The Benedictine Priory of St Bees occupies a favourable position on the western coast of Cumbria. The Priory took its name from a previous religious establishment, of which nothing seems to have survived till the twelfth century except the tradition of its former existence.
The Priory was founded by the first Norman Lord of Egremont William Meschin, and was dedicated by Archbishop Thurstan of York, sometime between 1120 and 1135.
The magnificent Norman west doorway of the Priory dates from 1150-1160, and is the most richly decorated in the county, with three orders of columns, zig-zag and beak-head decoration. Opposite in the west courtyard is a fine romanesque lintel, which may have served an earlier church, dating from 1120.
The six nave arcades are Early English arches sitting on the original Norman pillars and the base of the tower is Norman but the arches are Early English. The east wall of the north transept has plain Norman windows above the chapel altar, and there is a fine Norman window on the north side of the present chancel, though with Victorian plate tracery.
The St Bega chapel in the north transept has two fine Norman windows above the altar. Flanking the altar are the two sculptures of St Bega and the Virgin Mary by Josefina de Vasconcellos which make up the “Vision of St Bega” (1950). In the 19th Century two large cinquefoils were inserted by Butterfield into the medieval east walls of the transepts. The side aisles are a Victorian restoration down to the string course.
At the east end, beyond the present chancel wall by Butterfield, is the monastic chancel of about 1190, still almost complete, with a fine range of lancet windows on the north side, and on the south an arcade of arches (now infilled and with modern windows) which would have led to the 14th Century chapel in the chancel aisle. The monastic chancel is currently separated from the body of the church by the altar wall, though there is a modern connecting doorway. It is currently used as a parish room. Beneath the elevated wooden floor of the present building is the original stone floor of the medieval church.
Outside to the south of the chancel are the remains of the chapel built 1270-1300, which may have fallen due to structural problems before the Dissolution. In the ruined fragment of the south wall can be seen the top steps of the monk’s night stairs and a squint window, while to the east the north jamb is all that remains of what must have been a very impressive window.
The Priory was dissolved on 16 October 1539. The roof of the was removed at the Dissolution of Monasteries under the direction of King Henry VIII.
- The Dissolution of the Monasteries, sometimes referred to as the Suppression of the Monasteries, was a set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland.
The 19th century was the great era of restoration, helped greatly by the presence of the Theological College and the increasing prosperity of the village of St Bees. The West door came into use, a new vicarage was built to the west, and the last of the monastic cloister was demolished.
The nave and transepts were re-roofed, and to accommodate a new organ in 1867 the west Gallery was taken down. The altar was moved from under the tower east into a new chancel which occupied one bay of the monastic choir. The tower was re-built in the Romanesque style to the design of William Butterfield when the eight bells were installed in 1858.
The north and south aisles were partly rebuilt and completely furnished with new stained glass. In 1899 the present magnificent “Father” Henry Willis organ was installed. The organ has over 2000 pipes and sounds wonderful. Thanks to Mr Ian McAndrew for a tour around the inner workings of the organ.
St Bega was the daughter of an Irish king, who reigned as a Christian monarch. The princess fled across the sea to avoid an enforced marriage, and landed after a prosperous voyage ‘in a certain province of England called Coupland’.
Bega found the place covered with a thick forest, and admirably adapted for a solitary life. Wishing to dedicate her life to God, she built for herself a virgin cell in a grove near the seashore, where she remained for many years in strict seclusion and devout contemplation.
In the course of time the district began to be frequented by pirates. The good saint however dreaded not death, nor mutilation, nor the loss of temporal goods, of which she was destitute except her bracelet, but she feared the loss of her virginity, the most precious treasure with which heaven can endow her sex. By divine command Bega hastened her departure from the place, but she was induced to leave her bracelet behind her, that miracles in ages to come might be performed in that neighbourhood in testimony of her holy life.
The bracelet was said to have been given to St Bega by an angel in Ireland. It is described as “a bracelet having the sign of the holy cross clearly stamped on the top (in summitate) of it”. In 1315, when Lord James Douglas “came to the castle of Egremont in Coupland and there did many evil things with his men” the “ecclesiastical vestments of St Bega the virgin” were looted.
There can be little doubt that the influence of Bega was a power in the south-western portion of the county in the early years of the twelfth century. The district had borne her name, and a parish church was entitled in her honour. Legend has it that she then lived a life of piety at St Bees. The most likely period for her journey would have been sometime in the thirty years after 850, when the Vikings were settling Ireland.
- The St Bees place-name is derived from “Kirkeby Becok” – the “Church town of Bega”.
The chief relic to which the monks of St. Bees paid veneration was the bracelet above mentioned, which St. Bega left behind her on her flight from Cumberland. In the legendary life of the saint several stories are told of the power of this talisman. One story claimed that when the holy bracelet was exhibited in public on account of its great sanctity, a certain individual sacrilegiously stole the precious cloth in which it had been wrapped and hid it in his boot. By the vengeance of St. Bega the leg of the thief became paralysed, and thus was his sin discovered. Having been carried to the priory church, he confessed his guilt, and his leg was restored to its original soundness by the goodness of the most merciful Virgin, who is wont to pity those who are truly penitent.
The Life manuscript contains accounts of nine miracles brought about by the influence of St Bega. They are earthy folk tales with miraculous interpretation:
- The first concerns a raider from Galloway, who set out to steal a horse. His mother warned him against theft on the land of St Bega, but her son was scornful and moving his hands to the private parts of his buttocks he tauntingly said, “what can that little old woman do to me?” As he escaped on the horse, arrows were fired after him as he crouched low, and the inevitable happened.
- The third concerns Godard of Millom, whose men would not remove their horses from the monks’ pasture to which they had strayed. When the men came to saddle the horses, they found the hooves almost severed, and in penance Godard gave the field to the Monks.
- The seventh miracle tells of three men of Workington, who were imprisoned in Egremont Castle for killing a man in a drunken brawl, but having confessed their sins to St Bega, were rescued by her and found sanctuary at St Bees.
- The ninth miracle tells of two sick brothers who, after seeing a vision at Tynmouth, travelled to St Bees in a cart, and were healed; leaving the cart as thanks.
Around 1400 it is recorded that St Bega’s day was celebrated ‘in albs’ (for a lesser saint) at the mother house of St Mary’s Abbey, York. A fifteenth-century Book of Hours in the Bodleian Library from St Mary’s records the day as 7 November. Since this discovery in the late 20th century, St Bega’s day has been celebrated in St Bees on this date.
St Bees Man
During an archaeological dig in 1981 in the area of the 14th Century ruined chapel at the east end of the Priory, a number of medieval burials were uncovered, and the remains of an earlier building on a different alignment to the Priory was found.
The most significant find was of a man aged 35–45 in a lead coffin in a stone vault (effigy), given the name St Bees Man, whose body was in a remarkable state of preservation. It has now been established that he was Anthony de Lucy, a Teutonic Knight, who died in 1368 in the Crusades in Prussia.
Anthony had suffered several traumatic injuries, both prior to and at the time of his demise. One of the latter injuries, a puncture to the right lung, is the likely cause of death. The extent of these injuries suggests that he had been a physically active man who participated in violence.
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His remarkable preservation seems to have been the result of post-mortem preparation, including the use of a lead wrapping, a pine-pitch impregnated shroud, and the formation of adipocere. The use of a lead wrapping has analogues with late-medieval funerary practices for some individuals of high social standing. High status is also implicit in tooth extractions, dental treatment being a rarity in the medieval period.
Although the body was over six hundred years old, his nails, skin and stomach contents were found to be in near-perfect condition. After his death the vault he was discovered in, was enlarged to take the body of his sister, Maud de Lucy, who died in 1398. The probable effigies of both Maud and Anthony can be seen in the history display at the Priory.
The six hundred year old face of St Bees Man during autopsy:
Note the short-cropped beard, irises of the eyes and worn dentition.