folklore, Monstrous May

Dragons and Dragon Folklore in the North Country (#MonstrousMay Day 7)

Prompts & Graphic Credit: Johannes T. Evans

North of England

I’ll kick off with a historical source, just for fun.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions dragons as bad omens, not doing anything except being pretty ominous, and the British Library has a copy dating from 1020. (Not the original – this copy was produced in Worcester). I’ve reproduced their intro to this text here:

“This national chronicle, or annual record of events, was originally compiled around 890 during the reign of King Alfred the Great. It was the first attempt to give a systematic year-by-year account of English history, and it was later maintained, and added to, by generations of anonymous scribes until the middle of the 1100s. This version is an 11th-century copy, probably made in Worcester.”

http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126532.html – click on the link to go to the page and view the A-Sx Chronicle pages and transcription.

It mentions dragons of the flying kind in its account of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne, Northumbria:

Year 793.
Here were dreadful forewarnings come over the land of Northumbria, and woefully terrified the people: these were amazing sheets of lightning and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. A great famine soon followed these signs, and shortly after in the same year, on the sixth day before the ides of January, the woeful inroads of heathen men destroyed god’s church in Lindisfarne island by fierce robbery and slaughter. And Sicga died on the eighth day before the calends of March.

Dragons or wyrms pop up all over England, especially in the north, and they tend to be more serpent like in appearance and often live in water sources like lakes or rivers. In West Sussex specifically, they are called Knuckers.

Let’s take a few stories from around the country. Not exhaustive, just a sample.


Northumbria

  1. The Dragon of Longwitton, eventually slain by a knight (sometimes credited as Sir Guy, Earl of Warwick)
  2. The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh, which was a ballad in the north of England in its earliest form? Anyway, if you do find a dragon in the north country, try giving it a kiss. What’s the worst that could happen.
  3. The Lambton Worm – hailed in song and story, defeated by Sir John Lambton after he accidentally inflicted it on the local populace in the first place. Who knows what youthful mistakes will come back to severely bite you in the arse later.
  4. The Sockburn Worm – a ferocious creature slain by Sir John Conyers.

Yorkshire

  1. The Dragon of Loschy Hill, or, the Nunnington dragon, slain by Sir Peter Loschy
  2. The Serpent of Handale, which breathed fire and had a poisonous sting, vanquished by a young lad called Scaw, apparently from the Norse word/name Skagi.
  3. The Filey Brigg dragon – slain by Ralph Parkin, known to his friends as Billy Biter, and whose skeleton jutted out to sea and became known as Filey Brigg.

More about Yorkshire dragons on the Loreman podcast, S3E96.


Cumbria & Lancashire

  1. The Renwick Cockatrice (which is also called the Renwick dragon or the Renwick wyvern in some places). There’s a fun video about this here. It was killed by John Tallantire with a branch from a Rowan tree. [Cumbria]
  2. Dragley Beck dragon – the village of Dragley Beck allegedly takes its name from the dragon that sleeps beneath it. [Cumbria]
  3. The Unsworth dragon which apparently Thomas Unsworth tried (unsuccessfully) to shoot, but did kill in the end [Lancashire]
  4. The Hawes Tarn serpent, which may have had unfinished business with the Conyers family considering one of them was a wyrm-killer in Northumbrian legend [Lancashire]

Wondering if Cumbria has many dragons/wyrms? It doesn’t look like they have as many as Northumbria or Yorkshire, which have a far stronger Norse influence. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that Cumbria/Cumberland was inhabited by Brythonic-speakers (hence the name, derived from same root as Cymru, the Welsh name for Wales). While dragons play a heavily symbolic role in Welsh legends, they don’t tend to appear in the flesh to be vanquished or blamed for plague and livestock deaths. So you have noble families called Pendragon [Pen = leader, head], for example, but the dragon part is a statement of political power, and not a literal beast. Interesting. I just couldn’t find very many instances, but I didn’t look very hard! Might just be that I’m looking in the wrong places!


Scotland and the Islands

Again, Gaelic-speaking places don’t tend to have the ‘warrior slays beast, saves region’ type of dragon legends, but those places impacted heavily by Viking raids and settlements do, as well as the Scottish borders where Norman lords were concentrated. Scottish folklore also doesn’t have the winged, fire-breathing type of dragons you find in other places: they are much more serpent-like and water-affiliated.

One of the most famous examples is the Mester Stoor Worm of the Orkney Isles, who was slain by Assipattle, a farmboy and the youngest of seven sons.

There is a venomous serpent creature, much like a dragon, that appears in Scottish folklore, called a Beithir. It’s usually associated with water, but it’s etymology is not so clear-cut that it was originally a dragon-like thing. A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford Reference) defines the beithir etymologically as:

[ScG, bear, serpent, wild beast; dragon (?)]. A word in early Scottish Gaelic narratives for an undetermined savage creature. It may be a translation of the Norse word for ‘bear’, but it may also mean ‘thunderbolt’. The beithir may have a long tail, but it never appears to be the fiery winged dragon of Germanic tradition. In more recent oral tradition the beithir is a class of fuath who haunts caves and corries (narrow circular valleys with high walls). It may also imply ‘lightning’ or ‘serpent’. A mountain south of the entrance to Glencoe is named Ben Vair or Ben Vehir, thought locally to commemorate a beithir who took shelter in Corrie Lia.

A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford Reference) https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095456325

You’ll notice that a LOT of the Northern dragons are similar to the water-associated serpent and are ‘wyrms’ rather than the big, flying, fire-breathing dragons you get in other places, with a few exceptions that seem to be Norman/Norse associated.

In the next part, we’ll zoom down to the Midlands and East Anglia to see what examples there are from there. If you’re enjoying today’s mini-series of posts, please tip me on Ko-Fi!

1 thought on “Dragons and Dragon Folklore in the North Country (#MonstrousMay Day 7)”

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