The monastery at Dacre

Dacre Church: front entrance and Norman tower.

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.

Dacre Church: Norman arch (12th 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.

Dacre Church: the southeast corner.

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.

9th-century Northumbrian cross-shaft fragment.

Fragment of cross-shaft (10th century).

Animal and human figures on the 10th-century cross-shaft.

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?

One of the Dacre Bears.

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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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76 comments on “The monastery at Dacre

  1. Can Britons in Cumbria ever usefully be described as ‘immigrants’, whether elite or otherwise? Wasn’t the default identity of the whole indigenous population of the islands (witness contemporary DNA studies showing all from Kirkwall to Cornwall still today share 80 per cent in common) ‘British’ / Cumbrian (‘fellow-countrymen’) or indeed ‘Welsh (the word for Brits used by the genuinely immigrant Northurmbrians/ Anglians)? The stone ‘bear’ carving brought to mind the ‘bear with ragged staff’, emblem of the later Earls of Warwick. When – or indeed why – did bear baiting come to Britain?

  2. According to Wikipedia: The heraldic device of the Earls of Warwick, the bear and ragged staff, is believed to derive from two legendary Earls, Arthal and Morvidus. Arthal is said to mean “bear”, while Morvidus was said to have slain a giant “with a young ash tree torn up by the roots.”[1]The earldom of Warwick was created in 1088, and could be inherited through the female line.

  3. Another web page explains that Arthal was a legendary king of the Britons as accounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth. He was the second son of King Morvidus and brother of Gorbonianus. Arthal began as an evil king bent on destroying the nobles and undoing all his brother … (over to you!)

  4. Tim says:

    Thanks for raising these interesting points, Liz. My use of the term ‘immigrant’ to describe the British nobility who took over the reins of power in what is now Cumbria reflects my belief that an indigenous landowning class of Britons had largely disappeared as a result of 200+ years of Northumbrian rule. Any members of this social tier that still remained c.900 would, I suggest, have embraced the ‘Englishness’ of the dominant power. I therefore see the 10th-century reconquista by Strathclyde as an exercise in colonialism and royal patronage whereby the kings at Govan rewarded their henchmen with parcels of territory south of the Solway. I envisage this as the end-result of a military campaign which ousted English-speaking lords (some of whom may have been of British ancestry) from their estates in ‘Cumbria’.

    The Warwick legend of Earl Arthal is new to me. It caught my attention because one of the kings of the Clyde Britons had the same name (Arthgal or Artgal, died 872). I see this as a name of Gaelic rather than Brittonic origin (‘bear-valour’). It is still used in Ireland in the modern form ‘Ardal’ where the first element can be interpreted as ard, ‘high’, as well as ‘bear’. On a related note I’ve been working sporadically on a blogpost dealing with bear-symbolism in Strathclyde (a spin-off from my series on Clan Galbraith). I will look into the Warwick legend as part of this.

  5. […] the kings of Strathcldye on his new blog Heart of the Kingdom. Tim writes about his visit to the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Dacre in Cumbria and its stonework on his blog […]

  6. Pursuing the terminology debate: taking the 200 years of British rule in India as a pretty close comparison to the 200-year rule of English-speaking Northumbrians in Cumbria – would you really describe as ‘immigration’ the resumption of Indian native rule/landowning in 1947, as you do resumption of British hegemony over Cumbria?

    • Tim says:

      No, I would not describe the resumption of native rule in India as ‘immigration’. While the era of British colonial rule may be broadly comparable with the 7th-century Anglo-Saxon conquests west of the Pennines, I regard the respective endgames as quite different. In 1947, the British gave India back to its indigenous people. In the 10th century, the lands between Carlisle and Penrith were taken over by Strathclyde, a non-indigenous ‘foreign’ power. Although this takeover is often referred to as a reconquest it was simply an annexation by Clyde-based kings of territory that had never (as far as we know) been ruled by their predecessors. It was thus an expansion into new lands rather than the taking back or liberation of a long-lost ancestral domain. Also, it seems unlikely that an indigenous Brittonic-speaking elite still survived in these lands when the Strathclyders took control. For at least 200 years the language of social advancement south of the Solway had been English – it was the language of a ruling class who controlled all important aspects of daily life: economy, law, justice, religion. Any person of native British heritage who wanted to become or remain a member of this class had to embrace the full package of ‘Englishness’. Indeed, the era of pre-English rule lay so far back in the past that I am not even sure if anyone in what is now Cumbria would have felt common ground with the Brittonic-speaking warlords who became the new landowners c.900. The Strathclyde ‘reconquest’ was, in fact, little more than a linguistic one. It led to the reinstatement by an external power of a formerly indigenous language that had been obsolete in all parts of Northumbria for eight or more generations. In this sense, then, the Strathclyders who took control of Cumbria can be seen as an immigrant elite. I suspect they were not welcomed with great enthusiasm, especially in districts traversed by their armies. The ousting of the Northumbrian landowning class can only have been achieved with violence, through a series of wars and raids. It was a straightforward military conquest by an ambitious kingdom, not the liberation of a conquered people by their own countrymen.

      Thanks btw for raising this point, Liz. It has got me thinking again about issues of ethnicity and identity.

      • Ethnicity is a matter of choice. Immigrants actually do consider their ethnicity to change very quickly. Immigrants to the US often insist on being considered American and I’m sure immigrants to Britain feel the same way. On the other hand, others hang on to old ethnic ties that are very much to their detriment. As for heritage, people emphasize the heritage that is to their advantage at the moment or makes a statement that they want to make. This is really evident in the mixed heritage of most Americans and which heritage they want to emphasize at different times. I am certainly displaying my Irish more in March than the rest of the year. 🙂

        • Aren’t we getting ethnicity (objective, as per categories in a census) and nationality (elective, as in immigrants) muddled?

        • Jonathan says:

          This is the fashionable view. But simple notions of ethnicity can also be imposed on others by those more ideological traction. Current discussions of ethnicity are often closely caught up with ideas about personal and collective empowerment and the exercise of choice. But not all of the people get to win all of the time. Then again, I strongly suspect that groups with a strong collective identity aren’t and have not usually been ready accept incomers just because they want to share their identity.

          Ethnicity is not ever simply a matter of choice in the simple sense of the word. Even (especially?) in nice white western middle class metropolitan contexts. If I visited some parts of Boston (for instance) I would be scorned for being ‘British’ — because I am English. Yet I am probably more Irish than many Irish Americans: had I been born in the States I would belong to a Catholic Irish American family. But never in a month of Sundays would I be accepted as Irish in Ireland, and I wouldn’t dream of pressing the point, even if I chose to live there for the rest of my life. It’s not my choice.

          But finally, this is all rather anachronistic: ideas about identity in the past are rather hard to pin down, and one should be careful about imposing the wrong set of expectations.

          • Tim says:

            Your final sentence, Jon, is a reminder to us all about how far (or not so far) we can feasibly press our theories. We simply don’t know what these early medieval folk understood by what we now call ‘ethnicity’. It’s impossible to enter the mindset of a tenth-century Briton or Scot, and equally impossible to imagine how such an individual viewed abstract concepts like nationality and identity. Contemporary writers give us some vague hints, and place-names offer a few more, but we’re still stumbling around in the dark.

  7. Tim says:

    Words and meanings are certainly worth thinking about when we start looking at the vocabulary of ethnicity and identity. I sometimes find myself getting quite tangled in the various terms and concepts. Some terms are more clear-cut than others, or mean different things to different people. Michelle is right about choice being an important factor in determining what I tend to think of as an individual’s cultural affiliation, i.e. the language they speak at home, their style of jewellery, etc. In some circumstances this choice would be a no-brainer, for there might be only one real choice, and taking it would seem to be a wise move if the individual wanted to thrive in a time of change. I could go on about this quite a bit, but I’ll save it for another day. Anyone who has an interest in how the Britons faced these issues during the Anglo-Saxon takeover should try to get hold of The Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, a collection of insightful papers edited by Nick Higham. The paper by Heinrich Harke draws a fascinating analogy between post-Soviet Russia and the former British-controlled territories of 7th-century England.

    • I just read that paper for the first time on Saturday! I agree with your estimation of the volume, too, it’s very important.

      I wanted to ask, though, about the earlier cross-fragment. Am I right in seeing there a human-headed quadruped? Because when I first saw that, before I’d parsed the legs, I immediately thought, “But that’s the David from the St Andrews Sarcophagus!” It’s not just the moustaches, the hair and the proportions of the face are very similar. Once I’d resolved the legs, though, this impression continued; the detailing of the haunch of the quadruped’s rear right leg looks quite Pictish, and the foliate detail on its fore-limbs could be a derivation from the scrolls used in Pictish carving to delineate points of articulation on animals’ bodies, you know the ones I mean. Northumbrian it may technically be, but I think that carver was used to parts further north and east, myself… Is that feasible, do you think?

      Thankyou for the post, anyway; I’d seen the Bede reference but never taken in where the place actually was, which as you say raises quite a lot of specific questions.

      • Tim says:

        You’re absolutely right, Jon. The face is almost identical to the face of David on the St Andrews Sarcophagus. You’re right, too, about the foliate detail, which is another feature on the Sarcophagus (and used there in a similar way, with animals nestling among the fronds). I’ve just had a look at the Sally Foster volume on St Andrews to see if the similarities have been noticed before. A search under Dacre in the index led me to Isabel Henderson’s chapter ‘Primus inter pares’ where, sure enough, the common features are explained. On p.143 Henderson notes the similarity between a human-headed creature crouching among the tree-branches on the Sarcophagus and the ‘winged lion’ of Dacre. She sees this imagery as part of an ‘orientalising’ trend among Insular stonecarvers, with a likely origin in southern England using fanciful animals borrowed ultimately from Continental manuscripts. Such creatures appear in southern English books in the 8th century and evidently became models for artists and sculptors elsewhere, including those in Northumbria and Pictland. The chronology fits well with both the Sarcophagus and the Dacre fragment if both are from c.800-850.

        Henderson cites Rosemary Cramp as her main source on Dacre. The reference is to the Cumbria volume of Cramp and Bailey’s Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, which I’ve not seen yet. I should have picked it up from the library before writing this blogpost. Might do that anyway, and then add some extra notes as a second appendix.

  8. If ‘English’ (Northumbrian) were so dominant and persistent a force over ‘Britishness’, why is the region called ‘Cumbria’?

    • Tim says:

      Fair question. The answer, I think, lies in what was understood by the term ‘Cumbria’ in early medieval times. It doesn’t start appearing in the sources until the Viking period, when it referred to territory ruled by the kings of Strathclyde. ‘Cumbrian’ lands, then, were not the ancestral lands of a formerly Brittonic-speaking people living south of the Solway but rather those territories that belonged after c.900 to a Brittonic-speaking elite whose HQ lay on the Clyde.

      For me, the key piece of evidence is Gospatric’s Writ, an 11th-century legal document relating to estates in Allerdale (the area around Workington and Maryport). This refers to ‘the lands that were Cumbrian’, a description usually taken to mean that Allerdale and neighbouring districts had recently been wrested from Strathclyde’s control. Here, the ‘Cumbrians’ are clearly not the descendants of indigenous Britons of pre-Northumbrian times but a newer Brittonic-speaking elite who had ousted the English in the early 900s.

      • With respect, the application of Occam’s Razor would lead to the far simpler conclusion that the Brits in Cumbria never went away.

        • I don’t agree. If the evidence you’re basing the conclusion on is simply the language, you need to explain why the language ceased to be used and how it could revive. Simple continuity won’t do that, so the story must be more complex.

  9. […] and Scandinavian presence (see  Bailey and Fellows-Jensen), as well as historic events:  Penrith, Dacre, Eamont, Appleby, and my favorite, Kirkby Stephen.  In this image, you can also see Kendal in the […]

  10. The postman just brought me a copy of Higham – I am already engrossed!

  11. Dan Elsworth says:

    The comment I wanted to make, and which I mentioned to Tim via, was that for anyone interested in Dacre it is worth checking the account in the 1985 transaction of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. It’s still only an interim, but it is more detailed than the account in the church guide book.

    Also, I thought that there was some suggestion that Bede’s reference was taken to indicate that the monastery was being built in his lifetime, and therefore (in theory at least, although it could have been conveniently glossed over) not had a ‘British’ predecessor.

    In addition, the notion that there was little or no connection or sense of continuity between the pre-Aglian British people of what became Cumbria and the post-Northumbrian Strathclyde Britons does seem to be at odds with some other writers. Charles Phythian-Adams’ ‘Land of the Cumbrians’ for one. Surely the important point here is a connection with Britons in Wales – the fellow-countrymen – as well as, or perhaps more so, than those in what is now Scotland, or a mingling of the two. It has been suggested that Welsh continued to be spoken in Lancashire into the 9th century, so why not also Cumbria, with what has been referred to as a ‘thin veneer’ of Anglian aristocracy on top? The arrival of ‘new’ British rulers might have been welcomed if the bulk of the population, minus the imposed ruling class, felt a closer affinity to them. The presence of names indicating not only Britons but also Welsh in Cumbria and social structures such as the early church (eccles and llan) and possibly administrative centres (found in llys place-names) still extant suggests a considerable British survival, although many of these things need more study.

  12. Tim says:

    I’m responding later than I had hoped, but here goes….

    At the heart of this debate lies a fundamental question: Was there a substantial remnant of Britons (i.e. people who outwardly maintained British culture, customs and language) in what is now Cumbria before the region was conquered by Strathclyde c.900?

    This question itself rests on an assumption that Cumbria was indeed taken over by the Strathclyde Britons and was not a separate kingdom in the 10th and 11th centuries. In his comment above, Dan draws our attention to Charles Phythian-Adams, one of the main advocates for seeing Cumbria and Strathclyde as separate political entities during this period. In his excellent book Land of the Cumbrians, Professor Phythian-Adams argues that the Brittonic place-names surviving in present-day Cumbria were coined by an indigenous native population that had preserved its distinct identity through 200 years of English domination. To Phythian-Adams, and to those historians who accept his arguments, there was no Strathclyde takeover of lands south of the Solway Firth: the native Cumbrian Britons simply reasserted their independence after the fall of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

    This brings us to the key issue of language survival versus language replacement. In linguistic terms there is little doubt that the majority of Brittonic place-names (‘toponyms’) in Cumbria were coined after the end of English (i.e. Northumbrian) rule. This has been known for fifty years, ever since Kenneth Jackson’s magisterial paper in the Angles and Britons volume. More recently it has been reaffirmed by John Todd in his analysis of place-names in the charters of Lanercost Priory.

    In the comments above, both Liz (whose interest in terminology sparked the discussion) and Dan (with whom I’ve discussed the topic elsewhere) point to the possibility of a thin veneer of Englishness in Cumbria throughout two or more centuries of Northumbrian domination. My counter-argument is a simple question: if this is what happened in Cumbria, then why not also in Tweeddale? We find plenty of Brittonic toponyms in Cumbria, but few in the Tweed Valley, another area conquered by Northumbria during the 7th century. Nick Higham has described Melrose on the Upper Tweed as ‘a rare British place-name survival’. Indeed, the place-names of Tweeddale are overwhelmingly English. Few observers would doubt that this was because English was the main language of the local population under Northumbrian rule. Where British names do survive, they generally belong to high-status sites – such as monasteries and old fortresses – or to major landscape features such as large rivers, many of whose names were simply assimilated rather than replaced during the process of Anglicisation. Across Northumbria the presence of eccles place-names (Latin ecclesia -> Welsh eglwys, ‘church’) seems to point to this kind of assimilation by English-speakers, not to survival of the native British tongue. Ten possible eccles names in Cumbria were identified by Dan in an article published last year (see ref below).

    One important observation arising from Todd’s research on the Lanercost charters is the presence in Cumbria of large numbers of Brittonic toponyms relating to minor landscape features such as fields and small streams. It is highly unlikely that these are survivals from pre-Northumbrian times, maintained through two centuries of subjugation as a mark of cultural resistance by a stubborn population of Britons. Everything we know of the process of Anglicisation argues against such a scenario. It is far more likely that the minor Brittonic toponyms in Cumbria appeared after 900, replacing English ones that had been part of the landscape for as long as anyone could remember. Linguistic analyses (by experts such as Andrew Breeze) of the names of fields and streams in the Lanercost charters show that they are indeed late formations. In some cases this lateness is obvious even to a non-specialist, especially when a Brittonic element was grafted onto a pre-existing English one (as at Birdoswald, ‘Oswald’s cow-yard’, where an old Northumbrian personal name is prefixed by a Brittonic equivalent of Welsh buarth).

    In Cumbria the lateness of Brittonic toponyms for fields and streams – minor names that would have been in everyday use among the rural peasantry – suggests that the majority of the Cumbrian population had referred to these places by English names before c.900. If so, then the ‘thin veneer’ argument loses ground, and the process of Anglicisation from c.650 to c.900 is seen to permeate all levels of Cumbrian society, just as it did in Tweeddale where descendants of the conquered Britons of the 7th century embraced the full package of ‘Englishness’ (which necessarily included adoption of English speech).

    Dan mentions cultural connections between Cumbria and Wales, and also the possibility of common ground between indigenous Cumbrian Britons and 10th-century incomers from Strathclyde. To this I can only offer my scepticism on the idea that ‘fellow countrymen’ from the Clyde were welcomed as liberators in erstwhile Northumbrian lands south of the Solway. Quite simply, I just don’t buy the scenario of pan-British solidarity at all. I see the Strathclyders arriving in Cumbria as invaders and conquerors, not as long-lost cousins of an oppressed native peasantry. Far from reinvigorating a language that had somehow survived the era of Northumbrian rule I suggest instead that the Strathclyders imposed their own Brittonic language (‘Cumbric’) on an English-speaking population that had no real choice in the matter. By c.1000, when Strathclyde was at the height of its power, three or four generations of Cumbrian farmers had worked their fields on estates owned by a Brittonic-speaking aristocracy whose arrival predated the reach of living memory. It seems to me unsurprising that these farmers should have adopted the speech of their new masters from the Clyde, just as their British ancestors would have adopted English speech in the wake of a much earlier conquest. The onus is surely on advocates of ‘British survival’ to explain how a different course of events, or an alternative model of language replacement, could have unfolded in 10th-century Cumbria. In order to enable continuity of British language and culture such survival must have included the retention of Brittonic as a significant medium of everyday discourse for 200+ years, under the noses of an English-speaking elite. Why would this be allowed to happen? I do not believe we can point to Brittonic influence on the English dialects of western Northumbria (identified by Cubbin 30 years ago) and call it continuity. At most, I would see this as ‘cultural resilience’.

    As far as the Welsh are concerned, I view their relationships with the Cumbrians as not necessarily amicable. Regardless of the ‘we’re all in this together’ sentiments of Armes Prydein (a 10th-century Welsh poem), I don’t see any reason to believe that the Welsh were regarded as anything other than foreigners by the population of western Northumbria. When, in 945, King Edmund of Wessex invaded Strathclyde, it is likely that he was accompanied by one or more Welsh kings as allies or vassals, together with their armies. I rather doubt that these ‘fellow countrymen’ from Dyfed and other faraway places received a joyous welcome from the Cumbrian peasantry after they crossed the River Eamont on their northward march, still less when they entered Clydesdale to continue their ravaging of British estates.

    This has turned out to be another of those long, rambling comments from me. I’ll end it with references to the writers whose work I’ve mentioned along the way.

    Andrew Breeze, ‘Britons in the Barony of Gilsland, Cumbria’ Northern History 43 (2006), 327-32.

    G.P. Cubbin, ‘A Celtic Dialect Line in North-West England’ Studia Celtica 16/17 (1981-82), 175-82.

    Dan Elsworth, ‘Eccles Place-names in Cumbria’ Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society (3rd Series) 11 (2011), 234-8.

    Nick Higham, ‘Britons in Northern England in the Early Middle Ages: through a thick glass darkly’ Northern History 38 (2001), 5-25.

    Kenneth Jackson, ‘Angles and Britons in Northumbria and Cumbria’, pp.60-84 in J.R.R. Tolkien et al, Angles and Britons (Cardiff, 1963).

    Charles Phythian-Adams, Land of the Cumbrians: a Study in British Provincial Origins, AD 400-1120 (Aldershot, 1996).

    John Todd, ‘British (Cumbric) Place-names in the Barony of Gilsland, Cumbria’ Transactions of the Cumberland & westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society (3rd Series) 5 (2005), 89-102.

    • 1. You refer to ‘the presence in Cumbria of large numbers of Brittonic toponyms relating to minor landscape features such as fields and small streams. It is highly unlikely that these are survivals from pre-Northumbrian times, maintained through two centuries of subjugation as a mark of cultural resistance by a stubborn population of Britons’. Surely this phenomenon – the continued use of the ‘native’ name for streams and fields – is precisely what one would expect from a situation where an existing native/aboriginal population was going about its daily business, while a small dominant foreign elite (the Northumbrian Angles; the British in India) was governing them. The co-existence of parallel languages, one ‘native’ with another of a dominant foreign power is exemplified in places like Africa after European colonization and by the ‘cumbrogi’ in North Wales such as Bryn Terfel, who is still clearly speaking a foreign language when he speaks English; see also the scenes set in Wales in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Decline and Fall’ where Welsh (ie British) native speakers conspire to comic effect to outwit the ‘English’ with whom they are co-existing.
      2. You say: ‘the process of Anglicisation from c.650 to c.900 is seen to permeate all levels of Cumbrian society, just as it did in Tweeddale where descendants of the conquered Britons of the 7th century fully embraced the full package of ‘Englishness’ (which necessarily included adoption of English speech).’ Bryn Terfel and other indigenes of North Wales today have to learn English to get on in modern Britain, but that doesn’t make them ‘English’ .
      3. You say: Dan mentions cultural connections between Cumbria and Wales, and also the possibility of common ground between indigenous Cumbrian Britons and 10th-century incomers from Strathclyde. To this I can only offer my sceptisim on the idea that ‘fellow countrymen’ from the Clyde were welcomed as liberators in erstwhile Northumbrian lands south of the Solway. Quite simply, I just don’t buy the scenario of pan-British solidarity at all.’ That is a leap in the argument. No-one is claiming that the ‘Cumbrogi’ – the native British population of these islands – didn’t fight each other for territory, or from time to time join foreign armies to fight their fellow countrymen if they saw advantage in doing so – think of Vichy France or Culloden, where more ‘Scots’ fought with the Duke of Cumberland’s army than for Bonnie Prince Charlie.

      • That does all rather miss the point about the age of the language of the names as they stand… Whether one wants to argue that the names were newly given by Strathclyders or that the local population were just up to date in Welsh because for them it was a living language, the problem is still that the names were apparently being newly given. One could, just about, argue that they were updated by the Strathclyders; but if you allow them that power, then there’s no way at all to defend against the idea that the names were new impositions, either. Why did your supposed indigenes only use Late Brittonic names for these places whose names should have been so much older?

  13. Dan Elsworth says:

    As no expert on the place-names, despite the reference to my article given by Tim, it would be foolish of me to try to counter any of these arguments, although I can see where Liz is coming from. As an archaeologist, what I would point out, in terms of the suggestion that Cumbrian society was overwhelming saturated by Anglian culture (surely language being one of the last things people hang on to, if that is gone then they are basically Anglian) is the underwhelming lack of artefacts (or settlements or burials) that are ‘Anglian’. I don’t know much about Tweedale but what is the archaeological evidence like there? We also haven’t mentioned the possible effect of other peoples and languages – the Norse (Danish and Norwegian/Hiberno-Norse), and Irish, directly or via the Norse, and whether that will have disguised or affected what was happening in this period. Presumably there was a lot of multilingualism at the time, but I find it hard to believe that, in some of the more remote areas at least, people didn’t carry on at least able to understand the pre-Anglian British language and therefore would they not have found the Strathclyders intelligible? Plenty to read though!

  14. I suspect that if we knew all the placenames that existed then it would be quite a mix (British, English, Roman, maybe even Irish). Placenames stick for a variety of reasons. I live in a country chuck full of native american placenames, but there haven’t been any in most of the US for nearly two centuries. Most of the major rivers and probably a third or more of the states have native american names. When a name was first committed to writing can have a major impact on the name sticking, especially if its in a legal document.

  15. Tim says:

    Thanks to all for the recent comments. The long comment I wrote on Monday might have been better as a separate blogpost, as we are now moving away from the little river Dacore into deeper and wider waters.

    One of my main points on Monday was that the Brittonic names in Cumbria for minor landscape features (fields, streams, etc) appear to be late. Jonathan picked up on this in his reply to Liz and considered its implications for the belief that Brittonic survived as a language of everyday discourse throughout the period of Anglo-Saxon rule. There really is no getting around this, as Jonathan pointed out. If the Brittonic field-names are late, then they must have replaced English equivalents; and, if agricultural fields bore English names, then the people who farmed them must have been English-speakers. Brittonic field-names appear in Cumbria in the 10th century and cannot have been coined by an indigenous population. As Jonathan says, why would indigenous Brittonic-speaking communities give newly-coined Brittonic toponyms to places named by their ancestors? Where Brittonic place-names do appear to have survived the era of English rule in western Northumbria they are preserved in older, fossilised forms that pre-date the 7th century. A good example is the toponymy of West Derby Hundred, an old administrative district beyond the eastern suburbs of Liverpool. Here, in a vast wetland area that seems to have been unattractive to Anglo-Saxon settlement, a residual Brittonic-speaking population lingered long enough to leave a thick layer of toponyms. These place-names now sit alongside others of Scandinavian origin that spread inland from Norse coastal settlements in the 9th-10th centuries. They indicate that Northumbrian authority, and thus the downward permeation of English speech, made few inroads into this part of southern Lancashire. The entire region between Ribble and Mersey was evidently regarded as peripheral to the kings of Northumbria, at least until the Vikings began to make colonies there. Its marshy terrain deterred exploitation by the early English and allowed pockets of indigenous Britons to retain their identity in marginal fenland districts. No such deterrent existed, of course, on the Solway Plain, or in the Irthing Valley, or in other fertile areas that made Cumbria attractive to Anglo-Saxons and Strathclyders alike. Nonetheless, I suspect that Dan’s suggestion of native survival in remote areas of Cumbria is correct. By analogy with southern Lancashire we can probably envisage pockets of Britons surviving relatively untouched by Northumbrian rule in marginal places such as the central Lakeland dales. I suspect, however, that the minor place-names here will be overwhelmingly of Norse origin (I can’t check this without looking them up in the Armstrong volumes).

    Dan raises a good point about archaeology, specifically the problem of identifying Anglo-Saxon settlement in Cumbria. Tweeddale has slightly more data, I think, but not enough to sway the argument one way or another by archaeology alone. Some pre-English toponyms have survived but I don’t think we need be in any doubt that the inhabitants of Melrose and adjacent places were English-speakers before c.900. The Tweed ran through the Northumbrian heartlands and would, I feel, be an unlikely river along which to find residual pockets of indigenous Brittonic-speakers, at least in its wider courses east of Peebles.

    Both Dan and Michelle refer to the likelihood of a mixture of languages during the Viking period. I agree that this was surely the case in Cumbria. I just don’t see this mixture including indigenous Brittonic speech in the main areas of settlement.

    Finally, on Liz’s querying of my point about ‘fellow countrymen’, I do believe that the point needs stating from time to time. We still encounter, in print and online, this strange notion of pan-British solidarity. Its most frequent repetition comes in the context of a supposed ‘separation’ of Wales from Cumbria after the Northumbrian victory at Chester in the early 7th century. I have been guilty of sustaining the notion myself by sometimes using the term reconquista in reference to the Strathclyde takeover of Cumbria. But, yes, some people do still cling to the pan-British idea, ignoring its origin in the simplistic ‘Celt versus Saxon’ model of political relations. I fully expect to rail against it again, most probably in the blogosphere.

    • Perhaps DNA evidence will help to clarify? I see there is an advertisement in the brochure published yesterday for the Borders Book Festival in Melrose in June for male volunteers.

    • The ad inviting volunteers to come forward for DNA testing is headlined ‘Are You A Pict or A Viking?’ on page 33 of the downloadable 2012 Borders Book Festival brochure. I understand from Alistair Moffat, whose research to date is to be found in ‘The Scots: A Genetic Journey’, that the ambition is to map the DNA of the native population of the whole British Isles. Preliminary results suggest that indigenes share more than 80 per cent of our DNA, from Kirkwall to Cornwall ie our DNA does not recognise modern political borders such as Wales, Scotland or England.

      • Tim says:

        It’s good to hear about the DNA project. Alistair and Jim Wilson tapped into a deep vein of interest with this topic. What DNA cannot show, however, is the preferred cultural affiliations of our ancestors or – more importantly – the languages they spoke.

        • So: what does our DNA tell us? That we – indigenes – are the substrate over which successive ‘veneers’ of culture and language have been laid? That’s something, sure. But what exactly? In my B.Sc course at UCL we were taught that genes play a powerful role in behaviour – twin studies (of twins raised apart) show how extraordinarily dominant that role can be.

          • Tim says:

            In addition to not being a philologist I’m even less of a scientist, so I wouldn’t know where to start with the idea of a link between genes and behaviour. This is starting to touch on Michelle’s area of expertise.

            The ‘veneers’ scenario is still the one I’m inclined to go with.

            • Going to pull me into this huh… Yes, there are ties between genes and behavior on the individual level. You are treading on dangerous ground when you try to link behavior to groups of people with similar descent. Honestly trying to find ethnicity in genes is only at a very superficial and broad level (generally not even in genes but in extra DNA). As far as behavior goes, you tend to find the same continuum of behaviors in all cultures, ie. all cultures have highly intelligent people, artistic people, good linguists etc.

              • Are we saying that DNA studies give rise to no interesting questions at the intersect of culture and biology aka the ‘nature/nurture’ question? Those questions don’t have to be on the level of claims that the French are cheese-eating monkeys – although, the fact that national stereotypes persist is interesting.

    • Dan Elsworth says:

      Certainly on the issue of early-British survival in parts of Cumbria it is worth noting that the references you give are largely to areas in the north of the county (the far north to those of us in the very southern tip!), surely an area more likely to have seen take-over and renaming by Strathclyde. Given the debate about how far the influence of Rheged and Strathclyde stretched it is surely far more likely that there was some survival in the central core and some other areas. One thing I noticed with the Eccles place-names is that they were largely central and south, with one ‘outlier’ near Cockermouth. Many previous writers have note that the density of Anglian settlement seems to be in the more agreeable lands of the coastal plains, Eden valley and so on. I started looking into possible llan place-names in Cumbria, which revealed a similar(ish) result. If you haven’t seen it the late Mary Higham wrote an interesting article suggesting that -ham in Lancashire/Cumbria is equivalent to llan – i.e. places where the Angles found an extant church (perhaps within an enclosure of some type).

  16. Dan Elsworth says:

    Sorry, that meant to say that llan place-names showed a similar result to eccles i.e. mostly quite central, however, many are very unconvincing and I’m not sure how far you could argue that they even are llan place-names!

    • Tim says:

      I haven’t seen the Mary Higham article but I’ll chase it up. Her theory about llan– names sounds intriguing at the very least.

      You’re right about the North Cumbrian bias of the place-name data I’ve been quoting in this thread. My belief is that similar results might emerge from detailed studies of other districts, perhaps even as far south as the Eamont which I envisage as the southern boundary of 10th-century Strathclyde. I’m no philologist, so I have to rely on expert scholars to analyse the toponymy.

      As far as the extent of Rheged is concerned, my views are a bit off-the-wall. If I were to place this mysterious kingdom anywhere on the map, I’d be tempted to put it near Peebles.

      • Dan Elsworth says:

        I think that’s part of the problem – Cumbria a very big county, very geographically diverse and very hard to get across, even now. What you said about Strathclyde and a New-British ‘conquest’ sounds very likely and has, to some extent or other, been discussed for a while – I was just re-reading Nick Higham’s piece in ‘Scandinavians in Cumbria’, from 1985, which covers it. But it does seem to be the case, at least according to the work done so far, that this is concentrated, even restricted to the north part of the county – and the Eamont is still pretty far north as far as I am concerned. I’m not sure it necessarily applies to the rest, which leaves a pretty large area.

        If you haven’t seen it a collection of Mary Higham’s articles were compiled as ‘Of Name and Places: Selected Writings of Mary Higham’ edited by Alan Crosby (2007). Well worth a read.

        • Dan Elsworth says:

          Should have said, re Rheged. I still like the idea that it stretched in some form from Scotland to Lancashire, but I know that’s not very fashionable these days!

        • Tim says:

          Thanks for the ref to the Mary Higham collection. I will definitely look it up.

          I should have been more specific in my earlier comments about Brittonic place-names. Contemporary sources suggest that the Strathclyde conquest was indeed confined to the northern part of modern Cumbria. With hindsight, it would have been better if I had used ‘Cumberland’ instead.

          South of the Eamont, in Westmorland, I imagine English or Anglo-Scandinavian lords holding land on behalf of whoever ruled at York in the 10th century. The contemporary vita of St Catroe implies that Strathclyde shared a border with the Scandinavian kings of York c.940 near a place called Loida. I think this name might refer to the River Lowther which joins the Eamont near Brougham. According to the vita, Catroe began a pilgrimage from his home in Alba and was given safe passage through the lands of King Dyfnwal of Strathclyde. At Loida he was met by a local lord with a Scandinavian name who escorted him to ‘King Erik’ at York.

          • Dan Elsworth says:

            The Lowther reference is very interesting, and the church with its early crosses and hogback tombstones particularly well worth a visit, if you haven’t been. Given that the original village was essentially cleared to provide a better view during one phase of rebuilding the castle it would be a very interesting site to examine archaeologically. In theory the church is all that remains of the original village but there are plenty of earthworks nearby.

            • Tim says:

              I visited Lowther last year but the church was closed for refurbishment or repair. The other site I wanted to see, but didn’t have time, is the Castlesteads earthwork which I think is in woodland nearby. There seemed to be a lot of work going on at the castle to improve access for visitors so I’ll probably make another trip this year.

              • Dan Elsworth says:

                That’s a shame, the hog backs are just in the porch. It’s got a great setting at least! I was working at the castle in connection with the wok they are doing – it wasn’t as interesting as the church.

  17. Sorry to bang on about this, but I continue to struggle with the implications of the term ‘New Brits’ . The Strathclyders who arrived in Cumberland to supplant the Anglian invader/occupiers were apparently sufficiently British still to be usefully and conventionally identified as Brits; so their culture was British but not the ‘right’, or the ‘same’, sort as the original (‘Old’) Brits who had been living in Dacre two hundred years before the Angles arrived.

    Notwithstanding, on the basis of language and place names, an apparent and puzzling difference between ‘New’ and ‘Old’ Brits, it is surely worth restating the newly-established (via DNA) fact that all indigenous Brits throughout these islands even today share up to 80 per cent of their DNA, which proves that there was no physical wiping out of the native population by successive waves of invaders, however powerful their culture may have been.

    • I think that eighty per cent is a meaningless figure without qualification, for three reasons. Firstly, “indigenous” how far back? No-one’s indigenous, everyone has immigrant ancestors from somewhen. Secondly, what so often gets missed in appreciation of DNA studies, you’re looking at thousand and thousands of years of genetic build-up, from homo sapiens emerging into Europe whenever to now. This means that if you’re looking at a demographic event of a mere fifteen hundred years ago, that’s happening to a pool that’s already had something like twenty times that long to commingle, separate, blend and recombine beforehand. Of course it’s going to be broadly similar! The entire population of Britain could have been replaced and you’d probably still get that kind of figure because of the prehistory. And then, thirdly, this kind of thing can be measured very differently. So, I see your eighty per cent shared Britishness and raise you to 96 % commonality with chimpanzees. By this kind of arithmetic, therefore, humans have yet to arrive in the British Isles…

      • Jonathan is so right. All of Europe is one gene pool. The idea that an island as small as Britain contains 4 or 5 gene pools is just not feasible. Sure there are traces of many immigrant populations but you can’t segregate a gene pool. Added on top of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings and Normans, why isn’t anyone talking about the genetic contributions of the Roman empire with its soldiers drawn from all over the ancient world. Roman soldiers were making their contribution to the gene pool for 400 years. Consider how much gene flow occurred in the Roman empire from north Africa to Asia to the far reaches of northern Europe. Waves of immigrants from primarily Asia have been washing over Europe since before recorded history. We are all one species because of constant gene flow.

        • I contacted James F Wilson for comment on the above – his full reply included a paper on tracing genes within small rural communities but here is part: ‘There is very little signature of Roman input into Britain – otherwise we would find a lot of Mediterranean types here and we do not, while sometimes present they are generally very rare. And there are other explanations in many cases for their presence. Same goes for “Asian” DNA. Most Europeans are exactly that, 100% European. This is not to deny gene flow – of course some people moved about, but in the main most people stayed at home and that is what has created the richly patterned tapestry of genetic variation which we are trying to disentangle and understand today. If there had been a lot of movement, then all DNA types would be mixed up and found all over the place. That is patently not the case, hence undermining the apparent argument here.

          • On 15/04/2012 14:03, Elizabeth Roberts wrote:
            But there was a ‘sink’ – in other words an indigenous substrate of some aboriginal population?

            JFW replied: yes of course, at the roughest counting half of all British lineages were already present in Britain before 2000 years ago, and a much higher proportion in many parts of the west and north, some have been present since not long after the ice retreated about 10 kya

            • You’ve shifted your ground here: what has the long-term continuity of genetic material in the whole island got to do with what language the locals spoke in eleventh-century Strathclyde?

              • Not really: if a homogenous – in terms of DNA – settled population, like (say) the Welsh in North Wales is capable of both having their own native culture and language while adopting another (in Bryn Terfel’s case, English) for reasons of practicality, it doesn’t mean that they have become irretrievably ‘Anglicised’ which is what I understand you and Tim believe was the case for the Cumbrogi – the British – in Cumbria under Anglican rule

          • Tracing historic migrations via gene flow is a vague possibility (see my post here if you like, nothing to do with Britain however) but the longer-term your context is, the more genetic variation tends to correlate with geography. Again with the one-upmanship, sorry, but here’s an actual paper on it, A. Manica, F. Prugnolle, & F. Balloux, “Geography is a better determinant of human genetic differentiation than ethnicity” in Human Genetics Vol. 118 nos 3-4 (Berlin 2005), pp. 366-371, doi:10.1007/s00439-005-0039-3. Tl;dr: supposed ethnicity isn’t as significant in genetic variation as simple geograhical distance of populations. In Britain, the fact that the Danish and Anglo-Saxon genetic signatures are indistinguishable in modern DNA is a starting problem for doing work that might get round this in Britain, and now that there is work coming out suggesting that Frisia was Celtic-speaking in the early Roman period, we probably have to consider that the Channel was no barrier to mixture for much longer than just the ‘invasion’ periods. The Spanish study I wrote about at mine has some hope, because they have a clear lack of diversity in their signatures that suggests a recent event, and a well-attested event with which to link it. But in Britain we have neither of these advantages, and you’re asking for evidence that might spot or disprove a two-century blip in a region’s culture… Well, sorry, I don’t think it’s possible. And in any case, as has been pointed out by cannier scholars than me, getting even at historic DNA and being able to assign it to a recognised pool of signatures and haplotypes and so on is all very well, but can tell you nothing at all about what the person in question thought their ethnicity was.

  18. Tim says:

    Bereft of any scientific genes I’m a fish out of water with all this DNA stuff but the final sentence of Jonathan’s comment brings me slithering back into the pond. I agree with what Jonathan says about an individual’s ethnic affiliation. Genetic history is not the same as cultural history, for which I would look at what languages were spoken in a particular area over time. My view of North Cumbria (the erstwhile county of Cumberland) is not dependent on the results of DNA research. I believe that a detailed analysis of the area’s Brittonic toponyms would support what the historical sources already suggest, namely that the population was thoroughly Anglicised between c.700 and c.900 with scant survival of indigenous ‘Britishness’ (i.e. native, pre-Anglian cultural traits).

    • Tim, you said on April 4 ‘… why would indigenous Brittonic-speaking communities give newly-coined Brittonic toponyms to places named by their ancestors?’. As it happens I am at present making my way up the coast of Norway. The Norwegians have changed the name of both their former capital cities in living memory: to Oslo from Christiansen and to Trondheim from Nedaros. Why they did I do not know, but the fact is they did.

      • Capitals is one thing – cue the joke about the Russian census form in which a man was asked where he was born, where he went to school, where he lives now and where he would like to live and answers, “St Petersburg”, “Petrograd”, “Leningrad” and “St Petersburg” respectively – but we’re talking tiny, rural places, the grass roots.

        Norway of course has a good instance of real genetic distinctiveness going on in its separation between the Saami and, well, everybody else. That’s a lot more marked than anything in Britain, but even then, just in terms of proportions of the haplogroups most of Europe shares.

        • On the issue of a culture deciding to change place names over time, and whether the size of the places is relevant: there is another old joke, the Punch cartoon where the householder asks an employee if it is true she has given birth to a child, to which the housemaid replies:’ It was only a little one, Ma’am’

  19. David Hillman says:

    Molecular genetics is not a way of tracing the majority of a populations ancestors because, amonst other logical mistakes, it bases its arguments not on a whole genetic mosaic but on one convenient line: male to male to male.. or female to female to female…
    suppose for example that in any generation most of your ancestors were indigenous but one out of sixteen of every individuals gg grandparents were immigrants (pretty typical for many family trees). Then the majority of your ancestors as far back as you could go would be indigenous but the probability of any particular line being so would tend to zero. You would have to multiply by 15/16 for every generation. Of course it would be more complicated than that (different probabilities for peasants and aristocrats, male and female lines etc).
    And you can’t claim anything special for the male to male line because few lines go more than 5 or 6 generations without a none paternal event.
    The probability is that if you have a distant ancestor from these islands it is probably through a n immigrant from these islands whose descendant later returned.
    Am I wrong in my maths or my logic? No-one else ever seems to have twigged this which makes me doubt myself!

    • Your maths and your logic may be right, but won’t help the present debate, which I think is about whether population DNA is ever a useful tool to the historian or archaeologist?

  20. Tim says:

    I think David is making the point that historical/locational inferences drawn from the DNA of a particular ancestral line are flawed because we don’t even know which line of descent we’re following when we go back beyond our family’s documented generations. To me this seems relevant to the broad topic being discussed in this thread but, like I said before, I’m no scientist and I don’t have much to add. All I can say at the moment in response to Liz is that I don’t envisage using DNA studies in my own historical research.

  21. I followed the vapour trail of an ancestor, William Fletcher, Lord of Moresby Hall (c. 17th C) to the Bears of Dacre and descriptions included in the “Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmoreland Antiquarian & Archeological Society”, which I suppose have been transcribed into the guide/tourist books.

    The Bears at Dacre. By the Worshipful Chancellor Ferguson, F.S.A., President of the So-
    ciety. Read at Appleby, July 3rd, 1890.

    BISHOP Nicolson writing of Dacre in Cumberland, which place he visited on Feb. 26, 1704, says

    Let us now see what the four beasts or bears in Dacre churchyard really are : previous writers have not always seen the figures about which they have written. A careful examination of the figures in company with Mr. Whitehead and the vicar of Dacre has convinced me that they tell a
    consecutive and amusing story. The animal, in each case is a bear, sitting upright on its hind quarters and grasping a short pillar between its four paws. Bear undoubtedly the beast is, though the artist has given him a long tail with a tuft at the end like a lion, and also a good deal of

    No. I, at the N.W. corner. — The bear is asleep with his head on the top of a pillar, snugged in between his paws so as to be almost concealed : in fact this figure is often supposed to be headless, but it is not so : the head is turned to the bear’s right and doubled down on or between
    his paws. The long tail is not visible : the bear sits upon it.

    No. 2, at the S.W. corner. — An animal, about the size of a small cat, has sprung upon the bear’s back and is clinging on his left shoulder. The astonished bear has has awoke and lifted up his head, which is turned to one side in attitude of surprise. His long tail comes out beween his thigh and body and curls up the pillar.*

    No. 3, at the S.E. corner — a most vigorous composition. The bear now fully aroused, takes active measures : his right forepaw is reflexed over his right shoulder, and clutches the little beast, which is painfully elongated, just above where its tail joins on to the small of its back. The bear’s head is turned to his left, and masses of dishevelled mane hang to that side. The tail is invisible, underneath the bear.

    No. 4, N.E. corner — repose. — The little beast has disappeared down the throat of the bear, who rests his chin on the top of his pillar, while his face presents every sign of intense gratification : his mane has been carefully combed, and his tail curls up between his thigh and belly round his back.

    This is the link, scroll about 50% down the page,

  22. Just a random musing here: This pillars do sound more like lions than bears, and perhaps if the little animal is a lion cub, then this set of figures could hearken back to the Roman myth of Saturn (syncretized from the Greek Cronus) devouring his children.

    A more modern quip comes to mind: I love children but I couldn’t eat a whole one!

    Then again, they could have no symbolism at all, and simply be expressions of the dry and wry humour of northern folk. Follies from a long-ago stonemason.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for your comments on the bears, and for posting the piece by Ferguson. You’re right about the guidebooks picking up Ferguson’s interpretation. I agree that lions seem a more likely description than bears. Also, I think the humour/folly idea is definitely worth bringing into the mix.

  23. […] I made a stub of it many moons ago. I wanted, having read some thought-provoking scholarship and some argument-provoking blog comments, to write something trenchant about how what the people who seek to identify themselves with the […]

  24. faith sax says:

    I was told that my ancestors crossed from Ireland to Cockermouth in the 900s. Would this have been part of a larger migration and what may have been the reasons for this? Faith Fearon

    • Tim says:

      My first guess, Faith, would be that they arrived as part of the ‘Hiberno-Norse’ colonisation of (what is now) West Cumbria in the Viking period. This is the only historically attested migration I am aware of in the 900s. Place-names like Aspatria are usually attributed to these settlers, who were Gaelic-speaking ‘Vikings’ from parts of Ireland under Scandinavian control.

      • faith sax says:

        Tim, thank you so much. Apologies for interupting your conversation. I am internet and social media illiterate and hardly knew what I was doing, and still don’t. I suppose I will now have to find out whether the fearon name has viking or irish roots. Faith

        • Tim says:

          No worries about pitching in, Faith. Nearly every comment thread here wanders off the main topic at some point – it gives a nice organic feel to the blog 🙂

          Out of curiosity I did a quick search of the surname. The English Fearons apparently take their name from a Norman word for ironworker, but the Irish branch seems to originate in County Donegal where it was known before AD 1100. One of its Gaelic forms, perhaps the most common, is O Farachain. I’m no Gaelic expert but it looks to me as if the original meaning might be ‘descendants of Farachan’.

          • faith sax says:

            I also found the name O Fearain in county Armagh. All I know about these ancestors is that they crossed over from Ireland to Cockermouth in the 900s – were or became statesmen – got up a party of horsemen and went to to help William of Orange. You are my first blog experience, it is fascinating and interesting to follow, thanks.Faith

  25. […] Dacore, HE iv.32) to see the cross monuments there as well as “bear” hogbacks (thanks, Senchus, for this […]

  26. […] Clarkson at Senchus has already written a much more complete site analysis of Dacre than I attempted in my brief visit.  I focused on the “bears,” although they could be […]

  27. Steve says:

    The monastery at Dacre Stretches back to around the year 500 according to the most recent excavations , Most of the Monastic site is Situated in the Field slightly upslope from the present Church yard . The four Bears are not actually Central to the existing Church which has both Norman and Saxon Origin suggesting the Bears predate this Building . I think these Bears depict the life of Arthur , content (Eating a salmon) then wrangling with a Lion (Saxons) and finally at peace after the Saxon Lion is vanquished .
    Later Interpretations have Arthur resting at a Monastery somewhere ,(i will have to check my notes) but what with the proximity of Arthurs round table and Arthurs Pike at Ullswater and BlenkArthure being the nearest decent sized peak to the NW where folklore has it Arthurs men lie waiting for his return .The presence of very Ancient Yews symbolise high status.

    • Steve says:

      This is maybe the most sacred place on the entire planet.

      • Tim says:

        I’ve been on Blencathra a few times but didn’t know about the Arthurian folklore – which is interesting (even to a devout Arthursceptic such as myself).

        I suspect the form Blenk-Arthur is quite old, probably much older than its (earliest?) occurrence c.1700. Blencathra looks like an ancient form of the name but probably isn’t much older than William Wordsworth’s time. Current thinking among place-name experts suggests that the original name was Cumbric blaen (‘bare hilltop’) and a word similar to Welsh cadair (‘chair’), with a meaning like ‘Chair-shaped hilltop’ which kind of fits with the English name ‘Saddleback’.

        Dacre is certainly an interesting place and quite possibly a pre-Saxon monastic site. The mysterious bears really add to the aura.

        • Steve says:

          Its also been known as Arthurs Saddle in living memory.
          I grew up overlooking it .

          • Tim says:

            It’s an awesome place and it totally dominates the landscape. I must grab a copy of Ronald Turnbull’s book Blencathra: portrait of a mountain.

  28. Tim says:

    Just noticed the comments count for this blogpost: 75, which is more than I expected. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the discussion. I usually close threads when they hit 70+ comments, so I’ll draw a line under this one sometime today.

Comments are closed.