Sunset over Bat's Castle Iron Age settlement, Exmoor, Somerset
St Bridget was born about 455 AD in Leinster, Ireland. Her father was Dubtech, prince of Leinster, and her mother, Broiccseach, was a maidservant to Dubtech's wife. Her mistress was understandably furious when she learned who the father of the baby was, and sold Broiccseach as a slave to a wealthy Druid. Her baby went with her.
When Bridget was a very little girl she was taken by her mother to hear St Patrick preach. Patrick and Bridget became very good friends, but Patrick was already an old man, and when Bridget was only 5 or 6 years old, he died.
A few years later Bridget went to live with her father, Dubtech. Already she was developing the traits of compassion and generosity which characterised her entire life. She began giving valuable gifts to beggars, many of them things which were not hers to give. Her father found this a great trial.
On one occasion he went to the king to try and persuade him to buy Bridget "as she was too expensive for him to keep, owing to her excessive charity". While he was with the king he left Bridget in his chariot. A beggar approached her and asked for alms. All she could find to give him was her father's sword, which he had left in the chariot with her. It was a very special sword, a present to Dubtech from the king.
Dubtech was very angry when he found out what had happened. Bridget told him calmly that if a beggar "asked for my king and my father I would give them both away also". "Ah!" said the king, "I cannot buy a girl who holds us so cheap".
Bridget grew into a beautiful young girl, and a nobleman sought her hand in marriage. Her father was delighted and encouraged the young man. Bridget, however, would have none of it. She had alredy resolved to become a nun, and prayed that she might be made unsightly so that her suitor would be discouraged. She developed an eye disease, and became "so disagreeable to the sight that no one thought of giving her further molestation".
In the circumstances her father readily agreed that Bridget should become a nun, and at the age of 14 she took the veil. Her sight was then fully restored, and she became more beautiful than before.
As a nun, Bridget almost certainly came to Somerset. Several of the legends associated with Glastonbury link Bridget with the abbey there. According to most of these stories she visited Glastonbury, and there are goood reasons for supposing that this did indeed happen.
Firstly, in the centuries following Bridget's death it became common for Irish pilgrims to visit Glastonbury. There grew up just outside Glastonbury a settlement called Beckery. The name Beckery is said to be derived from Bec Eriu, which means Little Ireland. There is a charter of Henry 11 in which he confirms the privileges and properties of the abbey. and in this charter occurs the phrase "Beckery, which is known as Little Ireland". Recent excavations at Beckery have identified what seems to be a monastic site there, and it is possible that it was a hostel set up to cater for Irish pilgrims. One possible reason for the Irish pilgrims to come to Glastonbury would be to follow in the footsteps of Bridget.
One of the stories linking Bridget with Glastonbury states that she came in the year 488. This was two years before she founded the Abbey of Kildare in Ireland. An interesting possibility is that she came to study the running of a great abbey in preparation for that.
There are two churches in Somerset dedicated to Bridget; at Brean, on the coast, and at Chelvey, some miles inland from Clevedon. Maybe she founded these on her visit to Glastonbury, or perhaps she made more than one visit to Somerset.
Other evidence in support of the idea that Bridget did indeed come to somerset includes the fact that she appears in a 13th century calendar of Muchelney Abbey, and there were until quite recent times folk memories of her.
One such memory is enshrined in a Somerset custom which survived until the beginning of the 20th century. In the west of the county the mountain pansy (viola lutens) was known as "Biddy's eyes". Beds of these flowers, called "Biddy's beds" were prepared around St Bridget's Eve (1st of February) each year, and on May Eve a wax doll dressed in a light blue skirt and a dark blue cloak was laid in the bed and covered with perriwinkle petals. A children's rhyme associated with the custom went; "Ring the bell, Biddy's dead; Give us a flower for Biddy's bed".
Bridget founded the Abbey of Kildare about 490 AD and became its first abbess. For a long time it was the largest monastery in Ireland. It was a "double monastery", having monks as well as nuns. A much respected hermit, Conlaeth, was appointed to be in charge of the men and to administer the sacrements. In those days even an abbess of Bridgit's stature could not be ordained. The abbey specialised in dairy farming, and Bridgit became the patron saint of milkmaids.
A number of fascinating stories are told of her time as abbess of Kildare. On one occasion, a family who farmed near Kildare came into the abbey to attend a church festival and to consult Bridget on a farming matter. While they were there, their cattle were stolen and driven off. The thieves wanted to get the cattle across the river Liffey, but it was in flood, and they prepared to swim over. They tied their clothes to the horns of the cattle. Unfortunately for them the cattle ran away and kept running until they reached the gates of Kildare Abbey, with the theives in hot pursuit. They had to wait, no doubt in embarrassed silence, until Bridget restored their clothes to them.
On another occasion, Bridget came into her room after being caught in a shower of rain, and threw her cloak over a sunbeam to dry. The cloak remained there, and because it was there the sunbeam dared not move. That night, one of Bridget's nuns came running to tell her that the sunbeam was waiting to be released. Bridget went quickly to her room and removed the cloak, and the sunbeam hurried off to catch up with the departed sun.
Bridget died in 523 or 525 AD. She was buried at Kildare. After her death, a fire was kindled at Kildare and kept burning continuously for several hundred years. The writer Gerald of Wales says he found it burning there in the twelfth century. Her bones were translated from Kildare to Downpatrick, and remained there, with those of Patrick and Columba, until the Reformation. Their monument was destroyed then, by the order of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, but there is a story that some of the bones of Bridget were saved and taken to Neustadt in Austria.
- © John Seal
The above is a very abbreviated account of the life of this remarkable woman. There are many other stories about her, and some of these are related in the section on Bridget in The Dark Age Saints of Somerset, by John Seal, Published by Llanerch Press.