folklore, Monstrous May

Dragons and Dragon Folklore in South East England and the West Country (#MonstrousMay Day 7)

Prompts and Graphic Credit: Johannes T. Evans

This is PART 4 of today’s mini-series of dragon posts!

PART 1: Wales and the Welsh Borders
PART 2: The North Country (including Scotland and the Islands)
PART 3: The Midlands and East Anglia

Here we go with London, the South East, and the West Country! This is the final part, as I’m all dragon’d out.


London

London gets left out because it’s its own thing, but dragons rarely trouble London. They are, in fact, guarding the city, and here’s a map of them all!


The South East

Map showing what counties constitute “the South East”
  1. Dragon Hill: the St George legend has been adapted to take the saint out of his native Turkey and have him rock up in the village of Uffington, where he kills his famous dragon. Here’s more on the nearby White Horse!
  2. The Essex Serpent : Yes, this has inspired a novel, and is based on the sightings of a flying serpent who reportedly troubled the people of Henham and Saffron Walden.

    Alison Barnes, a freelance writer and broadcaster, is sure that this was a hoax perpetrated by the ingenious William Winstanley and his nephew Henry in 1668 by constructing it out of wood and fabric, and then wrote a pamphlet in 1669 with 7 close friends of his all swearing to the veracity of the sightings.
  3. The New Forest, Hampshire has dragon stories all around the fringes of it, including the Bisterne dragon, slain by Sir Maurice Berkeley in the 15thC, who covered his armour with bird lime and broken glass to do battle with the beast (reminscent of Sir John Lambton’s spiked armour with which he defeated the Lambton worm). This story plays more with the idea of the dragon as connected to the Devil, and a creature possessed by evil.

    It is said in some versions of the tale that Sir Maurice was haunted by nightmares and driven mad after killing it, so that he went back to the spot where the battle between them took place, laid down, and died there.

    Other villages on the south-western fringe have dragon stories too: Michael O’Leary’s book, Folktales of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, lists the villages of Sway, Durns Town, Birchy Hill, Golden Hill, Ashley, Bashley, Tiptoe and Hordle. There are smugglers’ tunnels through some of these villages, so it’s possible that the dragon stories were to keep inquisitive people away while the smugglers did their work!
  4. West Sussex is absolutely riddled with their own brand of creature: knuckers, from OE nicor, meaning serpent. They live – guess where? In pools of water… and in West Sussex, ‘knucker holes’ have other kinds of lore attached to them too, like they’re bottomless, or go down to the ends of the earth…

    You can read about Sussex and its dragon lore here.

    You’ll find stories like the Lyminster Dragon, the dragon of Bignor Hill, the serpent of St Leonard’s Forest, and the knuckers of Sompting and Binsted. For some reason there’s a real concentration of stories in this part of the county – west, not east.

    What I kind of love about the Sussex stories is that knights don’t kill the knuckers, the locals do it themselves with things like poisoned pies. I’d love to do a map of all the knights vs the local peasantry/lower gentry farmers who just get on with it, and see what the spread of tales are and which are most popular in what counties. One day.

West Country

Counties of the West Country
The West Country

I covered Gloucestershire in the Welsh Borders post (PART 1), I think, but I can always circle back and add things in if I missed it out!

Note that Cornwall is another Brythonic-speaking region, and you can find out more about the Cornish language here. There is definitely a Beast of Bodmin, but it’s not a dragon! There are far less dragons in Cornwall than in other areas: this post posits a few suggestions why.

Let’s start with Somerset, because the dragon was the symbol of Wessex (the West Saxons) and it’s all over the place in this county. Somerset Dragons is a book by Brian Wright (2002) which takes a look at the iconography and its usage in the county; the Somerset Dragons is the name of the county futsal team, and the dragon was adopted by the Somerset county council as its emblem in 1906, but officially registered in 1911.

Unsurprisingly there are tons of stories to go with the emblem. There is a great post with more info on Somerset and its dragons listing 10 such tales here, reproduced below:

  1. The Dragon of Aller – not a wyrm, but a flying fire-breather, vanquished by John of Aller. In some versions he is burned to a crisp and in others he survives to discover a brood of hatchlings in the cave which he then blocks up.
  2. Norton Fitzwarren: a dragon lived on the Iron Age hillfort and was killed by Sir Fulk Fitz Warin (see also: PART 1, WALES AND THE WELSH BORDERS: several Marcher Lords also had lands in the West Country, which I touched on in my thesis, Family Power and Strategy in the Welsh March).
  3. Carhampton: St Carantoc, a Welsh missionary to the Saxons, defeated a dragon which lived on the marshes – this is part of an Arthurian legend about St Carantoc’s life.
  4. Bicknoller: there is a legend that a dying dragon will try and reach the sea, which is why there is a Dragon’s Cross at Bilbrook.
  5. Shervage Wood: the Gurt Wurm or Great Worm was cut in half by a woodman from Stogumber.  One part ran to Bilbrook and the other to Kingston St Mary.
  6. Kingston St Mary: a dragon lived nearby and breathed out flames, which it used to cook its animal and human victims.  A villager rolled a large stone down a hill into its mouth and killed it.
  7. Churchstanton: a dragon was slain by a knight – this one is mentioned in Jacqueline Simpson’s article, ’50 British Dragon Tales: An Analysis’, Folklore, Vol. 89, No. 1, (1978).
  8. Castle Neroche: a dragon stole treasure from passing travellers but it was eventually drowned by local villagers. Here also be Fae.
  9. Dulcote: a dragon with the face of a woman was terrorising the area.  It was slain with a sacred sword from Glastonbury by Bishop Jocelyn of Wells. To this day, the battle is re-enacted every 50 years by the villagers as if they forget to do this, it will come back to life and pick up where it left off.
  10. Kilve: a dragon called Blue Ben went into the sea to cool off but got stuck in the mud and drowned when the tide came in. This is probably the fossilised skeleton of an ichthyosaur, known as ‘sea-dragons’, which have been found around England and might account for some of the dragon tales!

The dragons and wyverns of Dorset are listed in this post.

That’s a lot of dragons! If you’ve appreciated the tiny sample of dragon stories from around the British Isles (missing out Ireland and the islands and archipelagos, sorry), you can leave me a tip on Ko-Fi if you’d like to!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s