folklore, Monstrous May

Dragons and Dragon Folklore in the Midlands and East Anglia (#MonstrousMay Day 7)

Prompts & Graphic Credit: Johannes T. Evans

The Midlands

The counties of the Midlands: Shropshire and Herefordshire were discussed in the post on Wales and the Welsh Borders.
Dark red shows where the Midlands are in England
  1. Guy of Warwick, a questing dragon hunter, features in a medieval romance. Travelled up north to kill a dragon in Northumbria, apparently (see the previous post on the North of England & Scotland!)
  2. If you’re thinking about the Leicestershire wyvern, who pops up in city architecture in Leicester, that one’s a red herring. It’s in relation to the heraldic wyvern on Thomas of Lancaster’s arms (b. 1278).
  3. Drakelow, Worcestershire gets its name from the Anglicised form of the Latin draco (drake), which implies that at one time there was a dragon legend attached to the area??
  4. Winlatter rock, near Chesterfield in Derbyshire: a priest banished a dragon here with such force it left footprints in the rock and retired to the Blue John mines. You can also read about Sir Guy of Warwick, dragon hunter, saving the good people of Chesterfield from a bewitched, rampaging cow in Pete Castle’s book, Derbyshire Folk Tales (2011).

Honestly, not really finding a lot of dragon folklore in the Midlands (the Midlands are the batch of English counties in the middle of the country, divided into East and West, and roughly corresponding to where the old kingdom of Mercia was). Again, there’s probably a lot, but that’s a small sample of just the ones I found from a few of the counties.

I’m thinking that Mercia probably didn’t have too many dragon stories that survived, but in the Middle Ages you do have Sir Guy of Warwick mythologised as an itinerant dragon-killer. I don’t know whether this is because these areas were relatively stable in terms of political and economic power, and so the dragon tales lost their relevance and faded away into the landscape, leaving only place names behind.

Dragons also tend to live in bodies of water and in marshes and fens, or caves. Nottinghamshire is absolutely riddled with caves but has few dragon myths. This is probably because those caves were used by the inhabitants themselves as dwellings, so there was no room for a dragon in there as well. The Sneinton Dragon is an impressive street art sculpture by Nottingham-born artist Robert Stubley, but it depicts a dragon because that’s what the public wanted after consultation, not because it references a specific local legend.

Again I could be wrong and the Midlands might be brimming with local dragon legends I can’t find after a cursory search!

I looked up place-names with “drake” in them suggest that at one time there must have been a wider pool of dragon stories attached to the region (Source: Survey of English Place-Names, a county-by-county guide to the linguistic origins of England’s place-names – a project of the English Place-Name Society, founded 1923). Yet, even spread across these counties there are not very many results, and some relate to the family whose surname was Drake, not to a local dragon legend.

Derbyshire – 12 place-names

Leicestershire – 3 place-names

Nottinghamshire – 1 place-name

Rutland – 1 place-name

Shropshire – 9 place-names (covered in Wales and the Welsh borders post)

Staffordshire – 2 place-names

Warwickshire – 1 place-name

Worcestershire – 1 place-name

East Anglia

Modern indication of what “East Anglia” refers to: the ancient Kingdom of East Anglia was more Norfolk and Suffolk.

Suffolk has a few dragon stories including one St George legend variant!

  1. The Bures dragon, slain in 1405 by Sir Richard Waldegrave. It has its very own chalk memorial! The dragon’s hide was arrow-resistant (oh no!) but it also didn’t really like being shot at, so it decided to leave the sheep alone and go after less well-armed prey and slunk off into the marsh. Note that the (modern) chalk art is pretty much a copy of the Red Dragon of Wales (just facing the other way). It was created in 2012 for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

    The story appears in Henry de Blaneford’s Chronicle for 1405: ‘In these days there appeared lately an evil dragon of excessive length with a huge body, crested head, saw-like teeth and elongated tail in land near the town of Bures near Sudbury, which destroyed and killed a herd of sheep. The servants of Sir Richard Waldegrave who owns the land haunted by the dragon came forth to shoot it with arrows which sprang back from its ribs as if they were metal of hard stone and from the spines if its back with a jangling as if they were hitting bronze plates, and flew far away because its skin was impenetrable. Almost the whole county was summoned to slaughter it but when it saw that it was to be shot at again, it fled into the marsh, hid in the reeds and was seen no more.’

    … This is interesting because of the Wormingford dragon, which wasn’t far away from Bures, also reported in the 15thC.
  2. The Wormingford dragon, slain in the fifteenth century by EITHER Sir Bertram de Haye OR Sir George Marney, and caused the village to change its name to Wormingford, after the death of this great worm. This has a basis in truth: sources suggest it was actually an escaped crocodile from Richard I’s menagerie. Like THE HATCHING (2014), a British horror-comedy creature feature set in Somerset.

    Are these two dragons actually the same crocodile, or more than one of them??
  3. Little Cornard dragons – There is a legend that on 26 September 1449 a fight between two dragons took place on a meadow by the River Stour. One dragon was black and came from Kedington Hill, Suffolk, the other was red and came from Ballingdon Hill, Essex. After an hour’s fighting the red dragon won, and both went back to their hills. The site of the mythical battle is known locally as Sharpfight Meadow.

    The parallel between this story and the Red Dragon of Wales is really striking, especially with the colour of its opponent changing from white to black. What’s also striking is that the local dragon was black and lost, while the red dragon was from the neighbouring county, and won.

    Not sure what this is about, but the parallels with the Red Dragon and White Dragon are striking, and I’m wondering if this has any symbolic political resonance.
  4. The Ludham Dragon, Norfolk – a monstrous creature that lurked in a subterranean labyrinth! Another version of the tale is here. This is potentially based on another menagerie escapee, as the Norfolk Chronicle has this report for September 28 1782:

    ‘On Monday the 16th, a snake of enormous size was destroyed at Ludham in this county by Jasper Andrews, of that place. It measured five feet eight inches long, was almost three feet in circumference, and had a very long snout: what was remarkable, there were two excrescences on the forepart of the head which very much resembled horns. ‘This creature seldom made its appearance in the daytime but kept concealed in subterranean retreats, several of which have been discovered in town: one near the tanning office, another in the premises of the Rev Mr Jeffery, and another in the lands occupied by Mr William Popple, at the hall. The skin of the above surprising reptile is now in the possession of Mr J(James) Garrett, a wealthy farmer in the neighbourhood.’

I can’t find too many more tales of dragons in this part of the world, and these are the most ‘famous’ ones, I guess!

Jaqueline Simpson’s book, British Dragons, has loads more info. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive post, more a whistle-stop tour! If you’re appreciating today’s mini-series, please leave me a tip if you can.

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