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Dragons of the Marches

Jeremy Harte

The Marcher counties are a dragon-haunted land. Cheshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire - the counties that lie on the western side of the English Midlands and form the Welsh border - have between them some twenty local names and legends recording a belief in the neighbourhood dragon - the hill where it had its lair, the waters from which it drank, and the lands and honours given to the hero who slay it. Many of these places can still be tracked down and visited, and this article examines some of the theories which have been inspired by the juxtaposition of such fabulous beasts and down-to-earth landscapes.

Moston's heraldic dragon

At the northern limit of the Marches, in the swamps of Bache Pool near Moston, a dragon was said to have been slain by Thomas Venables. He was the heir to the Venables of Kinderton, who were a noble family in medieval Cheshire. According to an old chronicle, seemingly of the sixteenth century, 'yet chaunced a terrible dragon to remayne, and make his abode in ye lordshippe of Moston in ye sayde countie of Chester, where he devouryd all suche persons as he laid hold on, which ye said Thomas Venable heringe tell of, consyderinge the pytyfull dystruction of the people, without recoverie, who in followinge the example of the valiant Romaines . . . dyd in his owne person valiantlie and courragiouslie set on the saide dragon, where first he shotte hym throwe with an arrow, and afterwards with other weapons manfullie skew him, at which instant tyme the sayd dragon was devouringe of a child.' Thomas gained land as a result of his deed. [1]

The Dragons' Pool or Dragons Lake is mentioned by the county historian in 1819 and appears on a map of 1839. Dragon's Lane can be followed from the Ordinance Survey map. The story is associated locally with a carving in the church vestry, dated to 1632, which shows the crest of the Venables - a dragon swallowing a child. This was the emblem used by other noble families in the middle ages, such as the great Visconti of Milan, whose crest (still to be seen on the badges of Alfa Romeos) is much the same, a crowned viper swallowing a child.

Grimesditch's griffin

The founder of the Grimesditch family is said to have killed a dragon as it lay in a ditch by the Grimesditch Brook in Lower Whitley. This story, like that of Moston, must have arisen from interpretations of the arms borne by the family. Rankle Holme, the Cheshire herald, who wrote his curious Academye of Armorye in 1688 [2], blazons the arms of Grimesditches as 'Sable, a man completely armed argent, garnish or, assaulted by a griffin, all bendwise of the third'. Ingham tells us that another dragon was killed by one of the Lords of Malpas [3], and not far away in Marbury is a place called Drake Low on a map of 1837. 'Low' is the Cheshire word for 'tumulus', corresponding to 'barrow' in south-west England, so the field name implies a legend of a barrow occupied by a dragon.

Similarly in Rudheath (700700) is a site first recorded in 1330 as 'a field called Drakelowe'. Somewhere in Lower Bebington there was a Dracclowelegh in 1347. A field called Drakelows is recorded in Thornton Hough on a map of 1843. At Drake Hill in Marple (shown on a map of 1849) the legend has been transferred from a barrow to a local hill. Just over the Worcestershire border, the place called Drakelow is first recorded as such in 1240 - the earliest reference to the belief in this area.

'The dragon shall seek out the hoard in the earth, where, old in winters, he will watch over the heathen gold; he will be none the better for it.'
From Beowulf; translation from The art and background of old English poetry B.C. Raw, 1978.

Saracen con confounded

Turning from legend to the sober annals of history, we meet with the same belief in dragon barrows a little further south. Thomas of Walsingham's history contains, under the year 1344, the following account 'Of a remarkable incident. In this year a Saracen doctor same to Earl Warren and asked permission to take captive a serpent, which he said was in a place called Brunfeld, on the Earl's land somewhere in Wales. When this doctor had worked his charm and captured the serpent, he said there was a cave in the area where it had had its lair, and that this cave contained a great treasure. Some Hereford men heard about this. On the instigation of a Lombard called Peter the Picard, they went out there, began digging, and found out that the Saracen had been right. So they gathered together there for several nights, until the Earl's retainers got wind of the matter; then the Hereford men were arrested and committed to prison. The Earl acquired a considerable treasure form this business.'

This story, which was recorded about forty years after the events described, seems to preserve the memory of a con trick that went wrong. The Saracen had most probably come across a treasure at Brunfeld - which most likely is Bromfield near Ludlow - and thought that he could best acquire it secretly if he suggested to the credulous that he was charming a watchful dragon - and then set out with sack and spade. Unfortunately for him the Hereford men were not scared off. Unfortunately for them Earl Warren's followers found out, moved in, and took the proceeds.

The treasure could have been one of several sorts of archaeological discovery - beaker grave goods, golden torcs, or a coin hoard. It was common practice from Roman times onward to conceal valuables under some landmark when danger threatened, and in Bromfield there are some barrows as well as a Roman site.

Lost church dragon

At Mordiford in Herefordshire the legends cluster around a lost monument, the painting of a great dragon on the west wall of the church. This curious image is first heard of towards the end of the seventeenth century, when it came to the attention of John Aubrey, the Wessex antiquarian. He noted that the serpent originally had three pairs of wings but 'since my remembrance' a fourth pair had been added, which shows 'how apt the World is to be imposed upon, even in things against Nature, and against the Staticks' [4].

At about the same date Thomas Dingley saw the repainted figure and made a sketch of it, showing a snakey beast equipped with four pairs of legs as well as eight wings. It is a naive design, and obviously the work of some local craftsman. Four lines of verse in seventeenth century style, and no less naive than the drawing, were later recorded by a Mr Broome of Withington, who died in the 1740s. They seem to have been written above and below the drawing and run:

This is the true Effigy of that strange
Prodigious monster which our woods did range.

In Eastwood it by Garstone's hand was slain,
A truth which old mythologists maintain.

Later in the eighteenth century a new dragon was designed. A watercolour painted by Thomas Hearne in 1780 shows Mordiford church (seen from the bridge over the River Lugg) with this two-winged biped dragon painted on its western gable [5]. Samuel Ireland, writing some ten years later [6], tells us that the outline of the beast was formed in plaster. In 1799 it was 'a large green dragon . . at least twelve feet long. Its head is depicted of a very large size, with a terrible aspect, a red mouth, and a forked tongue. The wings are elevated and expanded, and it is web-footed.' The same effigy was seen by Duncombe, the county historian, whose manuscript notes describe it as have scales of green and gold on its body, two web-footed legs, two wings, and a long a formidable tail. 'The size was gigantic . . . limited only by the dimensions of the wall on which it was displayed.' A sketch of 1808 in Bird's Herefordshire collections shows the same figure. It is of much better workmanship than its predecessor - its head glares backwards with red mouth gaping and forked tongue sticking out. Its wings seem to be flapping and the great tail is angrily twisted back. All in all, a fearsome creature. But for all that, it was destroyed in 1810-12 when the church was restored. The western wall was demolished and rebuilt and nobody thought to repaint the dragon.

The dragon-slaying legends of Mordiford are clearly inspired by this effigy. The oldest and shortest version of the tale is that in the seventeenth century rhyme which summarises the old wives' tale of village as saying: 'In Eastwood it by Garstone's hand was slain'. Eastwood is a stretch of forest several miles north-east of the village - it lies in Tarrington parish (624033) - which is not mentioned in any of the subsequent versions. The Garstones were a local family of some note in the seventeenth century, and are remembered for having bequeathed charities of 4 and 5 to the poor of the parish.

When Samuel Ireland visited Mordiford in the 1790s, they told him that it was a criminal that killed the dragon, and that he 'achieved his purpose by slaying the dragon as he [the man] was solacing himself in a cider hogshead'. This is probably a garbled version of the story which follows.

In 1799 George Lipscombe, in the course of a 'picturesque tour', came to the village and made enquiries about its dragon effigy, he was told that once, on the wooded hills that look down over Mordiford, there lived a monstrous serpent. It customarily devoured the local cattle - sometimes the local people, too - and then went to slake its thirst at the point where the rivers Wye and Lugg join. No one dared to fight the dragon, until a criminal who had been condemned to death offered his services. They promised him a pardon if he should win, and he had nothing to lose. This criminal rolled a barrel down to the water's edge, climbed into it, and lay there in ambush. There was a long fight but the condemned man had got the advantage by lying concealed, and in the end he killed the dragon. He never enjoyed his reward, however, for he was poisoned by the monster's breath in the hour of his triumph. 'The story is told with great seriousness, and confidently believed in all its particulars, by hundreds.' [7]

This detail of the barrel caught the popular imagination - perhaps anything to do with cider is dear to a Herefordshire mind - and when J. Dacres Devlin collected the set of tales about the dragon, which he published in 1847 [8], he was told by some that the criminal had hidden a gun beside him in the barrel, and shot the monster through the bunghole. Others gave him a more elaborate account. According to them, the hero did not hide in any old cask but had one specially prepared. It was pierced all over by long steel spikes, which stuck out of its sides and gave it an outlandish appearance. So odd that the dragon was roused to fury, tried to attack the barrel, and wounded itself in this way, whereupon the man confidently climbed out and struck it a mortal blow. But as he stood watching its death throws, the dragon suddenly voided the last of its poison over him, and soon man and beast lay dead together.

Simpler and rationalist versions

There are two other lesser versions of this tale. One, which was told to Devlin, simply said that the criminal caught the dragon as it was sleeping in its den. And another, recorded by both Lipscombe and Devlin, is of a more rationalist cast. The dragon has become 'an amphibious animal' which is washed up on the banks of the Lugg, and the villagers band together with pikes and pitchforks to kill it. This is doubtless the creation of a villager who was dissatisfied with the marvellous part of the legend and altered it into something more credible.

One last variant, told to Devlin by a centenarian in a neighbouring village, describes the coming of the dragon. The story, as he tells it, is a choice piece of Victorian sentiment and it is rare for English dragon legends to concern themselves with the infancy of the monster. Nonetheless there are touches of genuine tradition about the tale. We are told that in the remote past there was a little girl called Maud (the foundress, of course, of Mordiford) who went blackberrying in the long grass and found a charming little pet. 'Its whole frame was the colour of the greenest grass; it had a slender pointed tail . . . and the eyes! The eyes appeared as brilliant as the very stars themselves, and always in dazzling movement.' She brought it home. Her father recognised it as an infant dragon but Maud pleaded with him and dissuaded him from killing it. Instead, the little reptile was given a place by the fireside and lapped up a saucer of milk. That night Maud awoke to hear her parents say they planned to kill the creature in the morning. So she took it away and set it free in the woods. For years after that she would play truant from her errands to go to the woods and feed her pet. As they grew up together the dragon was weaned from milk and entered upon its bloody career, 'but Maud it never hurt'.

The landscape of the dragon

All these legends are woven into the landscape around Mordiford. It is possible to visit the wood and paths of the story. In the summer of 1978 I was able to see the places concerned. A note in the church says that the dragon (which, in their version, was killed by an arrow) lived in Haugh Wood. Devlin refers to Serpent Lane, which led from the dragon's lair in the hills down to its drinking place at the river. Haugh Wood extends over the high ground east of Modriford and Serpent Lane still exists as a rough track joining the surfaced road at 572370 and curves uphill to Littlehope Farm, after which it becomes a footpath winding through Haugh Wood. The lane ends at the road, but if it were continued downhill it would come to the confluence of the Wye and Lugg in the meadows below. Leather [9] says that grass would never grow on Serpent's lane, but when I was there it bore as much vegetation as any lane in summer.

I was curious to test the various geomantic speculations about the dragon legend. Underwood [10] says 'the lane is on a fourfold parallel aquastat throughout its length, and there is one on top of each bank wherever the lane is sunken'. In the river meadows he states 'a small orchard of pear trees is encircled by a number of spirals formed by multiple geodetic lines. In consequence, every tree is twisted by a quarter to half a turn anticlockwise.' [11] Of this orchard, in 1978 there survived about ten trees - they are half-wild apples, not pears, about fifty yards along the Lugg from the point of confluence. They are twisted in the way described, but then so are most fruit trees in this area.

The Serpent's Lane had sounded like one of the 'dragon lines' postulated by John Michell in The view over Atlantis [12] where he discusses various dragon traditions and suggests that they originate in a seasonal mumming ritual in which a dragon (the embodiment of earth current) travelled along a ley and was ceremonially slain by an actor drawn from the ranks of the local nobility. In hindsight, it is clear that Michell represents classic geomantic theory, which regarded significant patterns in the landscape as vestiges of an ancient perfect order. Nowadays, researchers tend to see geomantic patterns as something cumulative, made up of elements which are always being created and always passing away. In fact,the things on which Michell bases his argument - hilltop dedications to St Michael, mumming plays, dragon models in processions honouring St George, and local dragon-slaying legends - can be proved to have had separate historical origins.

'At certain seasons of the year the dragon passed overhead down a straight line of country, drawing in his wake the fertilising powers of life' wrote Michell. But Serpent Lane, alas, is curved throughout its length and no part of it can be made to align with ancient monuments, although a farm just by the track bears the suggestive name of Bagpiper's Tump. No ley from the river's confluence up to Haugh Wood appears on the map. So I thought to try dowsing for overgounds after the manner of Tom Graves. I found, or thought I found, an overground from the meeting of the rivers, heading east to the hills. Curiously enough, when I took the bearing of this line my compass read south (176 deg), which implies that the needle was - against the course of nature - pointing east along the line to the hills. I only realised afterwards that there was a discrepancy and would be interested in hearing a second opinion from a reader in the area.

Brinsop tympanum (14k)

Brinsop tympanum

An older dragon

On the other side of Hereford from Mordiford lies Brinsop, another village which has a dragon legend connected with an image in its church - though the figure here is much older than that at Mordiford. It is a Norman tympanum which shows St George slaying the dragon. The carving has been moved inside the church and is now set into the wall of the north aisle. The saint is dressed as a Roman soldier, riding across the tympanum with his cloak flying out behind him and spearing the dragon, which writhes beneath the feet of his horse. This dragon is depicted as a snake, without feet or wings. It has a large, grotesque head which is turned backwards, receiving the point of the saint's lance in its mouth. The whole composition is vigorous and well-balanced. There is a border of smaller carvings, including signs of the zodiac, around the central panel.

Ruarden tympanum (7k)

Ruarden typmanum

Zarnecki [13] identifies this carving as part of the Shobdon school, a local style which also appears in the many curious grotesques around Kilpeck church. During the building of the church at Shobdon (now lost) the steward of the manor went on a pilgrimage to Compostella in Spain, visiting en route the French pilgrimage church of Parthensay-le-Vieux, which was built about 1120. Here there is a tympanum showing a rider in Roman dress with a hawk on his shoulder, trampling on the body of an enemy - a popular French design, originally derived from an ancient Roman statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It was this carving at Parthenay which evidently inspired the St George at Brinsop. In turn the Brinsop figure was imitated by another tympanum representing St George, at Ruardean in Gloucestershire, which is much weaker in design and execution.

Far away in Scotland the same artistic influences had been at work, for the worn carving of the tympanum at the church of Linton in Roxburghshire shows King David, mounted and bearing a spear, running sown the lion and bear described in 1 Samuel xxvii 34. The same detail of the hawk at the hero's shoulder is used here.

At Brinsop, according to Leather, 'the Dragon's well is in Duck's Pool Meadow, on the south side of the church, while on the other side is a field called "Lower Stanks", pointed out by the late parish clerk as the place where St George slew the dragon'. When I made enquiries at the house south-west of the church (there is no central village here) I heard a slightly different version. The battle took place in the field south of the church. According to 'old books' the dragon was drinking at the spring and St George came down from the hill 'up there' (my informant pointed east to Credenhill Park Wood with its great hillfort), caught him drinking and killed him.

The spring is now much deteriorated, all that can be seen is a patch of mud trampled by the cattle, with a wooden cover in the middle. In the hedge above is an old holly tree, which may have some connection with the site. In Herefordshire, as elsewhere, there used to be a prejudice against cutting or pruning hollies, so that they grew up into small trees among hedges which were otherwise trimmed back. Nowadays the trees are much too robust to be cut back by a flail mower, so they still stand in the hedgerows, fossils of superstition. A country walk in any of the western counties will find instances of this. The holly above the Dragons Well may therefore have been seen as a kind of holy tree.

Guardian dragons at Deerhurst

There is another dragon legend further south in Gloucestershire, described by the county historian Samuel Rudder in 1799. he tells us that 'In the parish of Deerhurst, near Tewkesbury, a serpent of a prodigious bigness was a great grievance to all the country, by poisoning the inhabitants, and killing their cattle. The inhabitants petitioned the king and a proclamation was issued out, that whosoever should kill the serpent should enjoy an estate in the parish, which then belonged to the crown. One John Smith, a labourer, engaged in the enterprise. He put a quantity of milk in a place to which the serpent resorted, who gorged the whole, agreeable to expectation, and lay down to sleep in the sun, with his scales ruffled up. Seeing him in that situation, Smith advanced, and striking between the scales with his axe, took off his head.' [14]

In this account Rudder paraphrases a history of Gloucestershire by Sir Robert Atkyns, who wrote in 1712, although he adds the detail about the milk from local tradition. In 1712 the Smiths still possessed this estate and the axe had been passed down in the family, coming through the remarriage of a widowed Mrs Smith to a Mr Lane.

Deerhurst 'dragon' (6k)

Deerhurst 'dragon'. From a photograph by Bob Trubshaw.

The parish historian, writing in 1887, repeats this story and says that the villagers still talked with bated breath of the 'flying addard'. 'Also, have we not dragon's heads on the wall of our church?' he asks. In 1950 Henry Bett said that a carved head in the church was known as 'the Deerhurst Dragon' [15]. The carvings referred to are heads of monsters in twelfth century style, part of the decoration around the archway of the church's western door. The heads are dog-like with pricked ears, wrinkled muzzles, and sharp zigzag teeth. Similar heads, with curling tongues, can be seen at Kilpeck and Bury St Edmunds, and there are analogous designs in viking art. The carvings in Deerhurst church are not very conspicuous and it is likely that they have been caught up in the legend rather than originating it.

Hill top dragons

Two other Gloucestershire sites give the dragon its habitation on a hill top. At Stinchcombe the name of Drakestones House comes form a place called Drakestone Side in 1651. It is near a hillfort, and the stone would have been one of several that lie scattered on the hillside. There is a field in the neighbouring parish of Cam which was called Drakelond in 1575, and appears on a map of 1839 as Drake Lane. It may belong to the same legend.

Another hill top in Newland (577069) is called Drakehord, the place of the dragon's treasure, in 1337. On a map of 1840 the hill's name has illogically been corrupted to Dragons Ford. Likewise a Drakenhord is recorded in 1222 from Yanworth, and in the twelfth century the nearby parish of Sherborne had a Drakewell.

Dragon differences between north and south

Our dragon tour has taken us through four counties, from the mouth of the Mersey to that of the Severn. What can be concluded about these legends? Are they merely the work of local tale-spinners, amusing the curious, or do they conceal some esoteric truth about the landscape in which they were set?

Of course dragon legends, like other forms of folklore, have been developed in the course of time. Several pieces of evidence suggest that Britain's dragon legends were created in the early middle ages, at the time of the English invasions. For instance, they are absent from Gaelic-speaking areas; the Welsh word for dragon (gwiber) is a late borrowing from the Latin vipera. Dragon legends are uncommon in early Celtic literature. On the other hand there are abundant references to drakes or dragons in Teutonic cultures, including that of the English. There is a fully-developed dragon landscape in Beowulf, in which we are told that the fire-breathing dragon lives in the stone inner chamber of a barrow, where he guards a great hoard of gold left by a vanished race. The barrow, approached by a lonely track, stands on a promontory overlooking the sea.

As has been shown, dragon barrows of this kind are common in place-names, but their distribution is limited. Of the two border counties fully covered by the English Place-Name Survey, Cheshire has four but Gloucestershire none. The same pattern appears elsewhere - dragon-haunted barrows were common in northern counties but further south the fabulous beast is more likely to be associated with a well, stone or hill. Evidently there were two schools of tradition, one in Northumbria peopling old barrows with dragons, and another in southern England associating the beasts with other kinds of monuments.

Thirsty dragons

Turning to the modern tales, we find a frequent connection between dragons and water, for the dragon of Moston had its pool, that of Lower Whitley its ditch or river, that of Mordiford its favourite place at the confluence of two rivers, and that of Brinsop its well. A comparison with ancient Greek myths, probably originally local legends, shows that tales of dragons-slayers Cadmos, Apollo, Jason and Heracles show that tales of dragons which guarded sacred places, including springs of water, were current in the first millennium BCE - a time when the Teutonic barrow-dragon had not yet been created. It looks as if our local dragon legends, though apparently modern inventions, have made use of geomantic themes older than the writing of Beowulf in the eighth century.

How are we to interpret this geomancy? It would be misguided to talk too much about allegories of earth forces, or myths of a dragon energy. The context of the legends is too homely, and their localisation too accidental. There might be no legend at Brinsop, for instance, had it not been for an artistic motif picked up on a twelfth century pilgrimage. Common sense requires us to look for the origins of the Moston and Mordiford dragons in the heraldry of the Venables and Garstone families, rather than vice versa.

And yet both Brinsop and Mordiford have developed typical instances of that geomantic pattern identified by Paul Devereux, the path from the holy hill to the lowland shrine. At the former, St George comes down from the hill to slay the dragon at a well beneath a tree. At the latter the dragon itself descends from its hill top lair to the place where the rivers meet, a kind of site sacred in many cultures [see confluences article].

When we find that Credenhill Wood conceals a great hillfort which appears in an early charter as Grimes wrosen ('Woden's twisted hill' [16]) its identification as a holy hill is put beyond question. Similarly there is another hillfort at Stinchcombe. Perhaps local investigation would find such a pattern elsewhere, for as Devlin's work at Mordiford shows, the 'orthodox' form of a dragon legend is only one of a cluster of variants - each equally valid.

The folklore of dragons must be interpreted as a creative shaping of the landscape, a localisation in the middle ages of stories about the serpent that lived on geomantic sites and was slain by the village hero. The identification of local holy hills, wells, stones and streams as the haunt of the dragon is the story-teller's equivalent of putting up stone crosses and chapels - or indeed follies or grottoes. Legends are a kind of verbal monument and, like medieval and modern geomantic structures, they do not represent a tradition from the past but rather a rediscovery of the perpetual places of the earth spirit.

References

1: Alfred Ingham, Cheshire, its traditions and history, Edinburgh, 1920.
2: Randall Holme, The academie of Armorye, Roxburgh Club, 1905.
3: Ingham ibid.
4: Michael Hunter, John Aubrey and the realm of learning, London, 1975.
5: Royal Commission Herefordshire Vol.2 p197
6: Samuel Ireland, Picturesque views on the River Wye, c.1790.
7: G. Lipscombe, Journey into South Wales in the year 1799, Longman, 1802.
8: James Dacres Devlin, The Mordiford dragon, London, 1848.
9: Ella M. Leather, Folk-lore of Herefordshire, Hereford, 1912.
10: Guy Underwood, The pattern of the past, London, 1969.
11: Ibid.
12: J. Michell, The view over Atlantis, Thames and Hudson 1969.
13: G. Zarnecki, Later English Romanesque sculpture, 1953
14: Samuel Rudder, A new history of Gloucestershire, 1779
15: Henry Bett, English legends, Batsford, 1950
16: Sir Frank Stenton, 'The historical bearing of place-name studies' in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 1941.

Note

For place-names, the Cheshire and Gloucestershire volumes of the English Place-Name Survey have been used. The maps referred to are in all cases tithe maps and apportionments. The EPNS has now published volumes for six counties giving modern and medieval field names, most of which can be traced on the ground. They represent a fascinating and so-far little-used source for geomantic research.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.20 August 1994.


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