A Dragon in Medieval East Anglia September 16, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
Beach had a fabulous evening trying to convince his elder daughter (3) that dragons do exist. This involved placing a small bean bag draco at various inaccessible points of the house and creating a domestic dragon mythology: dragons only eat salted foods; dragons hate men; dragon baby’s mothers steal keys etc etc. The picture above was snapped when the dragon was finally tempted down into the garden by some salted milk. Soon after it accompanied Beach’s daughter to bed and is, as we speak, travelling – may the saints have mercy upon it – to the kindergarten to be abused by fourteen infant horrors. If this writer was a scaly one, he’d prefer St George and a gladium with or without the pretty lady.
Anyway, after such a long drawn out ‘con’ Beach felt compelled to give one of those rare dragon eye-witness stories from the Middle Ages.
In these times , close to the town of Bures, near Sudbury [in Suffolk] has appeared, a disaster for the country, a dragon, with a huge body, a crested head, serrated teeth and a long, long tail. After having killed a shepherd the dragon then slew many sheep. The men of the lord – Richard Waldegrave, knight of the domain in which the dragon had appeared – then came out to shoot at him with arrows. The dragon’s body was unhurt, however, despite being hit by arrows that bounced off his back as if it were iron or hard rock. The arrows that hit the spine of his back gave a ringing or chiming sound as they hit, as if they had hit a burning plate, and then fell down, the hide of this enormous beast being impenetrable. Then, in order to destroy the dragon, all the country was summoned. And when the dragon saw that he was to be attacked by arrows again, he fled into a marsh or swamp there and hid himself among the long reeds there and he was not ever seen again.
Sub hiis diebus, draco, uastus corpore, cristato capite, dente serrato, cauda protensa nimia longitudine, nuper apparuit, malo patriae, iuxta uillam de Buryram prope Sudburyam, qui pastorem peremit ouium, ouesque plurimas interfecit. Ad quem sagittandum serui Domini Ricardi de Waldegraue, militis, cuius in dominio draco latuit, sunt egressi; sed corpus eius omnes elusit ictus sagittantium, resilieruntque sagittae ab eius crate, uelut a ferro uel duro lapide; et quae super spinam dorsi ceciderunt, exsiliere, tinnitum reddentes uelut offendissent luminam aeream, et procul euolauerunt, ratione cutis belluae impenetrabilis. Ad cuius occisionem quasi patria tota fuit summonita. Uerum cum uidisset se iterum sagittis impetendum, fugit in paludem, et inter arundineta delituit; nec amplius uisus fuit.
One of Beachcombing’s sources alleges that this was a Theropods! Others compare it to Alien Big Cats: because it killed sheep? Then there is also a local account that suggests that it was a crocodile, presumably it had swum to Suffolk from the Nile. Beach is simply confused. The fifteenth century is not his thing. But this is a contemporary source, though not an East Anglia one: the Chronicle of Richard II and Henry IV of which there are three overlapping versions. (Many authors refer to John de Trokelowe who had been dead the best part of a century in 1405.)
So how do we even begin to explain this serpent in East Anglia? Perhaps the crocodile explanation is not so foolish as it first seems. Had a traveller brought back a baby from the Mediterranean and released it in the environs? Had a medieval English zoo lost one of its inmates?
Alternatively, Beach is struck by the fact that there are a lot of local legends on this topic based around local names: e.g. the final dragon fight takes place at Wormingford (worm = serpent = dragon). Is it possible that our chronicler picked up a legend from a travelling East Anglian who had drunk rather too much cider?
Any other solutions? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
17 Sept 2011: Some great emails on this, an example of posts being far more valuable than the post. First up is Invisible who gives us the general background: I think you’re on the right track with the dragon-as-Holy-Land-souvenir idea. In the most famous of English dragon stories – the story of the Lambton Worm – the Hero has just returned from a Crusade before slaying the Worm (although in some versions of the legend, the Worm was active before he went away so he could not have brought it back with him.) There is also such a link—real or fancied–between actual votive crocodiles in churches, which are almost always said to have been brought from Egypt or the Holy Land by a Crusader. Peter Ackroyd (with no citation) says in Thames: The Biography that Richard the Lionheart brought a crocodile back from the Crusades and housed it in the Tower menagerie, but it escaped into the river. (A Bures town site also mentions this legend, adding that it was a present to Richard from Saladin.) There are votive crocs in Italy , Spain (a 13th c. Egyptian sultan sent one to Alfonso X), Tenerife , Switzerland (you can see a photo of the St. Gall croc at this taxidermy blog.) , Moravia , and France . The Holy Land votive crocodile of St Bertrand de Comminges, immortalized in “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” by M.R. James, is one of nine crocodiles designated as ancient monuments in France . With stuffed ‘dragons’ hung in churches all over Europe , it is frustrating to report that I cannot find a single one in a British church. However there was ‘A Fine Large Alligator from Egypt’ listed in the inventory of the English Cabinet of Curiosities you reported on last year. And because, in a spirit of child-like wonder, I want this dragon legend to be true, I like to hope that one day the bones of a large crocodile will be unearthed in the former wetlands of Wormingford.’ Then comes Open Sesame who may have got a whiff of a crocodile legend from Wormingford (Wikipedia): ‘The modern form of the place name, recorded from 1254, gave rise to three stories of dragons, (worm meaning serpent or dragon). The first story says the village is the location where the patron saint of England, St George, famously killed his dragon. A mound in the village is said to cover the body of the legendary dragon. The second, apparently unsubstantiated, is that a crocodile escaped from Richard I of England’s menagerie in the Tower of London and caused much damage in Wormingford before being killed by Sir George Marney. There is a stained glass window in the local parish church (St Andrew’s) which depicts this event. The third, written in 1405 by John de Trokelowe, a monk, told of a dragon who threatened Richard Waldegrave’s territory near Sudbury but fled into the Mere when pursued’. Jacob writes in to point out that Wormingford was originally Withermund’s Ford and that the name predates the dragon, Widemondefort in Domesday, 1086: obviously though the legend remains interesting. Then, finally, Crackerjack reminds Beachcombing of the discovery of some crocodiles in nineteenth-century England (remembered too in Charles Fort?), quoting the Resologist: ‘But an invasion that is more difficult to explain was discussed in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1866 and 1867: several crocodiles had been found alive in England, quoting the resologist. ‘The story was first related by George R. Wright, F.S.A., who saw one of the specimens stuffed and on display in a farm house tenanted by William Phillips. The animal was found in 1856 or 1857, on the same farm at Over-Norton, Oxfordshire. Mr. Phillips was walking in his farmyard when his attention was drawn to what looked like a dead lizard, about a foot in length, with a wound in its belly, lying in the gutter. ‘Upon, however, taking it up, he soon discovered that the animal was not a lizard, and he immediately asked his laborers, who were close by, unstacking some faggots for the use of the house, if they knew anything about it. The answer was that they had killed it as it ran out of a stack of wood, I think the day before; and on Mr. Phillips expressing his regret at their having done so without bringing it to him alive, they replied they could easily get him another, as at the place where the wood was cut a few miles form the farm, near to Chipping-Norton Common, and not far from the village of Salford, at the `minny’ pool – which I presume is a shortened form of Minnow – they saw them frequently in the water and on the land and often running up the trees.’’ Thanks Crackerjack, Invisible, Open Sesame and Jacob.
22 Sept 2011: Dennis writes in with this consideration linking back to some older posts: ‘After your alien/fairy post I felt inclined to reread Passport to Magonia. Vallee says fairy lore, ufonaut encounters, and religious apparitions are only the ever changing masks of a true unknown phenomenon that affects human consciousness. After reading so many of the cases he cites in this book it seems this dragon story you just posted would fit in with them just fine. The interesting thing here is the sound of ringing coming from the dragon after the arrows hit it. Vallee also goes to great pains to tell us the ufo phenom has a physical dimension so if the dragon was of this same phenom this too would fit. Not too long ago you did a post concerning the book Magic and Mystery in Tibet. The story of the tulpa in that book I have thought for a while could be a key to understanding this mystery. The mind (or in the case of UFO/Fairy/Dragon the group mind/totality of human consciousness) creates a tulpa (in the case of group mind ((rather unconsciously)) let’s say UFO) which in turn affects the mind generating the phenom. Did that make sense? Anyway just a hypothesis…very interesting stuff.’ Shaun, meanwhile, just has questions: I read your recent posting on dragons with interest. Two questions came to mind: Is there any historical record (besides this account) of the knight mentioned, Richard Waldegrave? Some deed or court document, or perhaps a mention in a chronicle, would do much to establish the incident as fact. Though it seems unlikely, I must ask: Were there ever any crocodiles, alligators or other large nasties known to make their homes in Britain? I’ve never heard such, but one wonders, perhaps some adventurous sea-going handbag fodder did wander up from the West African shore, or surf the Gulf Stream ? Unlikely is not impossible. Any such cases on record?’ As to Richard Waldegrave Beach does not know: though it strikes him that there is a sweet little article to be written on this and that RW would be the place to start. With crocodiles Beach knows of nothing save the Oxfordshire case mentioned above. He expects to be contradicted, but presumably the only way that one of these creatures would ever have made it to Britain would be through human agency? Perhaps other readers will do better than Beach. Thanks Shaun and Dennis!
26 June 2014: ANL writes in with this thought: “they saw them frequently in the water and on the land and often running up the trees”. Needless to say, crocodiles or alligators do not commonly climb trees. This may be a better candidate, although it’s difficult to see how crocodiles, alligators or monitor lizards could survive the English climate for very long. I’ve cleaned up the bad English in the following: Varanus salvadorii is the only member of the subgenus Papusaurus. The Crocodile Monitor is one of the largest members of the monitor family, although the tail accounts for more than two-thirds of its total length. Rumours of animals which have reached more than 4m appear from time to time, although no animal of this size has been formally recorded so far. The largest specimen measured was 244cm in length (MERTENS 1962). A characteristic feature of this monitor is the blunt snout, which makes this species look different to other monitors. As the Crocodile Monitor is a tree climber, the long tail seems to act as an extreme counterbalance to the head. The teeth indicate that this species is a bird-eater, and do not resemble those of other monitor species, which point backwards. In this species, they stick out almost vertically from the jawbone. They are suitable for catching birds, as they can easily penetrate the feathers and grab the bird. Stomach contents have nevertheless shown that their diet mainly consists of large insects and small vertebrates (LOSOS &GREENE 1988). The ground coloration is olive-green. Several irregular crossrows formed by pale yellow ocelli cover the back. The tail is banded throughout its length. ANL then wrote a subsequent email suprising me. Apparently crocs do sometimes climb trees: wth! ANL suggests that this might add veracity to the original account as it is not well known. Not sure what to think. In fact, am still in shock. Thanks ANL!
2 June 2015: Linda writes: I just read your post about a crocodile in the Stour. I have a theory (no hard proof yet). The circumstantial evidence: the castle at Clare (Joan of Acre is buried in the priory next door) had (1) obvious royal and Crusade connections, (2) a known medieval menagerie, (3) is on the banks of the Stour and (4) was gradually abandoned. It could easily have had a crocodile brought back from the Crusades. If it escaped, would this have been broadcast? Probably not. Which way would it have gone? Probably downriver (and Bures and Wormingford are very near and down river). “So how do we even begin to explain this serpent in East Anglia? Perhaps the crocodile explanation is not so foolish as it first seems. Had a traveller brought back a baby from the Mediterranean and released it in the environs? Had a medieval English zoo lost one of its inmates? Alternatively, Beach is struck by the fact that there are a lot of local legends on this topic based around local names: e.g. the final dragon fight takes place at Wormingford (worm = serpent = dragon). Is it possible that our chronicler picked up a legend from a travelling East Anglian who had drunk rather too much cider?