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Bega [St Bega] (supp. fl. late 7th cent.), abbess of Hartlepool, was a legendary Irish saint, supposedly active in northern England in the seventh century. Her life and miracles are described in an anonymous account, probably written at the priory of St Bees in Cumbria c.1200, in which she is presented as the daughter of an Irish king who vowed to preserve her virginity and who was confirmed in this intention by a visionary figure who gave her an arm-ring as a token of her espousal to Christ. She fled to England to avoid a proposed marriage and at first lived a solitary life in Copeland (Cumbria), before moving to Northumbria, leaving behind her arm-ring. She was consecrated the first nun in Northumbria by Áedán, during the reign of King Oswald (r. 634–42), and ruled over a community at Hartlepool which she handed over to St Hild before retiring to Tadcaster. Bega saw Hild's death in a vision while at the monastery of Hackness, and shortly afterwards she herself died and was buried there. Her feast was celebrated on 31 October. The anonymous author, after relating how Bega's bones had been translated from Hackness to Whitby in the twelfth century, narrates a series of miracles centred on her holy arm-ring, preserved at St Bees, which was employed especially for swearing judicial oaths.

One source of the legend is a chapter in Bede's Historia ecclesiastica (4.23) that describes how a nun of Hackness, called Begu, saw St Hild's death in a vision. Bede also mentions another nun, called Heiu, the first nun in Northumbria, who was consecrated by Áedán, founded the monastery of Hartlepool, and retired to Tadcaster. Clearly Bega's Northumbrian career as reported in the twelfth century is a conflation of Bede's Begu and Bede's Heiu. Since Bega's bracelet was the focus of the Cumbrian cult and the Old English word for ring or bracelet is beag, the suspicion naturally arises that originally St Bega was a bracelet and that the Cumbrian cult started from a holy armband that only gradually metamorphosed into the person, St Bega. The Irish section of her life is probably pure literary invention.

Robert Bartlett

Sources  

‘Vita et miracula sancte Bege virginis’, The register of the priory of St Bees, ed. [J. Wilson], SurtS, 126 (1915), 497–520 · J. M. Todd, ‘St Bega: cult, fact and legend’, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, [new ser.] 80 (1980), 23–35 · R. Bartlett, ‘Cults of Irish, Scottish and Welsh saints in twelfth-century England’, Britain and Ireland, 900–1300, ed. B. Smith (1999), 67–86