Over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself quite interested in histories relating to solitude, in terms of what being alone has meant down the centuries, and how people have responded to ideas of solitude over time. My interest in this was first sparked by a couple of radio or podcast series, the first being Thomas Dixon’s A Short History of Solitude for the BBC, and the second being the Spaces of Solitude podcast by researchers at Queen Mary University London. I mentioned both previously on a blog post about my favourite podcasts – more here. Thinking back, I don’t think it’s too much of a surprise that this subject resonated me – in the pandemic times, I found myself both isolated from the outside world, but rarely ever alone at home, with all my family ‘locked down’ beside me. Solitude, I came to realise, is something I need in order to create. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
One of the topics within this theme of solitude which really intrigued me was that of religious hermits, anchorites and anchoresses; those who devoted themselves to lives of piety and solitude in the medieval period (although perhaps were not always as alone as we might think, as Thomas Dixon’s series explores). In recent times I’ve become quite an enthusiast for medieval history – something which has come as a surprise, since I was always a devoted early-modernist in my student days. I suppose the two interests, therefore, go hand in hand. With all this in mind, yesterday I stumbled upon a really interesting story…
First, a bit of context. My current work-in-progress has reclusive people at its heart. I’m not sure that was a deliberate choice I made when I began to write; rather, I think it was a subconscious one which developed quickly and which, given my recent preoccupation with solitude, isn’t all that surprising. My two main characters find themselves alone for diverse reasons, some circumstantial, some matters of choice, but both are grappling with their solitude in their different ways. The novel is set in Cumberland (now Cumbria), along the Whitehaven coastline. Yesterday, as I was redrafting, I found myself wandering down a bit of a Google rabbit hole (it happens often). One of the characters mentions the village of St Bees; I went on Google to check a detail and, just like that, I found Saint Bega.
Not far from St Bees is St Bees Head, a headland which reaches out west and is home nowadays to a RSPB reserve and a variety of sea birds. It is also said to be where, in the ninth century, an Irish princess called Saint Bega was shipwrecked after fleeing her homeland and the prospect of a forced marriage to a Viking prince. Bega settled for some time in the area, becoming an anchoress, before eventually fleeing further east into Northumbria as the threat from raiding pirates loomed large. The name of the village is a corruption of its Norse name, Kyrkeby Becok, which translates as ‘church of Bega’. St Bees Priory, which has its own long and interesting history, was also dedicated to her.
There is more detailed information about St Bega’s life, the relic and cult of St Bega, and indeed whether or not she ever existed at all over on the St Bees website. However, having unexpectedly discovered this story yesterday, I just had to share it. And now you know, as I do, why St Bees is called St Bees!