In February I finally got around to visiting Dacre, a small village on the southeastern fringe of the Lake District in Cumbria. It has been on my ‘get to’ list for a long time, not only because it’s a very picturesque place but also because of its history. In early medieval times the site of the present-day church was occupied by a monastery mentioned by Bede. He described it as being ‘near the river Dacore from which it received its name’, a reference presumably to the Dacre Beck or to the River Eamont into which it flows. Bede referred to a miraculous event that occurred at the monastery in 728, during the abbacy of Swithberht. At that time one of the brethren – a priest called Thrythred – had in his possession a piece of St Cuthbert’s hair. The hair cured a young monk of an untreatable condition that would otherwise have left him blind in one eye. By 731, when Bede published his Ecclesiastical History, the abbacy had passed to this same Thrythred, but this is the last we hear of Dacre until after the Norman Conquest. The names Swithberht and Thrythred are English and indicate that the monastery lay in Anglo-Saxon (i.e. Northumbrian) hands in the early 8th century. However, we do not know the date of foundation, so we cannot assume that the monks had always been English. It is possible, for instance, that the original brethren were Britons who fled in fear of Northumbrian warbands during the conflicts of the previous century.
Excavations in the churchyard in the early 1980s found evidence of the monastery, even though none of its buildings has survived. One early feature was a covered drain running across the southern part of the churchyard. This was found to be lined with shaped stones that may have come from a Roman structure (possibly a bridge) somewhere in the vicinity. Archaeologists also found traces of two timber buildings – one rectangular, the other circular – slightly northwest of the present church. The purpose of these is unknown but the circular one eventually fell into disuse and its space seems to have been given over to metalworking – this, at least, is suggested by the presence of hearths and copper pins. Another discovery was a large cemetery of more than three hundred graves, the majority of which are most likely of pre-10th century date. This is presumably where generations of monks were interred and where the 8th-century abbots Swithberht and Thrythred were laid to rest.
Although little evidence of the daily life of the monastery has survived, a few small items have come to light. These include a writing-stylus, a belt buckle, a gold ring and a Viking coin. Together they provide evidence of a thriving community. Inside the church two sculptured fragments testify to the site’s high status in early medieval times. Both are from cross-shafts that must once have stood within the monastic enclosure. They are, respectively, of 9th and 10th century origin. The smaller of the two is the earlier and is of typical Northumbrian workmanship, with finely detailed carvings of a serpent and a winged lion. Its sculptural style is superior to that of the larger piece which looks unsophisticated by comparison. As soon as I saw this later fragment – which is usually attributed to Norse influence – I was reminded of the similarly crude sculpture of the Strathclyde Britons. The two human figures with linked hands are reminiscent of a pair on a contemporary cross-shaft from Cambusnethan in Lanarkshire, while an animal peering backward is a common motif on several Strathclyde monuments. Thus, although ‘Viking’ is a label often applied to the two Dacre fragments, I wonder if they represent a more complex set of cultural affinities. The monastery may have undergone several changes of ownership – in terms of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and secular patronage – between Bede’s era and the Norman Conquest. In the 9th century it is likely to have been a target of Norse raids and was no doubt affected by the collapse of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in the 860s. After c.900 its abbot probably became answerable to a new set of local lords, an immigrant elite of Cumbric-speaking Britons installed by the kings of Strathclyde. In 927 one of the Clyde kings attended a royal conference at a place called Eomotum - an unidentified site on the River Eamont. His name was Owain and he was a key player in the political manoeuvring between Viking, English and Celtic powers that eventually led to the great battle of Brunanburh in 937. The Eamont almost certainly marked the southern boundary of Owain’s kingdom and thus an appropriate setting for a meeting of kings. Indeed, Dacre’s position on one of the tributaries of this river led the 12th-century chronicler William of Malmesbury to suggest that the conference took place at the old monastery itself rather than at a site further downstream near the village of Eamont Bridge.
I’ve assigned this blogpost to the category ‘non-Scottish’ but this does not mean that Dacre had no connection with Scotland in early medieval times. Constantin II, one of the most famous kings of Alba, attended the royal meeting in 927 alongside his Strathclyde ally Owain. Both of these rulers can be regarded as ‘Scottish’ in the context of modern political geography. Even if Dacre is not the mysterious Eomotum (and I do not think it is) we cannot assume that it played no part in the meeting. We know it was an important site at the time because of the date of the larger cross-fragment. Perhaps the monastery hosted a religious service for the royal delegates after their high-level political discourse?
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Appendix: The Dacre Bears
The churchyard at Dacre contains four free-standing animal sculptures, each positioned near one corner of the church. Their date and purpose are unknown, but they are usually known as the ‘Dacre Bears’. Three are too weathered to show much detail but the fourth has a mane and a long tail and is probably a lion. Two others appear to be grappling with some kind of smaller animal. What all this means is a complete mystery. Were the ‘bears’ carved in early medieval times, or do they post-date the Norman Conquest? Are they, in fact, of pre-Christian origin?
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Notes & References
The Church of St Andrew, Dacre (2008) [booklet produced by the parish community]. Includes at pp.29-30 an archaeological summary by Rachel Newman, ‘The early history of the church site’.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book iv, chapter 32.
All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.
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