St. Bega and the Snow Miracle

St. Bega and the Snow Miracle

The seas will rise though saints on board
Commend their frail skiff to the Lord.
And Bega and her holy band
Are shipwrecked on the Cumbrian strand.

"Give me," she asked, "for me and mine,
O Lady of high Bretwalda's line!
Give, for His sake who succoured thee,
A shelter for these maids and me."—

Then sew'd, and spun, and crewl-work wrought,
And served the poor they meekly taught,
These virgins good; and show'd the road
By blameless lives to Heaven and God.

They won from rude men love and praise;
They lived unmoved through evil days;
And only longed for a home to rise
To store up treasures for the skies.

That pious wish the Lady's bower
Has reached; and forth she paced the tower:—
"My gracious Lord! of thy free hand
Grant this good Saint three roods of land.

"Three roods, where she may rear a pile,
To sing God's praise through porch and aisle;
And, serving Him, us too may bless
For sheltering goodness in distress."

The Earl he turned him gaily near,
Laughed lightly in his Lady's ear—
"By this bright Eve of blessed St. John!
I'll give—what the snow to-morrow lies on."

His Lady roused him at dawn with smiles—
"The snow lies white for miles and miles!"
From loophole and turret he stares on the sight
Of Midsummer-morning clothed in white.

"—Well done, good Saint! the lands are thine.
Go, build thy church, and deck thy shrine.
I 'bate no jot of my plighted word,
Though lightly spoken and lightly heard.

"If mirth and my sweet Lady's grace
Have lost me many a farm and chace,
I know that power unseen belongs
To holy ways and Christian songs.

"And He, who thee from wind and wave
Deliverance and a refuge gave,
When we must brave a gloomier sea,
May hear thy prayers for mine and me."

Notes to "St. Bega and the Snow Miracle."

The remains of the Monastery of St. Bees, about four miles south of Whitehaven, stand in a low situation, with marshy lands to the east, and on the west exposed to storms from the Irish Channel.

In respect to this religious foundation, Tanner says, "Bega, an holy woman from Ireland is said to have founded, about the year 650, a small monastery in Copeland, where afterwards a church was built in memory of her. This religious house being destroyed by the Danes, was restored by William, brother to Ranulph de Meschines, Earl of Cumberland, in the time of King Henry I., and made a cell for a prior and six Benedictine monks, to the Abbey of St. Mary, York."

The earliest documents connected with this place call it Kirkby-Begogh, the market town of St. Bega; and St. Bee, or St. Bees, the Saint's house or houses, names given to it after the Irish Saint resided there.

St. Bega is said to have been the daughter of an Irish king, "who was a Christian, and an earnest man, to boot." He wished to marry his daughter to a Norwegian prince; but she, having determined to be a nun, ran away from her father's house, and joining some strange sailors, took ship, and sailed to the coast of Cumberland.

The accounts given of the first foundation of the nunnery of St. Bees are very contradictory, the common version being the traditionary account in Mr. Sandford's MS., namely, that the extent of the territories was originally designated by a preternatural fall of snow, through the prayers of the Saint, on the eve of St. John's or Midsummer day. From this MS. it would appear that a ship, containing a lady abbess and her sisters, being "driven in by stormy weather at Whitehaven," the abbess applied for relief to the lady of Egremont, who, taking compassion on her destitution, obtained of her lord a dwelling place for them, "at the now St. Bees;" where they "sewed and spinned, and wrought carpets and other work and lived very godly lives, as got them much love." It goes on to say that the lady of Egremont, at the request of the abbess, spoke to her lord to give them some land "to lay up treasure in heaven," and that "he laughed and said he would give them as much as snow fell upon the next morning, being Midsummer day; and on the morrow as he looked out of his castle window, all was white with snow for three miles together. And thereupon builded this St. Bees Abbie, and gave all those lands was snowen unto it, and the town and haven of Whitehaven, &c."

The "Life of Sancta Bega," however, a latin chronicle of the Middle Ages, in which are recorded the acts of the Saint, gives the Snow Miracle somewhat differently, and places it many years after the death of the mild recluse, in the time of Ranulph de Meschines. The monkish historian relates that certain persons had instilled into the ears of that nobleman, that the monks had unduly extended their possessions. A dispute arose on this subject, for the settlement of which, by the prayers of the religious, "invoking most earnestly the intercession of their advocate the blessed Bega," the whole land became white with snow, except the territories of the church which stood forth dry.

It is certain that the name of Sancta Bega  is inseparably connected with the Snow Miracle; but the anachronism which refers the former of the accounts just given to the period of William de Meschines would seem to show that the narrator has mixed up the circumstances attending its foundation in the middle of the seventh century with its restoration in the twelfth; for, says Denton, "the said Lord William de Meschines seated himself at Egremont, where he built a castle upon a sharp topped hill, and thereupon called the same Egremont." This writer elsewhere says, "The bounders of William Meschines aforesaid, which he gave the priory are in these words: 'Totam terram et vis totum feodum inter has divisas, viz. a pede de Whit of Haven ad Kekel, et per Kekel donec cadit in Eyre et per Eyre quousque in mare.' Kekel runneth off from Whillymore by Cleator and Egremont, and so into Eyne; at Egremont Eyre is the foot of Eyne, which falleth out of Eynerdale."

The monkish version of the legend, therefore, refers to William de Meschines, as the Lord of Egremont, and to the lands which were given by him at the restoration of the Priory in the twelfth century: whilst that related by Sandford alludes to some other powerful chief, who, in the life time of the Saint in the seventh century had his seat at Egremont, which, as has been stated elsewhere, "was probably a place of strength during the Heptarchy, and in the time of the Danes."

It might almost seem as if some such legend as that of the Snow Miracle were necessary to account for the singular form of this extensive and populous parish: which includes the large and opulent town of Whitehaven; the five chapelries of Hensingham, Ennerdale, Eskdale, Wastdale-Head, and Nether-Wastdale; and the townships of St. Bees, Ennerdale, Ennerdale High End, Eskdale and Wastdale, Hensingham, Kinneyside, Lowside-Quarter, Nether-Wastdale, Preston-Quarter, Rottington, Sandwith, Weddicar, and Whitehaven. It extends ten miles along the coast, and reaches far inland, so that some of its chapelries are ten and fourteen miles from the mother-church.

In the monkish chronicle of the Life and Miracles of Sancta Bega occurs the following passage:—

"A certain celebration had come round by annual revolution which the men of that land use to solemnise by a most holy Sabbath on the eve of Pentecost, on account of certain tokens of the sanctity of the holy virgin then found there, which they commemorate, and they honor her church by visiting it with offerings of prayers and oblations."[1]

In allusion to which, Mr. Tomlinson the editor and translator of the MS. observes that "this is another of those marks of dependence of the surrounding chapelries which formerly existed; a mark the more interesting because to this day some traces of it remain. Communicants still annually resort to the church of St. Bees at the festival of Easter from considerable distances; and the village presents an unusual appearance from their influx; and at the church the eucharist is administered as early as eight in the morning, in addition to the celebration of it at the usual time. There can be no doubt but that Whitsuntide, and perhaps Christmas, as well as Easter, were formerly seasons when the church of St. Bees was resorted to by numbers who appeared within it at no other time, save perhaps at the burial of their friends. The great festivals of the church appear in the middle ages to have been considered by the English as peculiarly auspicious for the solemnization of marriages. At these seasons then, from concurring causes, the long-drawn solemn processions of priests and people would be chiefly seen, and then also, the accustomed oblations of the latter to the mother church of St. Bees would be discharged."

As to the "town and haven of Whitehaven" included in the gift to "St. Bees Abbie," its eligibility as a fishing ground, when the tides ran nearer the meadows than at present, would doubtless attract the attention of the monks of St. Bees; and the fact of its being denominated WhittofthavenQuitofthavenWythovenWhyttothavenWhitten, &c., in the register of St. Bees and other ancient records, evidently shows that it is a place of greater antiquity than has generally been ascribed to it; and some fragments of tradition, still extant, seem to countenance this opinion.

Denton (MS.) speaking of Whitehaven or White-Toft Haven, says "It was belonging to St. Beghs of antient time, for the Abbot of York, in Edward I.'s time was impleaded for wreck, and his liberties there, by the King, which he claimed from the foundation, to be confirmed by Richard Lucy, in King John's time, to his predecessors."

That Whitehaven was anciently a place of resort for shipping appears from some particulars respecting it mentioned in those remarkable Irish documents, called the Annals of the Four Masters, much of which was written at the Abbey of Monesterboice, in the county of Louth—nearly opposite, on the Irish shore. In the account of the domestic habits and manufactures of the Irish, it is stated that their coracles, or Wicker Boats, their Noggins, and other domestic utensils, were made of wood called Wythe  or Withey, brought from the opposite shore of Baruch  (i.e. rocky coast) and that a small colony was placed there for the purpose of collecting this wood. That Barach mouth, or Barrow mouth, and Barrow mouth wood is the same as that alluded to by the Four Masters, is evident from the legend of St. Bega, which places it in the same locality; and that the colony of Celts resided in the neighbourhood of the now Celts, or Kell's Pit, in the same locality also, is manifest from the name. About the year 930, it appears that one of the Irish princes or chiefs, accompanied an expedition to this place for wood (for that a great portion of the site of the present town and the neighbouring heights were formerly covered with forest trees there can be no doubt) and that the inhabitants who were met at Whitten, or Wittenagemote, fell upon and look the chief and several of the accompanying expedition prisoners from a jealousy of their sanctuary being invaded. Many of the Irish utensils were imported hither, particularly the noggin, or small water pail, which was made of closely woven wickerwork, and covered inside with skin, having a projecting handle for the purpose of dipping into a river or well. The same article, in its primitive shape, though made of a different material, called a geggin, is still used by some of the farmers in that neighbourhood. When Adam de Harris  gave lands at Bransty Beck to the church of Holm Cultram, he also gave privilege to the monks to cut wood for making geggins or noggins.

From an old history of the county of Durham, Whitehaven appears to have been a resort for shipping in the tenth century; and when the Nevills of Raby were called upon to furnish their quota of men to accompany Henry in his expedition to Ireland in 1172, they were brought to Wythop-haven, or Witten-haven, and transported thence in ships to the Irish coast. When Edward was advancing against Scotland, in the fourteenth century, he found a ship belonging to this place, in which he sent a cargo of oats, to be ground by the monks of St. Bees.

In nearly all histories of Cumberland, the name of Whitehaven has been attributed either to some imaginary whiteness of the rocks on the east side of the harbour, or to the cognomen of an old fisherman who resided there about the year 1566, at which time the town is said to have had only six houses. In 1633 it consisted of only nine thatched cottages. Sir Christopher Lowther, second son of Sir John Lowther, purchased Whitehaven and the lands lying in its neighbourhood, and built a mansion on the west end of the haven at the foot of a rock. He died in 1644, and was succeeded by his son, Sir John Lowther, who erected a new mansion on the site of the present castle, described by Mr. Denton, in 1688, as a "stately new pile of building, called the Flatt," and having conceived the project of working the coal mines, and improving the harbour, he obtained from Charles the Second, about the year 1666, a grant of all the "derelict land at this place," which yet remained in the crown; and in 1678, all the lands for two miles northward, between high and low water mark, the latter grant containing about 150 acres. Sir John having thus laid the foundation of the future importance of Whitehaven, commenced his great work, and lived to see a small obscure village grow up into a thriving and populous town.

There is a traditionary account of the existence of an ancient ruin where the castle stands (probably Druidical; or, where at a later period, the Whitten, or Wittenagemote, was held) the remains of which were broken up about the year 1628. Respecting these real or imaginary stones it has been related, that the inhabitants believed them to be enchanted warriors, and gave them the appellation of "Dread Ring, or Circle," and occasionally "Corpse Circle "—corrupted into the word Corkickle, the name which the locality now bears.

A reminiscence of the old mansion of the Lowthers is preserved by the road which skirts the precincts of the castle. This is still called, by the older townspeople, the Flatt Walk.

Crewl-Work

Krull, or Crewel, is a word evidently derived from the old Norse Krulla, signifying to blend, to mix, and also to curl; in fact, "crewel" work is embroidery, the Berlin wool work of modern days; but the word is generally applied, in this locality, to the covering of a hand ball with worsted work of various colours and devices, the tribute of mothers and sisters in our boyhood.

Footnotes:

[1 Advenerat annua revolutione quædam celebritas quam sacro sancto sabbato in vigilia pentecosten homines illius terræ ob quædam insignia sanctitatis sanctæ virginis tunc illic inventa, et signa ibidem perpetrata solent solempnizare; et ecclesiam illius visitando orationum et oblationum hostiis honorare.

Vita S. Begæ, et de Miraculis Ejusdem, p. 73.