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The Fourth St Bridget's Lecture

On Friday 6th June, Dr Fiona Edmonds delivered the fourth St Bridget's lecture to a large audience in St Bridget's church, Bridekirk. Dr Edmonds is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at the University of Cambridge. Her topic was: 'Gaelic-Scandinavian Influence in Bridekirk and the Surrounding Area, from the Tenth century to the Twelfth', and she provides a précis of the lecture below.

The term 'Gaelic-Scandinavian' relates to the 'Viking' groups who influenced north-west England. Most of the Scandinavian settlers came to these shores from Gaelic-speaking areas: Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Hebrides. I would argue that Gaelic-Scandinavian influence endured in Bridekirk and the surrounding area until the twelfth century.

The start of the tenth century witnessed the first phase of Gaelic-Scandinavian influence in north-west England. By this time, the once-great Northumbrian kingdom had collapsed, leaving the coasts of the north-west vulnerable and undefended. The expulsion of the elites of Scandinavian Dublin destabilised the political situation around the Irish Sea and the Isles, and it seems likely that some of these powerful Dublin warriors came to north-west England. Their presence helps to explain the deposition of several hoards that contain Hiberno-Scandinavian bullion. However, furnished burials, such as those recently discovered at Cumwhitton, have more parallels in the Isles than in Ireland.

In the period 914-18, the Dublin exiles forged a new polity by conquering the Isle of Man, Dublin and York. The kingdom was intermittently disturbed by the English kings of Wessex, who conquered York definitively in 954. Nevertheless, the coast of west Cumbria does not seem to have become part of the English kingdom at this stage; rather, it remained connected with the Gaelic-Scandinavian world until the mid-eleventh century. Individual peninsulas (such as Furness) and river-valleys (such as Allerdale) were ruled by semi-independent lords. These magnates converted to Christianity and became patrons of the Viking-Age sculpture that is so prolific in west Cumbria. Bridekirk has one item of sculpture from this period: a tenth-century cross-head.

Place-names and personal names shed further light on Gaelic-Scandinavian influence in Bridekirk and the surrounding area. Some of these names may date to the era of the first Scandinavian settlements (the early tenth century) but others may have been coined as late as the twelfth century. Dovenby is a Norse place-name that features the Gaelic personal name Dub(h)án, plus Norse býr ('settlement'). The place-name Bridekirk was also coined in Norse, and features the name of Brigit (an Irish saint) and Norse kirkja ('church'). This place-name is also found near the Solway Firth in the form 'Kirkbride', which was coined by Gaelic-speakers.

Medieval Brigitine dedications are unusual in an English context, but a cluster can be found in western Cumbria. The place-names 'Bridekirk' and 'Kirkbride' demonstrate that the cult was flourishing in a Gaelic-Scandinavian milieu. It is clear that the cult was already strongly rooted in Bridekirk and the surrounding area before the Anglo-Norman writers developed an interest in Irish saints. I have analysed other Brigitine dedications, such as Beckermet St Bridget, in a recent article: 'Saints' Cults and Gaelic-Scandinavian Influence on the Cumberland Coast and North of the Solway Firth', in Jón Viđar Sigurđsson and Timothy Bolton (eds.), Celtic-Norse Relationships in the Irish Sea in the Middle Ages 800-1200 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 39-63.

Bridekirk's church received significant patronage in the Anglo-Norman era, as witnessed by the splendid twelfth-century font. The font reflects contemporary influences, as witnessed by the elaborate carving and the choice of Middle English for the inscription. Yet the inscription is incised in the runic script, which is testimony to the area's enduring Scandinavian heritage.

I would like to thank Martyn & Isobel Halsall and Mike & Liz Jackson for their hospitality towards me, my husband and my baby son on the day of the lecture.

 

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