St. Brigid is depicted on the Tapestry with a cow and a milking stool, as in the carved figure on the north door of the Lady Chapel in the Abbey ruins, and on St. Michael's Tower on the Tor. Born about A.D.453 near Dundalk, Co. Louth, Ireland, she can only have been a child of seven when St. Patrick was laid to rest. She founded a large number of convents, the most famous being in Kildare (A.D.490). Most of the miracles attributed to her were concerned with the relief of poverty or illness. She is reputed to have personally ministered to lepers and to have cured many. Legend draws for us vivid pictures of the kind of woman she was: her lavish generosity, tireless energy and irresistible charm, equally at home in the fields tending sheep or bringing in the harvest. She is found milking cows, making butter and cheese, and tubs of home-brewed ale.
As foundress of Irish monastic life for women, the strength and antiquity of St. Brigid's cult are testified by the ancient dedications to her scattered so freely throughout Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, France and particularly Brittany. There is a statue to her in a little chapel of S. Dredenfaux, parish of Geran, near Pontivy, Brittany.1 Across the continent today, in unexpected places, the traveller will stumble upon her shrine or chapel, with its familiar and eloquent message out of so remote a past.
While the earliest Lives of St. Brigid make no mention of her coming to Glastonbury, William of Malmesbury seems to accept the legend that she visited Glastonbury in A.D.488. This date is interesting when one remembers that she founded the great Kildare Monastery in A.D.490. The interpolated edition of his De Antiquitate states that St Brigid stayed at Beckery, and he implies elsewhere that she returned to Ireland mentioning some trinkets she forgot to take with her.2
All evidence points to the existence of a small Chapel or Oratory at Beckery on the western side of Glastonbury. It was first dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen, but later known by the name of St. Brigid.3 The site of this Chapel has been excavated. In 1887 Mr. John Morland conducted an excavation in a field called Chamberlain Hill. He found foundations of two chapels, one within the other. Within the outer walls were 14 skeletons.
Mr. Philip Rahtz carried out excavations in 1968 and 1969. One of the skeletons he found was dated by carbon process to about A.D.725. Unfortunately this is much too late for our purpose.
The name “Beckery” could have a number of meanings: one obvious one is Beag Eire, or Bec-Eriu, Little Ireland. In a charter of Henry II, it is, “Bekeria quae Parva Hibernia dicitur” - Beckery, known as Little Ireland. This is how it was known to the local Irish colony in the 10th century.
St. Brigid was only in her seventies when she died, about A.D.524, by no means an old woman as age was reckoned in those days. Cogitosus tells us that St. Brigid was laid to rest in her own monastery at Kildare, that her tomb was decorated with precious metal and jewels, and that a gold crown hung over it as a symbol of her sovereignty. Towards the close of the 9th century, owing to the ravages of the Danes, the remains of St. Brigid and St. Columba, together with St. Patrick's were found deposited in different tombs in Downpatrick Church.4 And so rests St. Brigid, the “Fiery Dart”, in whose memory a light was kept burning in Kildare for seven centuries.
For us the unanswered question is: did St. Brigid come to Glastonbury and spend perhaps two years in prayer in an oratory at Beckery or Brideshay, before founding her famous monastery in Kildare? Legend suggests it; history has yet to prove it.
1 Alice Curtayne, St. Brigid of Ireland, p.99.
2 William of Malmesbury, De Gestls Regum, Chapter 23.
3 H. M. Porter, The Celtic Church in Somerset, p.75.
4 M. Malone, Church History of Ireland, Vol. 1, p.101.