We arrived at the delightfully named St Bees in Cumbria on the North West coast of England, and we found a load of things; a saint with all the delightful myths you’d expect, a Norman Priory and a mystery. And a remarkably detailed local village website to satisfy any historical soul.
St Bees is based on a Norse name which meant ‘Church town of St Brega’. In tradition, St Brega was an Irish princess, who arrived in 650 on the Cumbrian shores; in the 9th century, the wave of Danes that hit England was mirrored by a similar wave that hit Ireland, and later Cumbria. Brega apparently was being forced to marry a norseman, and fled across the sea instead, and lived as an anchoress. You’ll notice the date problem – if you accept the myth, 650’s far too early! Anyway, the myth continues – she asked for land for a convent; the local lord offered as much land as would be covered by snow the next day. Now in Cumbria, that would normally mean more land that you could handle, but in this case it was Midsummer’s day how they must have laughed! But of course the lord intervened, and instead it snowed the following day, and so the priory was founded.
The debate is about whether or not St Brega existed or not; scholars point out that the relic of her cult, a ring, has spookily similar origins in Anglo Saxon. But I’ll leave all that to people who know what they are talking about.
It took a while for the Normans to arrive in Cumbria; 26 years after Hastings they turn up, in 1092. They founded a
Benedictine priory on an existing site somewhere around 1120, and here are some pictures, in the rather severe red stone of Cumbria. Much of the church has been restored; the west doorway in particular has the Norman design I love, and the chapel looks to be early to my untutored eye. The rood screen is rather magnificent, and the whole church something of a joy
Inside the church is also a history nut’s dream – wonderful displays of local archaeological finds, really well explained with displays. The coffin covers like this one were interesting enough; this one is apparently from 1150-1200, and it’s thought the symbols such as the bowmen relate to the occupant’s life; it’s noting that only the grandest would have had their own coffin, the rest of us would have had a communal grave marked with a cross.
Then there’s the amazing preservation of ‘St Bees Man’, discovered on a dig in 1981. They discovered a lead coffin, and inside a man wrapped in a shroud soaked in resin. The quality of the preservation was incredible – including liquid blood found in the lungs. The poor bloke had died a violent death – punctured lung and fractured jaw amongst other things. The latest thinking links the body to the Teutonic Crusades in Lithuania; since it’s thought that the body is that of Anthony de Lucy, killed on crusade in 1368. His sister Maud is buried with him; she took over his lands on his death, and died in 1398.
But there’s more. little St Bees produced two Archbishops – Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury
and Edwin Sandys, Archbishop of York, both int he time of Elizabeth I. Grindal, which sounds like something out of Harry Potter, founded a school, Ste Bees, which looks ;like something out of Harry Potter, founded in 1538. It’s most famous ‘old boy’ is Rowan Atkinson, though rather sadly it closed in 2015.
St Bees is also the start of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk, on which my son and I are embarked at the time of writing. So there you go, I have taken to posting my holidays. But do go and find out more at the brilliant village website.