The older part of the churchyard at Dacre has four stone figures at each corner whose origins and meaning are a mystery. They are known as the Dacre bears, although the tail and mane on some of them suggests the figure of a lion.
The first written mention of the bears was in 1704 when Bishop Nicholson likened them to the Bear and Ragged Staff which is the heraldic emblem of the Earls of Warwick. The figures are clutching a pillar, but the Warwick’s symbol was not adopted until the 15th century and these stone carvings pre-date this. Another theory was put forward in 1890 by Ferguson who suggested that the bears are comical and that close examination shows they depict a story. At some point in the past, they would have been sited on top of the church tower or perhaps the castle or other building. He proposed that the bears, sitting on their hind quarters, tell the following story:
NW Corner – At first the bear is asleep with its head on top of a pillar. Although it looks as though the head is missing, it is merely tucked between its front paws.
SW Corner – An animal, possibly feline, has sprung onto the bear’s back. The bear has awoken and lifted its head in surprise.
SE Corner – The bear in now alert and has lifted its right paw to clutch the animal, just above where the bear’s tail joins its back. The bear’s head is turned to the left.
NE Corner - The bear is now in repose. It has swallowed the creature and, satisfied, rests its face on the pillar.
This could be seen as an allegory for good overcoming evil.
The story is appealing, but has not been confirmed. The mane and long tale are confusing and suggest that the figures might have been intended to depict lions. A recent archaeological opinion is that the “bears” are pre-Saxon in age and may mark the boundaries of a pagan site of worship that pre-dated the monastery on the site.
Worshipful Chancellor Ferguson FSA, “The Bears of Dacre”, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (1891) Series 1, Vol 11, p 323
The Church of St Andrew, Dacre, Booklet produced by Dacre Church (2008)