Harald, with black men, devastated Anglesea, and captured two thousand men. Another entry in the same record tells us that Meredut redeemed the captives from the black men. This account in the Welsh annals receives some confirmation in the Sagas of the Norse kings, one of which tells us that Olav Trygvesson was for three years, 982-985, king in Vindland – i.e., Wendland – where he resided with his Queen, to whom he was much attached ; but on her death, whoses loss he greatly felt, he had no more pleasure in Vindland. He therefore provided himself with ships and went on a Viking expedition, first plundering Friesland and the coast all the way to Flanders. Thence he sailed to Northumberland, plundered its coast and those of Scotland, Man, Cumberland, and Bretland – i.e., Wales – during the years 985-988, calling himself a Russian under the name of Ode. From these two separate accounts there can be but little doubt, notwithstanding the differences in the names, of the descent on the coast of North Wales at this time of dark sea-rovers under a Scandinavian leader, and it is difficult to see who they were if not dark-complexioned Wends or other allies of the Norsemen. It is possible some of these dark Vikings may have been allies or mercenaries from the south of Europe, where the Norse made conquests…”
So at the time of the arrival of the Saint Bega to Cumbria, Dark Vikings, probably of Danish Slavic (Serbian) origin, were in Controll of Dublin, but they were at war with the White Vikings, probably of Norse origin. These Dark Vikings were also the ones who attacked Cumbria during the same period and Settled there as well. At the same time when these Dark Danish Slavic Vikings were in the East of Ireland and plundering Cumbria, Cumbria was part of the Angle kingdom which, according to the Origin of the Anglo-Saxon race, had a large Dark Wendish (Serbian) minority population.
This is what we can find in the history of Cumbria and Northumbria:
“At the end of the period of British history known as Roman Britain (c. A.D. 410) the inhabitants of Cumberland were Cumbric-speaking native “Romano-Britons” who were probably descendants of the Brigantes and Carvetii (sometimes considered to be a sub-tribe of the Brigantes) that the Roman Empire had conquered in about A.D. 85. Based on inscriptional evidence from the area, the Roman civitas of the Carvetii seems to have covered portions of Cumbria. The names “Cumbria”, “Cymru” (the native Welsh name for Wales), “Cambria” (the medieval Latinization of Welsh Cymru) and “Cumberland” are derived from the name these people gave themselves, *kombroges in Brittonic, which originally meant ‘compatriots’. During the Early Middle Ages Cumberland formed the core of the Brythonic kingdom of Rheged. By the end of the 7th century most of Cumberland had been incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. The Kingdom of Northumbria was a medieval Anglian kingdom in what is now northern England and south-east Scotland, which subsequently became an earldom in a unified English kingdom. The name reflects the approximate southern limit to the kingdom’s territory, the Humber estuary. In 867 Northumbria became the northern kingdom of the Danelaw, after its conquest by the brothers Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless who installed an Englishman, Ecgberht, as a puppet king. Despite the pillaging of the kingdom, Viking rule brought lucrative trade to Northumbria, especially at their capital York. The kingdom passed between English, Norse and Norse-Gaelic kings until it was finally absorbed by King Eadred after the death of the last independent Northumbrian monarch, Erik Bloodaxe, in 954. After the English regained the territory of the former kingdom, Scots invasions reduced Northumbria to an earldom stretching from the Humber to the Tweed. Northumbria was disputed between the emerging kingdoms of England and Scotland. The land north of the Tweed was finally ceded to Scotland in 1018 as a result of the battle of Carham. Yorkshire and Northumberland were first mentioned as separate in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1065. In 1092 Cumberland was invaded by William II and incorporated into England.”
So it is possible that the “Irish” princess which fled (bega) to Cumbria was one of the Dark Vikings (Wends, Serbs?) of Dublinia. It is also possible that she was a Gaelic princess from Leinster who fled the Viking invasion and who arrived to Anglian coast populated by the Dark Angles (Wends, Serbs?). It is also possible that it could have been both? Either one of these people could have used the word “bega, beži, biži” to describe someone who is escaping, running away, hiding, taking refuge. In this case the dialectic version “beži” of the word “bega” would have produced “bees” (originally pronounced “bez”). So bees would have been “bež”, the place of refuge, and “bega” would have been the one who ran away to “bež”, the place of refuge.
What is very interesting is that the Norman church of Saint Bega contains several grave stones and grave slabs with a “Serbian cross”.
This is a Serbian cross. It is an ancient symbol first time found among the Vinča symbols. It then inermittentnly pops out in Evroasia and Egypt throughout then next 7000 years until it finally appears on the Serbian medieval heraldry. It is still disputed what the meaning of the four arcs in the symbol is. I will dedicate a whole post to resolving this dispute (hopefully once and for all).
This one is the symbol of Serbia, from Korenić-Neorić Armorial (1595).
And these are carved grave stones and grave slabs from the St Bees priory.
The above stone shows an elaborate version of a “Serbian cross”, with at the centre, a six-petalled flower (Perunika, Perun’s flower). The slab has been re-used at a later date and a much cruder design was superimposed.
The above stone also has a “Serbian cross”, with looped objects, which have been identified as stirrups, in the two upper quadrants of the head centre. Below, a bowman stands on the left of the shaft, with on the right a sword. The bowman, has a quiver slung over his shoulder.
The above stone has a “Serbian cross” formed by four sunk quadrants within a circle, with a cross pate at the centre; on the left of the incised cross shaft is a clasped book, possibly signifying the Gospels.
The above stone has a “Serbian cross” formed by four embossed arcs tied together to form a cross, with lozenge-shaped buds breaking the circle. On the right of the cross shaft, carved in relief within a sunk panel, is a sword. The stone is chamfered.
The above stone has a “Serbian cross” formed by four embossed closed arcs tied together to form a cross, with lozenge-shaped buds breaking the circle. Sword on right of shaft, with down-curved quillons.
The above stone has a cross formed by four overlaping embosed arcs. This is basically a deformed “Serbian cross”. This is also a representation of a solar year which is confirmed by the fact that the cross shaft has an overlay with a small disc or ring, which symbolises a solar year, sun circle.
This is an interesting “solar” cross built into the structure of the Norman church. I have no information what period this cross was dated to, but it definitely postdates the Norman church.
Again you see the four arcs (formed by deep gouges) radiating from the center of the cross formed by the line connecting the five circles.
Coincidence? It is possible that whoever escaped from Ireland and settled in this area of Cumbria and Northumberland, whover was the “bega”, used and venerated the “Serbian cross”. It is therefore possible that the story about the misterious St Bega’s bracelet is a misunderstanding of this old symbol by the later settlers who even called the crosses on the above stones “bracelet heads” and the misunderstanding stemmed from the fact that the old English word for bracelet was “beag”. Curiously, this is not the only Norman Basilica which is linked to the “Serbian cross”. More curiously the “Serbian cross” is found at the core of the oldest “Anglo-Saxon” crosses. And even more curiously, the “Serbian cross” is found at the core of the oldest “Celtic crosses”, both in Britain and in Ireland. These oldest “Celtic crosses” were said to have been “stone coppies of much older wooden originals”. Funny that wooden high crosses of both the so called “Serbian cross” type and “Celtic cross” type are found as village crosses in Serbia even today. So what is exactly going on here? I will write about all of this in my future posts.
Until the next time, have fun, stay happy 🙂