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St. Bega, Prioress of Copeland
(Died AD 681)

The legend is that St. Bega, commonly called St. Bee of Egremont, was the daughter of an Irish king and was the most beautiful woman in her country. She was to be married to the King of Norway, but she had, from her infancy, vowed herself to a religious ascetic life and, in token of her betrothal to Christ, had received, from an angel, a bracelet marked with the sign of the cross. The night before her wedding-day, while the guards and attendants were revelling or sleeping, she fled, taking the bracelet with her. Finding no ship to speed her escape, she cut a turf from the ground and, on it, crossed the Irish Sea to the English Coast opposite. She landed on a promontory - thenceforth called St. Bee's Head - in Cumberland, then part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. She lived there, in prayer and charity, as a hermit, fed by the wild birds, but with an increase in piratical raids, she was advised by King Oswald to enter the safety of a nunnery. She received the veil from St. Aidan, Bishop of Northumbria and travelled the district, preaching at places such as Kilbees in Scotland, before founding the nunnery of Copeland Priory, near Carlisle, as well as "St. Bee's" around her old hermitage. She is said to have cooked, washed and mended for the workmen who erected its buildings.

In the Middle Ages, she was especially appealed to against oppressors of the poor, to whom she had been devoted in her lifetime, and against Scottish Border Rievers. She was Patroness of the north-west of England and also of Norway. In the 12th century, her bracelet was kept at St. Bees as a holy relic on which persons were called upon to swear, as it was believed that a false oath made on that relic would be immediately exposed and incur a dreadful vengeance.

Some say that St. Bega moved even further inland and finally settled on the opposite coast of Northumbria, where Northern Christianity was centred and protected. On this supposition, she is identified, by some authorities - amongst them the Aberdeen Breviary - with St. Begu of Hackness and St. Heiu of Hartlepool. This is unlikely as all three appear to be distinct personages. In fact, St. Bega's name is so close to the Anglo-Saxon word for a bracelet - beag - that it seems likely that she was conjured up from the reverence afforded to her holiest relic. Her feast day is usually given as 31st October, but this appears to be due to confusion with St. Begu of Hackness.

Partly edited from Agnes Dunbar's "A Dictionary of Saintly Women" (1904).


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