MARK DAVIES treats us to another investigation of monstrous goings-on in Sussex, this time focusing on the dragons of St Leonard’s Forest.
Whilst researching the Dragons of the South of England, one particular location immediately stood out for me – St Leonard’s Forest to the east of Horsham in Sussex.
What made this site really interesting was that it had not just one, but two dragons associated with it, albeit 1,000 years apart. What’s more, there are even contemporary reports today, some 1400 years after the first report, although it is unclear if these have been influenced by what has gone on before.
The first dragon occurs in the 6th Century and, as a result, was responsible for giving this area of the Weald it’s name. Aethelweard’s translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from 975A.D. refers to St Leonard, a hermit from France, who lived at a hermitage deep in the forest. Sadly, no trace of the hermitage exists today.
One day, whist he was carrying out his daily duties, St Leonard was set upon by a dragon. Despite being seriously wounded in the initial attack, St Leonard fought off the dragon and eventually slew it after long and bloody encounter. It is said that, where his blood fell, white lilies grew and today this area of the forest is still known as ‘the Lily Beds’.
Asked what he wanted as a reward for killing the dragon, St Leonard requested that snakes be banished from the forest and that the nightingales, that constantly disturbed the Saint’s prayers with their singing, would be silent. An alternative version of the story has the Saint request that snakes be made deaf, although the reason why is never explained. The legend is supported by a Dr Andrew Borde who, in the 16th Century, wrote that the nightingales didn’t sing in the forest because they “disturbed the devotions of a forest hermit”. However, today the nightingales appear to have regained their voice and the snakes have returned to the forest.
We encounter the second dragon in 1614, when a pamphlet was produced describing the horrific actions of a dragon over nine feet in length, that was terrorising the people of the forest and the surrounding area. Unlike most dragon stories however, there appears to be no happy ending here and the creature appears to have been left to its own devices.
Some think this was a typical example of a story circulated by a local smuggling gang to persuade people to avoid the area but, even today, there are contemporary reports of an unknown creature that lives out its life in the branches of the trees and rarely, if ever at all, visits the forest floor.
The dragons of St Leonard’s Forest stand out in British folklore and with current accounts of monsters in the woods, the Forest is surely the premier UK location for the modern-day Dragon hunter.