Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Dacre Beasts

The Dacre Beasts are relative newcomers to my personal cultural horizon (read: I’ve only recently encountered them). They are believed to have been crafted between 1509 and 1547, during the reign of Henry VIII, probably for Thomas, Lord Dacre (1467-1525) or his son William, 3rd Baron Dacre (1493-1563). Interestingly, all four figures are believed to have been carved from a single oak tree. These, apparently, unique survivors of English heraldic woodwork were installed in the great hall at Naworth Castle in Cumbria, where they remained until purchased by the V&A in 2000 (in lieu of inheritance tax). The castle was ravaged by fire in 1844 and although the beasts survived unscathed, they were repainted soon after, possibly following the original colour scheme. The banners were added around 1849.

The beasts (each nearly 6ft tall) are intended to represent heraldic supporters of the Dacres and other families related to them through marriage. The beasts may be identified as follows:

The red bull was the heraldic supporter of Thomas, Lord Dacre
The crowned salmon represents Elizabeth de Greystoke (eloped with Dacre in 1488)
The black gryphon signifies Thomas’ ancestor Ralph or Ranulph de Dacres, who built Naworth in 1335
The white ram (even if it does look like a freshly-skinned calf) may be identified with Ranulph's wife, Margaret de Multon

These are simply beautiful pieces, made all the more striking by their rarity. However, my lasting impression of these carvings is that the craftsperson responsible for their creation was a little too fascinated with penises and testicles. I suppose it’s a consequence of attempting to retain some degree of naturalism while standing a quadraped on its hind legs that there will, invariably, be genitalia on display. Although Thomas Dacre’s red bull may be in with a chance of a prize in the ‘largest knackers (asymmetrical) in medieval carving’ category, the black gryphon’s very 3D member and testes is not only slightly unnecessary, but in a whole league of its own.

On the off-chance that archaeological blogs such as this are occasionally perused by those with an interest in statistics, I’ll note that is believed that Francis Galton came up with the concept of correlation at Naworth Castle. Of course, Galton is less heralded for his interest in eugenics. He is noted for actually inventing the term ‘eugenics’ itself as well as coining the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’.

Having obviously spent too long thinking about his red bull, I suddenly can't get the phrase ‘Lord Dacre gives you wiiiiings’ out of my head. You're welcome.

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