Serpents and dragons in British folklore

It is perhaps unsurprising that Britain can lay claim to a number of ‘worm’ or ‘dragon’ legends, given its lands have been settled at various times by peoples to whom the imagery of such creatures has had deep symbolic meaning, not only to the Britons, Gauls and Irish of the Bronze and Iron Ages, but also of the ‘Romanised’ continentals and Germanic peoples who mixed with them, reinforcing and modifying the indigenous ideas of that locality. Through further contact with the East via Byzantium and the Crusades, new style and detail became added to indigenous stories which changed how people imagined these creatures looked and behaved.

The folktales and legends of old Britain were, before the 17thC era when state Protestantism began to encourage widespread literacy, transmitted orally largely in the form of either stories or ballads. Many of those in song form survive because they were published from the late 1600s onward in the form of ‘broadsheet-‘ or ‘broadside-ballads’ – popular songs whose lyrics were printed in the early newspapers.

Dragons or Serpents?

What we think of today as a dragon – a quadrupedal,winged, fire-breathing giant lizard – is in fact a ‘cultural chimera’ created by the fusion of Oriental and Occidental myths. It began to appear principally in the middle ages under the influence of Byzantine contact with the east.

The word ‘dragon’ is originally Greek: The word δράκων (drákōn) means ‘gazer’, and was applied to monstrous serpentine (and usually aquatic) creatures. In the mythology of the ancient Greeks, such fantastical ‘chimeric’ beasts were created by the Titans, in the distant ‘Kronian Age’ before the Olympian gods, and typically dwelled in the mysterious places at the far reach of the world-river ‘Okeanos’ – a metaphor for the most distant place a mortal could travel. They also appear as adversaries for both gods and heroes, again typically in far-off lands: Colchis, Libya, etc. Ancient Greek dragons were exotic, monstrous and liminal. They represented the cosmic forces of destruction and chaos – necessary parts of the natural order, continually attacking new growth and life.  To the ancient Egyptians, the giant serpent Apep (Apophis) embodied the same aspect of cosmic chaos, being the challenger to the personified luminary, Ra, at the far and mysterious extent of the sun’s travels ‘beyond the horizons’ in the underworld. His depiction as the Ouroboros serpent (devouring its own tail) went on to influence the symbolism of the mysticism in the Greco-Roman world. The ‘barbarian’ Celts of Europe’s Bronze and Iron Ages were also fond of the imagery of serpents, which pervaded their art and stylization. Contrary to popular beliefs, dragon imagery as we would understand it is not readily identifiable from the artistic record of these peoples before they ‘took the king’s sestertius’ and Romanised.

St George and the Dragon:

The prototype for many British ‘dragon’ tales must surely lie in the Romance literature era, during which time popular and courtly culture in northern Europe was dominated by a strong tradition of storytelling, the most notable of which were the Arthurian cycle of tales. One of the most popular books of that era was the religiously-themed ‘Legenda Aurea’ (‘Golden Legends’) compiled by James (Jacob) of Voraigne c.1260CE. It was a collection of the tales of Christendom’s most popular religious heroes – the Saints – drawn from regions as far as Byzantium and beyond in the east to Ireland in the far west. Among these was contained an account of the legend of St George and the Dragon, originating apparently from Cappadocia (modern Turkey) and Georgia, albeit with obvious influences from the ‘Thracian Hero’ statuary traditions of the late-Roman era Balkans and Asia Minor.

Like many of the famous British dragon tales, the Legenda Aurea account of George has him battling a serpent which has emerged from a lake. True to ‘Romance’ literary form, he saves a fair damsel from the dragon. Here is an excerpt from the 15thC English version as printed by William Caxton):

“… S. George was a knight and born in Cappadocia. On a time he came in to the province of Libya, to a city which is said Silene. And by this city was a stagne or a pond like a sea, wherein was a dragon which envenomed all the country. And on a time the people were assembled for to slay him, and when they saw him they fled. And when he came nigh the city he venomed the people with his breath, and therefore the people of the city gave to him every day two sheep for to feed him, because he should do no harm to the people, and when the sheep failed there was taken a man and a sheep. Then was an ordinance made in the town that there should be taken the children and young people of them of the town by lot, and every each one as it fell, were he gentle or poor, should be delivered when the lot fell on him or her. So it happed that many of them of the town were then delivered, insomuch that the lot fell upon the king’s daughter, whereof the king was sorry, and said unto the people: For the love of the gods take gold and silver and all that I have, and let me have my daughter. They said: How sir! ye have made and ordained the law, and our children be now dead, and ye would do the contrary. Your daughter shall be given, or else we shall burn you and your house.

When the king saw he might no more do, he began to weep, and said to his daughter: Now shall I never see thine espousals. Then returned he to the people and demanded eight days’ respite, and they granted it to him. And when the eight days were passed they came to him and said: Thou seest that the city perisheth: Then did the king do array his daughter like as she should be wedded, and embraced her, kissed her and gave her hls benediction, and after, led her to the place where the dragon was.

When she was there S. George passed by, and when he saw the lady he demanded the lady what she made there and she said: Go ye your way fair young man, that ye perish not also. Then said he: Tell to me what have ye and why weep ye, and doubt ye of nothing. When she saw that he would know, she said to him how she was delivered to the dragon. Then said S. George: Fair daughter, doubt ye no thing hereof for I shall help thee in the name of Jesu Christ. She said: For God’s sake, good knight, go your way, and abide not with me, for ye may not deliver me. Thus as they spake together the dragon appeared and came running to them, and S. George was upon his horse, and drew out his sword and garnished him with the sign of the cross, and rode hardily against the dragon which came towards him, and smote him with his spear and hurt him sore and threw him to the ground. And after said to the maid: Deliver to me your girdle, and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afeard. When she had done so the dragon followed her as it had been a meek beast and debonair. Then she led him into the city, and the people fled by mountains and valleys, and said: Alas! alas! we shall be all dead. Then S. George said to them: Ne doubt ye no thing, without more, believe ye in God, Jesu Christ, and do ye to be baptized and I shall slay the dragon. Then the king was baptized and all his people, and S. George slew the dragon and smote off his head, and commanded that he should be thrown in the fields, and they took four carts with oxen that drew him out of the city.

Then were there well fifteen thousand men baptized, without women and children, and the king did do make a church there of our Lady and of S. George, in the which yet sourdeth a fountain of living water, which healeth sick people that drink thereof… “

The adoption of George as a national saint famed for slaying a dragon all but ensured the popularity of this mythical genre in England, leading to a slew of local versions of the tale – all generally loaded with the same allegorical intent.

When Geoffrey of Monmouth penned his ‘Prophecy of Merlin’ as part of his 12thC ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ he depicted the ancient British king Vortigern as witness to a battle between a red and a white dragon, said to represent the Britons and the Saxons respectively. The dragon from then onwards also became a national symbol to the Britons, and for this very reason the red dragon is the symbol depicted upon the Welsh national flag.

I will now discuss a few of the more famous English dragon tales:

The Lambton Worm:

This famous tale from the north of England in the vicinity of the River Wear is still an immensely popular part of local tradition. It generally tells of a young squire of Lambton who goes fishing one Sunday and is rewarded by catching a slimy wriggling thing which he tosses into a well near the river (a wishing-well later referred to as the ‘Worm Well’) thinking it no fit fish. In time this ‘worm’ grew into a mighty and fearsome beast which terrorised the neighbourhood and stole the milk and cattle of the country people. Grown to manhood, the squire returns from the crusades to find his father’s lands laid waste by the creature. He seeks the sage advice of an old witch who counsels him how he might best defeat the beast whose existence he is responsible for. He eventually confronts the beast in a heroic struggle and defeats it, casting its body back into the river Wear. Although similar to the St George myth, it contains elements of indigenous British beliefs about rivers and holy wells that were important to our Celtic ancestors.

The Sockburn Worm:

Another famous northern English dragon-slaying myth is that of the Sockburn Worm or Sockburn Wyvern of County Durham. The word ‘wyvern’ derives from the French guivre – meaning an asp, adder or wyrm. We know of this worm because of a legend attached to a medieval sword known as the Conyers Falchion, traditionally presented to each new Bishop of Durham when he takes up his position. This (actually a 12th/13thC blade) was supposed to have been used to slay the worm by the eponymous Conyers, for which favour he was supposedly granted his lands some time in the 11thC. A note on this tradition remains in a 17thC manuscript of the Conyers’ pedigree in the possession of the British museum.

“Sr Jo Conyers of Storkburn Knt who slew ye monstrous venoms and poysons wiverns Ask or worme which overthrew and Devour’d many people in fight, for the scent of poyson was soo strong, that no person was able to abide it, yet he by the providence of god overthrew it and lyes buried at Storkburn before the Conquest, but before he did enterprise it (having but one sonne) he went to the Church in compleat armour and offered up his sonne to the holy ghost, which monument is yet to see, and the place where the serpent lay is called Graystone.” British Museum MS Harleian No. 2118, folio 39. Early 17thC

It is surmised that local lad Lewis Carroll immortalised the Sockburn Worm as his fantastical and savage ‘Jabberwocky’. The sword now lives at Durham Cathedral. The Bishop of Durham enjoyed near-kingly power and a military reputation during the period of the myth’s protagonist – he was responsible for keeping the dragon of Scots power under control, sometimes even serving the same purpose to the Scots against the English when circumstance suited him.

The Worm of Linton:

Just further north in the Scottish borders we find the story of the Worm of Linton – a dragon who lived in a den on the local hill, supposed to have been defeated by a knight called de Somerville who plunged a burning lump of peat into its maw on the end of his iron lance. The writhings and death-throes of the dragon were said to have caused the unusual undulations in the ground of the surrounding countryside. Like the Lambton worm just across the border, the dragon’s den is said to be in the type of place once held as sacred by the pre-christian peoples of Britain.

The Laidley Worm:

The tragic tale of a princess transformed into a dragon by an evil witch, only to be saved by the kiss of a handsome prince is the basis for the the legend of the ‘The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heughs’, sometimes known as the ‘The Laidly Worm of Banborough’ or ‘Bamburgh’. This tale is another preserved, so it was said, from folklore in a ballad first published in 1771 (within 10 years of MacPherson’s famous renderings of the legends of ‘Ossian’). It was attributed in Hutchinson’s 1778 guide to Northumberland to an ‘old mountain bard’ called Duncan Frasier, said to have lived on Cheviot (Scotland/Northumberland borders) in 1270, from whom it was ‘discovered’ from ‘an antient manuscript’ by its supposed ‘collector’, cited as the Rev. Robert Lambe.  As it appears related to the ballads of the ‘Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea’ and ‘Kemp Owyne’, collected by Child in his book of songs, it is likely that Lambe’s claim was probably dubious – an attempt at personal aggrandisement from popular local tradition in the light of MacPherson’s dubious fame. These creatures (mackerel and serpent) both evoke the idea of ‘gazer’ expressed by the ancient Greek word ‘drákōn’.

“… ‘I was but seven year auld
When my mither she did die;
My father married the ae warst woman
The warld did ever see.
‘For she has made me the laily worm,
That lies at the fit o the tree,
An my sister Masery she’s made
The machrel of the sea.
‘An every Saturday at noon
The machrel comes to me,
An she takes my laily head
An lays it on her knee,
She kaims it wi a siller kaim,
An washes’t in the sea.
‘Seven knights hae I slain,
Sin I lay at the fit of the tree,
An ye war na my ain father,
The eight ane ye should be.’ … “

The term ‘Laily’ is understood to mean ‘loathly’. The theme of transformative humans, disguising their majesty behind monstrous identities was common in the stories of the ancient world, and a particular theme seen in the traditions of Ireland and Britain until late in the middle ages, when Chaucer employed it in his ‘Wife of Bath’s tale’.

The Dragon of Unsworth:

The northern county of Lancashire claims a dragon legend in that associated with the settlement of Unsworth, now a part of Greater Manchester. The surviving incarnation of the legend states that Sir Thomas Unsworth – lord of that particular manse – slew a dragon that had been terrorising his neighbourhood by firing a dagger from his gun into the soft spot on its throat. This selfsame dagger was supposed to have been used to carve an old wooden table once (as late as the 19thC) in the possession of the family at Unsworth House, which had a number of dragons inscribed upon it.

Like the other British dragon stories alluded to, the story attaches the slaying of a dragon to the provenance of some aristocratic family and their self-proclaimed right to rule. The same can be said of Yorkshire’s equivalent tale:

‘The Dragon of Wantley’:

Set among the Wharncliffe (‘Wantley’ or ‘Wortley’) Crags and Moors near Sheffield in South Yorkshire, this legend involved a dragon who would fly out regularly from its den in a cave (still called the ‘Dragon’s Den’) at the crags near Wortley Hall to a spring-well in the district. This dragon, according to the traditions, was eventually slain by a local hero, More of More Hall, the local magnate and presumed fore-runner of the incumbents at Wortley Hall (Wortley-Montagu of smallpox inoculation fame).

Wantleyballad

A late 17thC ‘Broadside Ballad‘ from Sheffield later recorded by Francis Child (of ‘Child Ballads’ fame) in the 19thC introduces the dragon and the spring well he was said to frequent:

…In Yorkshire, near fair Rotherham,

     the Place I know [it] well:

Some two or three Miles, or thereabouts,

     I vow, I cannot tell;

But there is a Hedge, just on the Hill Edge,

     and Matthews House hard by it:

Oh! there and then was this Dragons Den,

     you could not chuse but spy it.

Some say this Dragon was a Witch;

     some say he was a Devil:

For from his Nose a Smoke arose,

     and with it burning Snivel;

Which he cast off, when he did cough,

     into a Well that stands by;

Which made it look just like a Brook

     running with burning Brandy…

The hero, Moore of Moore Hall, ambushes the dragon by hiding in its favourite drinking well cloaked in spiked armour. When the dragon comes to drink he leaps out and combat ensues. The hero, wearing spiked shoes, finishes off the dragon with a kick:

At length the hard Earth began for to quake,

     the Dragon gave him such a Knock:

Which made him to reel, and straight he thought

     to lift him as high as a Rock,

And then let him fall: But Moore of Moore-hall,

     like a valiant Son of Mars:

As he came like a Lout, so he turnd him about,

     and hit him a Kick on the Arse.

Oh, quoth the Dragon, with a deep Sigh,

     and turnd six Times together;

Sobbing and tearing, cursing and swearing,

     out of his Throat of Leather;

Moore of Moore-hall, O thou Rascal,

     would I had seen thee never:

With the Thing at thy Foot thou hast prickd my Arse-gut,

     and I am undone for ever.

The ballads and stories of the Dragon were almost as famous locally as those of Robin Hood, whose earliest surviving (15thC) exemplars such as A Gest of Robyn Hode localise Robin to areas such as Barnsdale and Loxley in South Yorkshire. In the 18thC the story of the Dragon of Wantley was very well known and was even turned into a popular Burlesque Opera.

The ballad/tale’s popularity exemplified (as in the case of the aforementioned Robin Hood) how local politics and social intrigue could be served by the appropriation of ancient legendary motifs as allegories for more modern woes. They secretly lambasted local politicians and people of power. Dragons or big ugly beasts could be used in popular oral culture as representations of disease or greed, or to characterise human opponents.

Dragons also represent the dark reaches of where we have come from – the sources of humanity’s allegorical river, for which the snake has often been used as a metaphor. That rivers arise in lakes, pools or in caves or spring wells up on mountain sides has made such sites the classical typical den of the legendary dragons of myth.

7 thoughts on “Serpents and dragons in British folklore

  1. Hi, I enjoy these posts, what do you think about the World Tree being a Yew as some now reason – ?

    “F. R. Schröder has proposed a fourth etymology according to which yggdrasill means “yew pillar”, deriving yggia from *igwja (meaning “yew-tree”), and drasill from *dher- (meaning “support”)…in traditional Germanic paganism, Yggdrasill was often seen as a giant ash tree. Many scholars now agree that in the past an error has been made in the interpretation of the ancient writings, and that the tree is most likely a European yew (Taxus baccata). This mistake would find its origin in an alternative word for the yew tree in the Old Norse, namely needle ash (barraskr). In addition, ancient sources, including the Eddas, speak about a vetgrønster vida which means “evergreen tree”. An ash sheds its leaves in the winter, while yew trees retain their needles.” – Wikipedia

    • I think this is a very reasonable assumption, although the word ‘Yew’ may, of course, be a generic term associated with the idea of a ‘world tree’ rather than a specific species. The Rowan and the Hawthorn or Blackthorn, sometimes even the Holly, are more commonly conceived of as ‘fairy trees’ than Taxus Baccata. The reference to Yggdrasil as an ‘Ash’ seems as much a reference to the ‘grey mud’ said in the Eddas to be staining it’s trunk – Ash having a grey bark.
      Come to think of it, the words ‘yawning’ and ‘gurning’ associated with Ginnungagap might also possibly be related to the word ‘Yew’…

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