Bekan’s Ghyll

Bekan's Ghyll

Dim shadows tread with elfin pace
The nightshade-skirted road,
Where once the sons of Odin's race
In Bekan's vale abode;
Where, long ere rose Saint Mary's pile,
The vanquish'd horsemen laid
Their idol Wodin, stained and vile,
Beneath the forest's shade.

There hid—while clash of clubs and swords
Resounded in the dell,
To save it from the Briton's hordes
When Odin's warriors fell—
It lay with Bekan's mightiest charms
Of magic on its breast;
While Sorcery, with its hundred arms,
Had sealed the vale in rest.

It woke when fell with sturdy stroke
The Norman axe around,
And builders' hands in fragments broke
The Idol from the ground;

And hewed therefrom that corner stone
Which yet yon tower sustains,
Where Wodin's Moth sits, grim and lone,
And holds the dell in chains.

There youth at love's sweet call oft glides
By cloister, aisle, and nave,
To stop above the stone that hides
The beauteous Fleming's grave:—
Fair flower of Aldingham—the child
Of old Sir William's days,—
Low where the Bekan straggling wild
Its deadly arms displays.

There in the quiet more profound
Than sleep, than death more drear,
Her shadow walks the silent ground
When leaves are green or sere;
When autumn with its cheerless sky
Or winter with its pall,
Puts all the year's fair promise by
With fruits that fade and fall.

And where the Bekan by the rill
So bitter once, now sweet,
Its lurid purples ripens still
While ages onward fleet,
She tastes the deadly flower by night,—
If yet its juices flow
Sweet as of yore; for then to light
And rest her soul shall go.

Ah, blessed forth from far beyond
The Jordan once he came,—
Her Red-cross Knight,—the marriage bond
To twine with love and fame:
His meed of valour, Beauty's charms,
Pledged with one silvery word,
Beneath the forest's branching arms
And by the breezes stirred.

Another week! and she would stand
In Urswick's halls a bride:
Another week! the marriage band
Had round her life been tied:
When wild with joyfulness of heart
That beat not with a care,
She carolled forth alone, to start
The grim Moth from its lair.

She bounded from his heart elate!
But Urswick's halls of light,
And Aldingham's embattled gate
No more shall meet her sight.
For her no happy bridal crowd
Press out into the road,
But Furness monks with dirges loud
Bend round her last abode.

To chase the moth that guards the flower
That makes the dell its own,
Flew forth the maid from hall and tower
Through wood and glen alone.

Where Odin's men had left their god
In earth, long overgrown
With tangled bushes rude, she trod
Enchanted ground unknown.

The abbey walls before her gaze
At distance rising fair,
While deep within the magic maze
She wandered unaware:
She loitered with the song untired
Upon her lips, nor thought
What foes against her peace conspired,
While love his lost one sought!

They found her with close-lidded eyes,
Watched by that Moth unblest,
Perched high between her and the skies,
And nightshade on her breast.
There lay she with her lips apart
In peace; by Wodin's power
Stilled into death her truest heart
With Bekan's lurid flower.

Woe was it when Sir William's hall
Received the mournful train:
No more her voice with sweetest call
His morns to wake again!
No more her merry step to cheer
The days when clouds were wild!
No more her form on palfrey near
When sport his noons beguiled!

Worse woe when Furness monks with dole—
While gentle hands conveyed
Her body—for a parted soul
The solemn ritual said;
And laid her where the waving leaves
Breathed low amidst the calm,
When loud upon the fading eves
Rolled organ-chant and psalm.

With Urswick's hand in fondest grasp
Said Fleming—"Vainly rise
My days for me: my heart must clasp
Her image, or it dies!
Through mass and prayer I hear her voice;
I know the fiends have power—
That chant and dole and choral noise
Can purge not—o'er that flower!"

They wandered where Engaddi's palms
And Sharon's roses wave;
Where Hebrew virgins chant their psalms
By many a mountain cave:
Mid rock-hewn chambers by the Nile,
Where Magian fathers lay;—
The secret of the spell-struck pile
To drag to realms of day.

In vain! His gallant heart sleeps well,
Beneath the Lybian air;
And still the enchantment holds the dell,
And her so sweet and fair.

Still on yon loop hole stretched by night,
The tyrant-moth is laid:
While circling in their ceaseless flight
The ages rise and fade.

There sometimes as in nights of yore,
Heard faint and sweet, a sound
Peals from yon tower, while o'er and o'e
The vale repeats it round.
And down the glen the muffled tone
Floats slowly, long upborne;
Answered as if far off were blown
A warrior's bugle-horn.

Yet one day, with unconscious art,
May some rude hand unfold
Great Wodin's breast, and rend apart
The fragment from its hold.
Then, while the deadly nightshade's veins
In bitter streams shall pour
Their juices, his usurped domains
Shall own the Moth no more.

Then him a milk white swallow's power
Shall timely overthrow.
And fair, as from a beauteous bower,
In raiment like the snow,
The Flower of Aldingham—the child
Of old Sir William's days—
Shall break the bondage round her piled;
But not to meet his gaze.

Nor forth beneath the dewy dawn,
All radiant like the morn,
Shall Urswick's Knight lead up the lawn
Beside the scented thorn,
His bride into the blighted halls
Whence once she wildly strayed
In ages past, by Furness walls,
And with the Bekan played.

The sea-snake through the chambers roves
Of old Sir William's home—
Fair Aldingham, its bowers, and groves,
And fields she loved to roam:
And where the gallant Urswick graced
His own ancestral board,
Now ferns and wild weeds crowd the waste,
The creeping fox is lord.

But gracious spirits of the light
Shall call a welcome down
On her, the beauteous lady bright,
And lead her to her own.
Not to that home o'er which the tide
Unceasing heaves and rolls;
But through that porch which opens wide
Into the land of souls.

Notes to "Bekan's Ghyll."

In the Chartulary of Furness Abbey, some rude Latin verses, written by John Stell a monk, refer to a plant called Bekan, which at some remote period grew in the valley in great abundance, whence the name of Bekansghyll was anciently derived. The etymology is thus metrically rendered:

"Hæc vallis, tenuit olim sibi nomen ab herba
Bekan, qua viruit; dulcis nunc tunc sed acerba,
Inde domus nomen Bekanes-gill claruit ante."

This plant "whose juice is now sweet, but was then bitter," is assumed to be one of the species of Nightshade which are indigenous in the dell and flourish there in great luxuriance; probably the Solanum Dulcamara, the bitter-sweet or woody nightshade, although the Atropa Belladonna, the deadly nightshade, also grows among the ruins of the Abbey. This "lurid offspring of Flora," as Mr. Beck calls it, the emblem of sorcery and witchcraft, might well give the name of Nightshade to that enchanting spot. But what authority the monks may have had for their derivation it is now impossible to ascertain. Various glossaries and lexicons are said to have been consulted for bekan, as signifying the deadly nightshade but without effect; "and after all," says Mr. Beck, "I am inclined to believe that Beckansgill is a creation of the monastic fancy."

Bekan is Scandinavian, and a proper name: and has probably been localised in this district by the Northmen from the period of its colonisation. It is said to have been quite in accordance with the practice of these rovers to give the name of their chiefs not only to the mounds in which they were buried, but also in many cases to the valley or plain in which these were situated, or in which was their place of residence; or to those ghylls or small ravines, which, with the rivers or brooks, were most frequently the boundaries of property.Bekan's gill may be associated in some way with one of the northern settlers whose name has thus far outlived his memory in the district.

An interesting passage in Mr. Ferguson's "Northmen in Cumberland and Westmorland" bears upon this subject. It refers to the opening of an ancient barrow at a place called Beacon Hill, near Aspatria in Cumberland, in 1790, by its proprietor. Speaking of the barrow, Mr. Ferguson says:— "From its name and its commanding situation has arisen the very natural belief that this hill must have been the site of a beacon. But there is no other evidence of this fact, and as Bekan is a Scandinavian proper name found also in other instances in the district, and as this was evidently a Scandinavian grave, while the commanding nature of the situation would be a point equally desired in the one case as the other, there can hardly be a doubt that the place takes its name from the mighty chief whose grave it was. On levelling the artificial mound, which was about 90 feet in circumference at the base, the workmen removed six feet of earth before they came to the natural soil, three feet below which they found a vault formed with two large round stones at each side, and one at each end. In this lay the skeleton of a man measuring seven feet from the head to the ankle bone—the feet having decayed away. By his side lay a straight two-edged sword corresponding with the gigantic proportions of its owner, being about five feet in length, and having a guard elegantly ornamented with inlaid silver flowers. The tomb also contained a dagger, the hilt of which appeared to have been studded with silver, a two-edged Danish battle-axe, part of a gold brooch of semi-circular form, an ornament apparently of a belt, part of a spur, and a bit shaped like a modern snaffle. Fragments of a shield were also picked up, but in a state too much decayed to admit of its shape being made out. Upon the stones composing the sides of the vault were carved some curious figures, which were probably magical runes. This gigantic Northman, who must have stood about eight feet high, was evidently, from his accoutrements, a person of considerable importance."

The situation of Furness Abbey, in Bekan's Ghyll, justifies the choice of its first settlers. The approach from the north is such that the ruins are concealed by the windings of the glen, and the groves of forest trees which cover the banks and knolls with their varied foliage: but unluckily it has been thought necessary to disturb the solitude of the place bydriving a railway through it, within a few feet of the ruins, and erecting a station upon the very site of the Abbot's Lodge. A commodious road from Dalton enters this vale, and crossing a small stream which glides along the side of a fine meadow, branches into a shaded lane which leads directly to the ruins of the sacred pile. The trees which shade the bottom of the lane on one side, spread their bending branches over an ancient Gothic arch, adorned with picturesque appendages of ivy. This is the principal entrance into the spacious enclosure which contains the Monastery. The building appertaining to it took up the whole breadth of the vale; and the rock from whence the stones were taken, in some parts made place for and overtopped the edifice. Hence it was so secreted, by the high grounds and eminences which surround it, as not to be discovered at any distance. The Western Tower must have originally been carried to a very considerable height, if we judge from its remains, which present a ponderous mass of walls, eleven feet in thickness, and sixty feet in elevation. These walls have been additionally strengthened with six staged buttresses, eight feet broad, and projecting nine feet and a half from the face of the wall; each stage of which has probably been ornamented like the lower one now remaining, with a canopied niche and pedestal. The interior of the tower, which measures twenty-four feet by nineteen feet, has been lighted by a fine graceful window of about thirty feet in height, by eleven and a half in width; the arch of which must have been beautifully proportioned. A series of grotesque heads, alternating with flowers, is introduced in the hollow of the jambs, and the label terminates in heads. On the right side of the window is a loophole, admitting light to a winding staircase in the south-west angle of the tower, by which its upper stories might be ascended, the entrance to the stairs being by a door, having a Tudor arch, placed in an angle of the interior. The stairs are yet passable, and the view from the top is worth the trouble of an ascent.

The workmen employed by the late Lord G. Cavendish, state that the rubbish in this tower, accumulated by the fall of the superstructure, which filled up the interior to the window sill, was rendered so compact by its fall, so tenacious by the rains, and was composed of such strongly cemented materials, as to require blasting with gunpowder into manageable pieces for its removal. Prior to its clearance, it was the scene of some marvellous tales disseminated and credited by many, who alleged that this heap covered a vault to which the staircase led, containing the bells and treasure of the abbey, with the usual accompaniments of the White Lady, at whose appearance the lights were extinguished, the impenetrable iron-grated door, and the grim guardian genius. Though many essayed, none were known to have succeeded in the discovery of this concealed treasure house, much less of its contents. The inhabitants of the manor house, on one occasion, were roused from their slumbers by a noise proceeding from the ruins, and on hastening to the spot, discovered that it was made by some scholars from the neighbouring town of Dalton, digging among the ruins at midnight, in quest of the buried spoils.

Within the inner enclosure, on the north side of the Church at St. Mary's Abbey in Furness, a few tombstones lie scattered about in what has formerly been a part of the cemetery. One of these bears the inscription, partly defaced,


and commemorates one of the ancient family of Le Fleming.

Michael Le Fleming, the first of the name, called also Flemengar, and in some old writings Flandrensis, was kinsman to Baldwin, Earl of Flanders, father-in-law to the Conqueror; by whom he was sent with some forces to assist William in his enterprise against England.

After the Conquest was completed, and William was seated on the throne of England, the valiant Sir Michael, for his fidelity, and good services against the Saxons and Scots, received from his master many noble estates in Lancashire; Gleaston, and the manor of Aldingham, with other lands in Furness. William de Meschines also granted him Beckermet Castle, vulgarly at that time called Caernarvon Castle, with the several contiguous manors of Frizington, Rottington, Weddaker, and Arloghden, all in Cumberland.

Sir Michael and his heirs first settled at Aldingham. By a singular accident, the time of which cannot now be ascertained, the sea swallowed up their seat at this place, with the village, leaving only the church at the east end of the town, and the mote at the west end, which serve to show what the extent of Aldingham has been. About the same time, it is supposed, the villages of Crimilton and Ross, which the first Sir Michael exchanged with the monks for Bardsea and Urswick, were also swallowed up. After this, they fixed their residence at Gleaston Castle; and it has been conjectured, from the nature of the building, that the castle was built on the occasion, and in such haste, as obliged them to substitute mud mortar instead of lime, in a site that abounds with limestone. Sir Michael, is said, to have also resided at Beckermet.

The little knowledge that we are now able to gather of the first Le Fleming exhibits him in a very favourable light. He was undoubtedly a valiant man; and was acknowledged as such by his renowned master, when, with other Norman chiefs, he was dispatched into the north to oppose the Scots, and awe the partisans of Edwin and Morcar, two powerful Saxons who opposed themselves to the Conqueror for some time after the nation had submitted itself to the Norman yoke, and whose power William dreaded the most. His regard for the memory of his sovereign he expressed in the name conferred upon his son and heir, William. We have glimpses too that in his household there was harmony and kindness between him and his children. To the Abbey of Furness he was a great benefactor. There is an affecting earnestness in the language with which in the evening of his long life he declares in one of his charters—"In the name of the Father, &c. Be it known to all men present and to come, That I, Michael Le Fleming, consulting with God, and providing for the safety of my soul, and the souls of my father and mother, wife and children, in the year of our Lord 1153, give and grant to St. Mary of Furness, to the abbot of that place, and to all the convent there serving God, Fordeboc, with all its appurtenances, in perpetual alms; which alms I give free from all claims of any one, with quiet and free possession, as an oblation offered to God"—saltim vespertinum, he pathetically adds, in allusion to his great age—"at least an evening one." He adds, "signed by me with consent of William my son and heir, and with the consent of all my children. Signed by William my son, Gregory my grandson, and Hugh." Few gifts of this kind show greater domestic harmony. That Michael lived to a very advanced age is evident from this charter signed eighty-seven years after the Conquest; supposing him to be the same Michael Le Fleming who came over with the Conqueror. He was buried with his two sons within the walls of the Abbey Church. His arms, a fret, strongly expressed in stone over the second chapel in the northern aisle indicate the spot where he found a resting place; not the least worthy among the many of the nobility and gentry who in those days were interred within the sacred precincts of St. Mary's Abbey in Furness.

The lands in Furness, belonging to Sir Michael, were excepted in the foundation charter of Stephen to the Abbey. This exception, and the circumstance of his living in Furness,occasioned his lands to be called Michael's lands, to distinguish them from the Abbey lands; and now they are called Muchlands, from a corruption of the word Michael. In like manner Urswick is called Much-Urswick for Michael's Urswick; and what was originally called the manor of Aldingham, is now called the manor of Muchland.

From Baldwin's kinsman, the first Le Fleming, the founder of the family in England, two branches issued. William, the eldest son of Sir Michael, inherited Aldingham Castle and his Lancashire estates. His descendants, after carrying the name for a few generations, passed with their manors into the female line; and their blood mingling first with the de Cancefields, and successively with the baronial families of Harrington, de Bonville, and Grey, spent itself on the steps of the throne in the person of Henry Grey, King Edward the Sixth's Duke of Suffolk, who was beheaded by Queen Mary on the 23rd of February 1554. This nobleman being father to Lady Jane Grey, his too near alliance with the blood royal gave the occasion, and his supposed ambition of being father to a Queen of England was the cause of his violent death. By his attainder the manors of Muchland, the possessions of the le Flemings in Furness, were forfeited to the Crown.

Richard le Fleming, second son of the first Sir Michael, having inherited the estates in Cumberland which William le Meschines had granted to his father for his military services, seated himself at Caernarvon Castle, Beckermet, in Copeland. After two descents his posterity, having acquired by marriage with the de Urswicks the manor of Coniston and other considerable possessions in Furness, returned to reside in that district. The Castle of Caernarvon was abandoned, then erased, and Coniston Hall became the family seat for seven descents. About the tenth year of Henry IV. Sir Thomas le Fleming married Isabella, one of the four daughters and co-heiresses of Sir John de Lancaster, and acquired with her the lordship and manor of Rydal. The manor of Coniston was settled upon the issue of this marriage; and for seven generations more Rydal and Coniston vied with each other which should hold the family seat, to fix it in Westmorland or Lancashire. Sir Daniel le Fleming came, and gave his decision against the latter, about the middle of the seventeenth century. Since that event, the hall of Coniston, pleasantly situated on the banks of the lake of that name, has been deserted.

Singularly enough, the inheritance of this long line also has been broken in its passage through the house of Suffolk. Sir Michael, the 23rd in succession from Richard, married, in the latter part of the last century, Diana only child of Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire, by whom he had one daughter, afterwards married to her cousin Daniel le Fleming, who succeeded her father in the title. This marriage being without issue, on the demise of Lady le Fleming, the estates passed under her will to Andrew Huddleston of Hutton-John, Esq., and at his decease, which occurred shortly after, in succession to General Hughes, who assumed the name of Fleming; both these gentlemen being near of kin to the family at Rydal. The title descended to the brother of Sir Daniel, the late Rev. Sir Richard le Fleming, Rector of Grasmere and Windermere; and from him to his son, the present Sir Michael, the twenty-sixth in succession from Richard, the second son of Michael, Flandrensis, the  Fleming, who came over with the Conqueror, and founded the family in England.

In this family there have been since the Conquest twelve knights and seven baronets.

The article le  is sometimes omitted in the family writings before the time of Edward IV., and again assumed. Sir William Fleming, who died in 1756, restored the ancient orthography, and incorporated the article le  with the family name at the baptism of his son and heir.

Rydal Hall suffered much from the parliamentary party: the le Flemings remaining Catholic to the reign of James II. For their adherence to the royal cause in the reign of Charles I., they were forced to submit to the most exorbitant demands of the Commissioners at Goldsmiths' Hall, in London (23 Car. 1 ) and pay a very great sum of money for their loyalty and allegiance. They were very obnoxious to Oliver Cromwell's sequestrators, and subjected to very high annual payments and compositions, for their attachment to regal government.