OS Grid Reference: NX 9685 1210. In an alcove of the churchyard wall of St Mary & St Bega’s church at St Bees, Cumbria, is a huge carved stone lintel, which was thought to date back to the 8th century AD? The stone has a very beautiful, but also quite curious, Anglo Saxon carving of a dragon being killed by St Michael the Archangel, and not St George – as was usually the case! Below this lintel stone is a carved Medieval cross. The stone, which is called ‘The Dragon Stone’ for obvious reasons, is also known as ‘The Beowulf Stone’. Inside the parish church, which has grown out of the ruins of the near-complete priory nave, are more interesting carved gravestones and crosses. The Benedictine priory was dissolved in 1538. St Bega (Bee) was a Legendary 7th century Irish princess who came here in order to avoid an unwanted marriage; she founded a nunnery in AD 650 at or close to where the present parish church now stands. The priory church can be found beside the B5345 (over the railway line) at the northwestern side of the village – in the direction of Rottington. The village of St Bees lies 3 miles west of Egremont.
The Dragon Stone or Beowulf Stone is in an alcove of the churchyard (courtyard) wall, opposite the beautifully carved west door of c.1160. It is a huge, long lump of carved stone bearing carvings that were thought to date from the 8th century, but they are now considered to be from the Norman period – the early 12th century AD, and probably came from a much earlier church that stood here. These carvings are very well-preserved, despite their age. A ferocious looking dragon with its long curled tail is depicted about to be killed by St Micheal, who is cowering behind it with his sword raised in readiness. There looks to be another strange beast, perhaps a dragon, with a long curled tail behind the main dragon, but also a dove of peace inside a circle, which sort of balances things out between good and evil. The strap-work design at the right-hand side seems more like Celtic or Saxon, and certainly not Norman; and at the left-side are two small circles with knotted (connecting) cords running through that look like crosses and, below them another section of knotwork with loops and links. Beneath the lintel stone a round-headed medieval cross with shaped depressions forming the arms. Also out in the churchyard part of a 10th century cross-shaft with Late Saxon carvings and a serpent.
Arthur Mee (1961), tells of more about the village, St Bega, and its church, saying that: “Deep in a valley near the sea it lies, a grey village of much antiquity and charm. Its church is the oldest and finest in West Cumberland; its school is ancient, and so is its bridge; but the oldest of all is its delightful story of St Bega (or Bee) and how she got her nunnery. “
The church has grown from the church of a rich priory which began about 1125 as an offshoot of St Mary’s great abbey in York. The priory was built where the nunnery has stood (from the 7th century until the Danes destroyed it in the 10th), and this church is carrying on its ancient tradition. But the most interesting possession of St Bees is a relic of the nunnery itself, a remarkable stone believed to date from the eighth century.
“We see it in the wall between the churchyard and the vicarage, where it forms the lintel of an alcove. It is carved with an ugly dragon turning to snarl at a tiny armed figure attacking it from behind. One end of the stone is decorated with plaitwork, and with the knotwork at the other end is a very curious carving which looks like a boar’s head. Standing in the alcove is another relic, a stout stone cross on which the bearers of a coffin would rest their load.
“The cross-shaped church with its fine central tower has been altered in modern times, but the greater part was built only a few decades after the priory. It has a magnificent Norman doorway without equal for many miles. The arch has four rich chevron mouldings, beak-heads of men and serpents, and a ram; and carved on one of the capitals is a figure swinging like a monkey from the branches. Three trefoils on stalks make an unusual decoration at the top of the dripstone, and are perhaps meant to represent the Trinity. The oak door is modern, and has decorated hinges. “
Among the stones kept here as relics are a stoup, a piscine, and a mortar, all of the 12th century. Others are probably parts of still older cross-shafts with primitive carving, and one is the upper part of a 10th century shaft decorated on each side with chain and scroll. There are coffin stones 800 years old, carved with crosses and swords and shears: a very fine one engraved with an archer drawing his bow, an elaborate 13th century stone, and another charmingly engraved with the portrait of 14th century Johanna Lucy in a graceful gown her hair in plaited coils.”
Arthur Mee (1961), goes on to tell of St Bega, patron saint of St Bees, saying that: “She was an Irish princess who lived in the 7th century. As a child she made up her mind to serve God and not to marry, and as a pledge of her determination she kept a bracelet said to have been given to her by an angel. But she was the most beautiful woman in the country, and her father betrothed her to a Norwegian prince. Bega (as she was often called) was guarded so that she should not run away, but on the eve of the wedding everyone joined in the merrymaking and she was able to escape, crossing the sea to Northumbria.
“Legend tells us that she was well received by a great lady there, who asked her husband to give her land for a nunnery. He jokingly said he would give as much land as was covered by snow on Midsummer day, and on that morning there was snow for three miles round. Snow has been known on Cumberland mountains on Midsummer day, and possibly the story grew up as an explanation of the irregular shape of the parish. Bega built her nunnery, serving food to the workers with her own hands. As abbess she cared for the sick and poor of the district and became greatly loved.
“Those who declare that there was no Saint Bega assert that the origin of her story is to be found in a ring keep at St Bees until the 13th century, venerated as the bracelet given to Bega by the angel. Actually this was a Norse ring from a pagan temple, taken into the Christian church and referred to as Sancta Bega, Latin for Holy and Anglo-Saxon for Ring; a misunderstanding of these words would account for belief in a saint named Bega. But it is likely that Bega was a real abbess, for the people of north-east England long looked upon her as the protector of the oppressed and the poor.”
Maxwell Fraser (1939), says that: “It has since been demonstrated that no St Bega had any connection with the site, although there was undoubtedly a pre-Norman church there.” W. T. Palmer (1939), adds to the legend of St Bega, saying that: “The place was Christianised by St. Bega, who had been promised all the land that snow lay on, on Midsummer morning. A space of 16 m. by 10 m. was clad in white, and had to be handed to her. In time monks took the place of nuns, and the Prior became one of the most powerful men in the North, though his church and estate were constantly being raided by Scots and by pirates.”
In recent times scholars and historians have considered Bega to be identical with Begu, a 7th century Northumbrian nun and friend of St Hilda. It was Begu who, looking out of her nunnery window at Hackness, had a vision of the soul of St Hilda floating (ascending) up into the night sky and heaven at the very same moment that the saintly abbess had died at Whitby mona-stery, on 17th of November, 680 AD, according to The Venerable Bede’s History. Her death also being recorded in ‘The Anglo Saxon Chronicle’. A passage concerning a bell being tolled for her passing is the first written mention of a bell in recorded history, according to Colin Waters (2003). David Farmer (1982), with regard to St Bee & St Begu being one and the same person, gives the feast-day of St Begu as 31st October. He also says that a sarcophagus containing the bones of St Begu was found at Hackness (c.1125) by the monks of Whitby – after it had been miraculously revealed to them. It was inscribed: Hoc est sepulchrum Begu. These relics were translated to Whitby Abbey where miracles were reported, but another set of relics was claimed by St Bees, says Farmer.
Sources & Related Websites:-
Bottomley, Frank, The Abbey Explorer’s Guide, Kaye & Ward, London, 1981.
Farmer, David, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 1982.
Frazer, Maxwell, Companion Into Lakeland, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1939.
Jennett, Seán (Editor), The Travellers Guides — The Lake District, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1965.
Mee, Arthur, The King’s England — Lake Counties — Cumberland And Westmoreland, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1961.
Palmer, W. T., The Penguin Guides (Edt. by L. Russell Muirhead), Lake District, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1939.
© Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2018.