Here be dragons

A huge reptilian beast devouring livestock and men, while laying waste the countryside with its fiery breath: no wonder the dragon has captured the imagination for centuries.


It’s no surprise that the patron saint of England is St George. If a wealth of old folk tales are to be believed, England (and Wales and Scotland for that matter) was once overrun with monstrous reptiles and in real need of a dragon-slayer. Although George was an Armenian saint and never set foot on British soil, there are several places claimed as the site where he slew his dragon, including the village of St George in North Wales and Dragon Hill, the strange, flat-topped lump below the Uffington White Horse (or is it a dragon?) in Berkshire.

Dragon-lore is a fertile subject to explore. There is the origin of the dragon to consider. Did the discovery of fossil dinosaurs in ancient times give rise to a myth? Or do they represent surviving race memory of some gigantic reptilian species now long extinct? Then there are the cultural crossovers. Dragons of one kind or another feature in folk belief the world over. But why are they invariably savage, deadly creatures in British folklore but considered benign bringers of good luck in the Far East? And what is the connection between the ‘dragon lines’ of Japan and the ley lines of the British Isles, along several of which dragons are said to fly?

There are lots of great dragon stories from Britain. Wales, of course, has a red dragon, the Ddraig Goch, on its national flag. As late as the 17th century, dragons were reported to have arrived in parts of England, frightening the local country folk. The most recent was in a chapbook of 1669, referring to a winged serpent nine feet long and ‘as thick as a man’s leg’ at Henham in Essex. I will focus on some of the more interesting dragon legends from Britain in future articles but, for now, I thought it might be interesting to list a few of the UK’s most voracious dragons:

1) Aller, Somerset: A flying serpent poisoned everything it flew over with its venomous breath;
2) Bamburgh, Northumberland: The Laidley Worm ‘laid waste to the country for miles around’;
3) Bisterne, Hampshire: ‘A particularly dreadful dragon’;
4) Bures, Suffolk: A dragon which appeared in 1405 ate a shepherd and then his sheep;
5) Cardiff: A dragon sucked down swimmers in the River Taff and feasted on them;
6) Cornwall: At an unspecified location, a huge snake ‘which tore men and cattle to pieces’;
7) Deerhurst, Gloucestershire: A serpent ‘of prodigious bigness’ fed on cattle and poisoned people with its breath;
8 ) Dundee, Forfarshire: A dragon here devoured nine maidens;
9) Horsham, Sussex: A fearsome dragon was slain here by St Leonard in the 6th century, but it turned up again in 1614;
10) Lambton, Durham: The colossal Lambton Worm was the terror of the countryside but also liked drinking milk;
11) Moston, Cheshire: A dragon here was overly fond of eating children;
12) Nunnington, Yorkshire: A dragon with ‘teeth like pitchforks and a venomous tongue’;
13) Orkney: The Stoor Worm would sweep entire villages into the sea with his forked tongue and crush ships so he could devour the sailors;
14) Severn Estuary: A vicious dragon living in the river’s mouth defeated even King Arthur and his Knights;
15) Taunton, Devon: A dragon which ‘caused great damage and loss of life’.

[Sources: ‘British Dragons' by Jacqueline Simpson, (1980); ‘Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain' (Reader's Digest, 1973)]

© Richard Holland 2008 / The illustration, by Brock, 1893, shows the Lambton Worm about to be dispatched by a knight in spiky armour.

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