Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page

St. Bees

A  NOBLE coast this of Cumberland and the Promontory of St. Bees Head is a most picturesque and beautiful part of it. Great cliffs rise above the sea that breaks at their foot and rushes into every fissure, when the advancing tide washes the shore; a sea magnificent in its wrath and most "heavenly beautiful" when it lies in smiles dimpling beneath the lustre of the summer sunshine. Of what enormous masses of red sandstone those cliffs consist, with the tracery of light sandstone dividing and enlightening their heaviness! and they take many forms to the imagination as they rise piled on each other - sometimes of a battlement or buttress of a castle, sometimes of an old ruin or a church.

At St. Bees Head many lovely wild flowers are found. Wordsworth tells us of the joy felt by one-

"Who climbs on hands and knees
For some rare plant the headland of St. Bees."

Here are found Lycopsis arvenis, Brassica monensis, and Geranium sanguineum. The shore is rich in sea-anemones, star-fish, and other marine spoils.

The town or village is built principally on the ridge of a long narrow valley. There is a legend attached to the priory that once existed here, the choir of the church of which still remains.

St. Bega and several nuns were wrecked on the coast of Whitehaven. The lady of Egremont Castle had pity on the distressed sisters, and gave them shelter, begging her lord to bestow a place to dwell in on them; he granted her request, and the nuns soon showed that they did not mean to be dependent on charity. "They spun, sewed, and wrought carpets, and other work, and lived such godly lives as gained them great love."

The saint then besought the lady to ask her lord to build them a nunnery, and Lady Earemont again used her influence with her husband to procure it. She told him that he had great lands, and could well give some part of them to the sisterhood; that he might thus lay up for himself treasure in heaven. But the Lord of Egremont only laughed at her request, and told her that he would give them as much land as the snow would cover the next morning. It was Mid-summer Eve when he spoke.

The lady considered that she had failed, and went sadly to sleep. But, lo! the next morning she was awakened by an exclamation from her husband, and going to the window saw that the land glittered with purest snow from the castle to the sea! This land was given to the saint and her daughters. The Lord of Egremont built the abbey of St. Bees, and endowed it with all the snow-covered land, which included the site of the present town of Whitehaven.

In the reign of Henry I. William de Meschines, Earl of Cumberland, restored the abbey, which had been dissolved, and transformed it into a priory of Benedictines. The collegiate church has a nave with aisles, a choir and transepts, and a low square tower at the intersection. The west front of the nave has a Norman doorway and three lancet windows. The nave is now used as a parish church, and one transept has been made a library. The nave has six pointed arches on each side, and the pillars are circular and hexa gonal alternately, with one clustered. At the east end are three beautiful lancet windows, the centre one higher and wider than the others, and between each window are niches, three tiers of them, on clustered shafts with ornamented capitals. The north side of the choir is lighted by lancet windows with plain shafts inside and filleted outside.

There is a college at St. Bees for the education of young men intending to enter the Church. It was founded by the Bishop of Carlisle, Dr. Law, in 1817, and has been liberally supported by the earls of Lonsdale. The remains of the old priory church - the choir - has been repaired for the use of the college.

The castle of Egremont has a pretty tradition connected with it. The remains of it stand on an eminence close to the town of Whitehaven. It was built early in the twelfth century by William de Meschines, Earl of Cumberland. His daughter and heiress married Prince William, son of Duncan II., King of Scotland, and from her it descended to the Lucys, Multons, and Fitzwalters.

The principal remains are a square tower, a portion of a wall, and a gateway, where the grooves for a portcullis can be seen. A deep moat surrounds it, and the walls have herring bone work, peculiar to the Normans, on them, of a very ancient kind. This castle was long the residence of the Lords of Copeland, lying between the Duddon and the Derwent, which Henry I. gave to William de Meschines. The lords had power of life and death, and a gallows stood in a field near the castle, still called Gibbet Holm. But we must turn to the legend.

A horn hung at the gate of Egremont castle, which could only be sounded by the true lord of the place. Two brothers, Sir Eustace de Lucy, Lord of Egremont, and his brother Hubert, joined the Crusades; and as they departed for the Holy Land, Eustace blew the horn suspended at the gateway, and said to Hubert, "If I fall in the Holy Land, return and blow this horn, for Egremont may not be without a Lucy for its lord." Did those words awake in Hubert de Lucy's heart a desire for the estates that might be his if Eustace fell? It may be so; but at any rate that evil desire did wake, and while they were in Palestine, he hired three bravoes to throw his brother into the river Jordan.

Sir Eustace disappeared, and was believed to be dead, and Hubert hastened home to Egremont. But at the gate he paused. He could not blow the horn; his conscience awoke at the sight of it; he simply entered the hall and claimed his inheritance.

A few weeks or months wore on, and Hubert, whose conscience had ceased for a while to upbraid him, gave a great feast at the castle. Just as the revelry was at its height a loud blast was blown on the horn, that should only have been sounded by Hubert himself. He started up in guilty fear. It could be no one else but Eustace - alive and returned. Hubert darted from the room, and escaped by the postern door as Eustace entered the hall. He (Eustace) had swum on shore from the Jordan, but had heard from his intended murderers to whom he might have owed his death. He returned to claim his own. Hubert took refuge in a monastery and died there, the generous Eustace forgiving him.

The story is the subject of one of Wordsworth's poems.

Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page

Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004