St Bega gave her name to the former Priory at St Bees, on the Cumbrian coast. Later biographers buried her life under conventional mediaeval romance, and confused her with St Begu, founder of a monastery at Hartlepool in the 7th century. But beneath it all lies a ninth-century Irish princess, and a mysterious bracelet.
IN 853, Dublin came under the control of the great Viking chieftain Olaf the White who, according to the Norse Sagas and the Irish Annals alike, married Irish royalty. Not all Irish princesses, however, yearned for a warrior-husband. Some were Christians, for whom Norse religion was a step back into darkness.
One young woman of royal blood was placed under house arrest by her father for refusing such a marriage, but she managed to escape across the Irish Sea to Cumbria. There, alone in woodland somewhere between the coast and the western fells of the Lake District, she was free to choose a life of enlightened prayer and simple contentment.*
Her sole possession was a bracelet, marked with a small cross; indeed she was known only as Bega, from the Old English word for a bracelet.* People said that during her escape an angel from heaven had given her that bracelet, and that the hand that wore it opened every door her father might lock.
* The Norman-era seaside Priory of St Bees is usually assumed to have been founded at or near Bega’s hermitage. However, the much older tenth-century parish church at Bassenthwaite further north, in a secluded lakeside setting known in the 13th century as Beokirke, is another possibility.
* ‘Beage’ (bracelet) was also a lady’s name. Wilfrid, Bishop of Worcester from 718 to about 743, leased church-owned land in Gloucestershire to Earl Leppa and his daughter Beage (‘bracelet’). That place is now called Bibury, ‘manor or stronghold of Beage’. So Bega may have taken her name from the bracelet she always wore, or she may have been given the bracelet because it went with her name.