He Who Kills In Red

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The Shrine of He Who Kills in Red.

Bewcastle, Cumbria, England

Bewcastle is a hamlet in a very remote part of Cumbria, Northern England, right on the border with Scotland. The countryside is wild hills, empty moors, bogs, forests and more emptiness.  Really all that is at Bewcastle now is a farm, a ruined castle, a church and a couple of houses. Once it was more important and probably more populous.

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Bewcastle probably got its name from Bueth whose name is probably Gaelic related to Buadh,  endowment related to Welsh  “Budd ” victory, gain  “Byddin” army – the same element is found in the Boudicca, the famous British Celtic queen who defeated the Romans.  His father was Gille, who gave his name to nearby Gilsland. This was in the 10th Century or so.  It’s Bueth’s castle that stands in the nearby farmer’s field in ruins, inhabited only by crows and cows now.   Before even Bueth was here, the invading Anglo-Saxons set up a famous Christian cross at Bewcastle, which can be seen today in the churchyard and is one of the highlights of Anglo-Saxon sculpture. It has a runic inscription on it dating from the first half of the 8th Century, when the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria was expanding west into Celtic lands.  Other authorities date it earlier to around 670 because of it apparently  naming a king Cyneburh the wife of Aldfrith who was king of Northumbria until around 664.

bewcastle-cross

The impulse to set up some a magnificent piece of sculpture in such a remote place might have been political or religious. If political, it was to mark the fact that these lands were now Northumbrian.  If religious, perhaps it was to mark this area as Christian?

We presume that Christianity was established in this area by the time of the Roman withdrawal in 410, but there are hints from Welsh legend that perhaps some of the kings of this area remained pagan. For example there is a suggestion that Gwenddolau, who had his fort, not too far away at Caer Wenddolau,  Carwhinley, was a pagan and that he fought against Rhydderch of Glasgow, a Christian and Peredur and Gwrgi sons of the Christian king of York, at a site near Arthuret near Longtown, again not far away.

We know that Saint Kentigern, or Mungo is supposed to have preached at various places in this region on his way from North Wales to Glasgow in the 6th Century, more than a hundred years after the Romans had left.

Of great interest is something that was discovered in the churchyard at Bewcastle.  It seems that the church was founded on the old Roman fort. Church’s were often founded on old pagan religious sites, to cleanse the site maybe, or maybe just take over ownership of it, and claim a place that the locals were already used to visiting.  I think that the change in the religion of the folk was slow and complicated. We see that from another transition at Gosforth, also in Cumbria, where a Viking cross has images of both Christ and Odin.  People have some unorthodox mixes of their views now and some Christians hold beliefs that are not exactly in line with Church teaching. I guess it was always so.

Here within the churchyard was found a shrine to a pagan hunting god known as Coccidius whose name seems to contain the elements coch Welsh for red and an element –id perhaps related to the –ide in Suicide and Homicide meaning death or killing.  There is an Irish God Da Coco – The Red God, though “Da Cocoa” is also cool.

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An Altar to Coccidius

This local Celtic god Coccidius at Bewcastle seems to have had dedications to him in Roman times along the Roman wall built by the Emperor Hadrian and manned by Roman troops for a number of centuries. It is well known that many of the Roman soldiers, if not most, were not Italian but would be drawn from other populations, some of them other Celts from Gaul or Iberia.

There are inscriptions to Coccidius in Latin made by Roman soldiers at Bewcastle. There is a good article about Coccidius and his dedications here.  Two silver plaques were found dedicated to Coccidius and they are now in the Tullie House Museum at Carlisle.  In these plaques, he is shown wearing a helmet and brandishing a spear. It is believed that Coccidius was equated with the Roman god of War Mars, which might explain why he was so popular with the military.  Esmerelda points out that as we travel East along the Roman wall the inscriptions to Coccidius seem to go from a war god to a hunting god as he becomes less martial.

I have been to Bewcastle a couple of times and I have mentioned elsewhere, I am often looking for a sense of the other. So to go to a place that was once holy to our pagan ancestors promises that it might still have an echo of what was once there. This is an interesting thought because, of course, the Christian God has been worshipped there for at least 1400 years, possibly longer than Coccidius.  The church at Bewcastle is great. The last time I went, it was snowing and we’d driven from Brampton about 12 miles away without seeing a car or another human being. We’d passed isolated farms, and lonely woods and seen highland cattle munching grass, that lifted their heads to watch us go. The woods were full of chaffinches and crows at Bewcastle, almost as if the birds were guarding something.  I went alone into the Church, and I definitely felt something, some sense of a peaceful, distant and rather inhuman other.  Whether this was Jesus or He Who Kills in Red, I do not know.

Here’s an excerpt from my Ghostly Guide to the Lake District where I tell a fairy story about Bewcastle.  You’ll see that the facts I wrote in 1998, are not the same facts we have today. That’s facts for you.

In any case, Bewcastle is  definitely worth a visit.

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Church at Bewcastle, on the site of the Roman Fort, and Shrine to Coccidius, dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon saint, Cuthbert.

Bewcastle

From Triermain head west along the B6318 past signs for the strangely named Desoglin and Tercrosset. After you pass a house called Longlands on your left you come to a cross-roads. Turn right for Bewcastle. This area has a remote and uninhabited feel to it. These hills are often haunted by mists and dark shapes loom up on you as you go along, metamorphosing into trees or cows as you get closer.

Bewcastle lies in what most people would feel was the middle of nowhere, but it’s all the better for that. It consists of a small stream – the Kirk Beck, a pub, a church, a farmhouse and ruined castle.

The church and castle sit on a small plateau. There is an exhibition of the church’s history in a building in the churchyard. You will also pass a remarkable monument – an Anglian cross that has lost its head.

The earliest parts of the church date from 1200, but the cross is from about 670. There is an inscription on it in Anglo Saxon runes which commemorate Alcfrith son of Oswi, once king of Northumbria. The carving is quite exquisite and dates from the high tide of Northumbrian culture and power. The carving is wholly Christian and shows links to Mediterranean sculpture – some of the carvings are of vine leaves which even then didn’t grow in this cold part of the world.

The castle, now in ruins, was founded in 1092 probably by William Rufus – the son of the Norman Conqueror, who obtained Cumbria from Scotland. He gave the castle to a certain Bueth, but then Bueth’s grandson Robert actually fought for the Scots against the English. However by 1565 we know that the castle was in a bad state of repair and has stayed that way.

Both the castle and the church are built partly of masonry from the Roman fort underneath them. You can still see the ditches and hummocks in the ground which mark the Roman fort. It was built to police the area to the north of the Roman Wall. Within the Roman fort were found solid silver plaques given as offerings to the Celtic god Cocidius who was a god of soldiers. These are now on display in Tullie House museum in Carlisle. In the western parts of the Wall area, Cocidius seems to be equated with Mars, the Roman god of War. His name could mean something like the ‘red one’. There is an Irish god known as Dá Choc who may be another form of Cocidius.

This area from Bewcastle south to the valley of the River Irthing was apparently the cult centre of this warrior god. At the fort at Bewcastle was also found an interesting relief of the Mother Goddess, sitting in a chair with fruits in her lap.

The mother goddess was handed down in tradition as Modron, and her son was Mabon – the great son. Mabon – or Maponos as an earlier form, had his cult centre at Lochmaben, just over the border in Scotland.

It is interesting that the invading Northumbrians chose Bewcastle as the place to set up an important Christian monument, but this often happened at old pagan sites.

As you would expect with all these gods and goddesses in such a remote spot, the local pub, and the smithy cottage behind it are haunted. One of the figures seen around the pub is a Roman Centurion.

Near Bewcastle on the banks of the White Lyne it is told that a local man, coming home from the pub was grabbed and pulled off his horse by fairies. They were about to drag him into an entrance to the underworld in the side of a hill but he pulled out a Bible and they fled.

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