Derwent Water and Lake Basenthwaite:
The Saints venerated in an area can tell one a great deal about how the place sees itself and what kind of qualities it values. Saints can also give clues to the history of the lands to which they are dedicated. And this is true of the Braithwaite and Keswick areas.
There are three saints who are particularly important to this area: St Herbert, St Cuthbert and St Bega (or St Bee). All three date from the 7th Century AD; all three have links to the Celtic history of Cumbria; and all three may have known each other: two certainly did.
The Lake District’s most famous poet, William Wordsworth, composed an inscription for the site of St Herbert’s hermitage: this can be found here. Wordsworth draws on the history of the Venerable Bede, who writes that St Herbert and St Cuthbert loved each other so intensely that, although far apart, they died in the same hour.
St Herbert is an important figure for this corner of the lake District. His cell stood on an island in Derwent Water, now called St Herbert’s Island ("Herbert's Holm" by the Norsemen). It seems to have been a focus for pilgrims throughout Britain.
The church in Braithwaite (left) is dedicated to St Herbert, as is a church in Carlisle: oddly for such a popular Saint, but perhaps fittingly for such a devout recluse, these appear to be the only dedications to Herbert in the area.
The friendship between Herbert the solitary and Cuthbert may appear a strange one, for they appear so different: we know little about Herbert apart from the contemporaneous account of Bede, but we have good documentary evidence of Cuthbert. Probably a Scottish soldier in the service of the Kingdom of Northumbria, he became Prior of Melrose Abbey, and was sent to Lindisfarne after the Synod of Whitby (663) abandoned Celtic Christianity in favour of Roman rule – a significant point in British ecclesiastical history, and it may be that his role was to supervise the abbey’s transition between the two opposing traditions.
From Lindisfarne he moved to the Farne Islands, like his friend Herbert adopting the life of a recluse; tradition has it that he instituted the first ever protection laws to safeguard the lives of the sea birds of the area. To this day eider ducks are often called cuddy ducks; St Cuthbert’s ducks. However he was not permitted to enjoy his solitude with his god for long: he was made Bishop of Lindisfarne in 685. He died on Inner Farne island on March 687: his remains are in Durham Cathedral. There are St Cuthbert’s churches in Lorton and Embleton. St Bega (or St Bee of Egremont) is a figure of speculation, mystery and veneration. Again, our knowledge of her comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, although it is likely that he confused St Bega with St Buga of Hartlepool.
However, it is the legend that is important. She was the daughter of an Irish king betrothed to marry a pagan. To escape this fate, the Christian Bega prayed, and an angel appeared with an arm bracelet. With the aid of the bracelet, St Bega cut a square of soil and sailed it to England, landing at what is now called St Bee’s head.
Legend tells that she asked the Lord of Egremont for land to build a priory: he said she could have as much as was covered by snow on Midsummer’s day. The next day saw a miracle; three miles of land under a thick coat of snow, and here the abbey was founded. Other legends centre on the same story.
Bega became the centre for a cult that clearly flourished in the area. Indeed, her arm-ring became a relic, and there are many documentary references to oaths being taken on it. The swearing upon a bracelet is a Celtic and Scandinavian tradition, and some scholars have suggested that “St Bega” actually comes in back-formation from “sancta bega” or “holy bracelet”, the hagiography of the saint springing from the ring rather than the other way round. Believers, however, are determined to keep the faith: a lovely church dedicated to St Bega can be found on the shores of lake Bassenthwaite, and when visiting St Bega’s it is hard not to be convinced that the holy benign presence of St Bega still dwells in that spot. For more discussion of St Bega at a higher academic level, Dr John Todd has an interesting article here.
Melvyn Bragg was so taken by both the story and the church that he wrote a novel centring around St Bega: Credo. More recently (2006) he has instituted the Credo appeal for renovations to St Bega's church. One of the strands has been the establishment of a "short long distance footpath" of 36 miles from the church (at the place where St Bega might have spent time avoiding the rapine of the Vikings) to the Priory church at St Bees. It is fitting that a modern pilgrimage route should link these two sites; and it would be good to think that St Herbert and St Cuthbert might also have trod this path! Details can be found here: St Bega's Way.