Dragon lore is not uncommon in North Yorkshire. Our local dragons are generally called Worms from the Old English Wyrm and Old Norse Ormr meaning snake or serpent.
The Handale Worm
Handale is a couple of miles south of Loftus and during the 12th century was the location of a small priory of Benedictine nuns. The folklore of the area describes a fire-breathing worm who had a taste for the beautiful maids of Loftus. The beast would lure them into its lair and keep them there for several days before eating them.
As these tales often go, a brave young knight called Scaw arrived in the area and set out to kill the worm. Scaw managed to lure the worm out of its lair and, after a long fight, killed it. Following the battle Scaw discovered Emma, the beautiful daughter of the lord of the Manor, Richard Beckwith, imprisoned within the beasts lair. Scaw immediately fell in love with Emma and they were married soon after. Scaw eventually inherited the manor and became a rich and famous landowner.
The Sockburn Worm
Sockburn Hall is built on a sock-shaped loop of the River Tees close to Croft on Tees, just south of Darlington. The Hall was the seat of the Conyers family. The general image of a dragon is of a fire-breathing monster but the Sockburn Worm or Wyverne, in common with many of our other worms, did not breathe fire but instead had poisonous breath and a venomous bite. The tale of the beast’s slaying follows the usual pattern; a noble and brave knight slays the worm and saves the day. There are no beautiful maidens or trusty hounds in this tale but there is a famous sword and a stone. Sir John slew the worm with a mighty sword, the Conyers Falchion, and buried the beast beneath the Grey Stone.
The Conyers Falchion is kept at Durham Cathedral and is presented to all newly appointed Bishops of Durham by a representative of the Conyers family. The Falchion has also been incorporated into the coat of arms of Darlington. The Grey Stone is a glacial boulder made of Shap Granite and can still be seen at Sockburn.
There is also some speculation regarding the Sockburn Worm being the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky , which he started to write whilst living at nearby Croft on Tees.
The Nunnington Worm
Nunnington is located on the southern edge of the Moors. The tale here begins on midsummer day after the hay had been gathered in from the fields. The day was dedicated to St. Barnabas and, once the harvest had been gathered, a feast was held with dancing, a bonfire and the crowning of the Barnaby Queen, Frances Mortain, the fairest maid in the district.
During the procession of the Barnaby Queen a large fire-breathing dragon descended from the sky and snatched the queen away to its lair on Loschy Hill. No one dared follow the worm but fortunately for the villagers, Sir Peter Loschy, a local knight and member of King Arthur’s court, had returned home for a visit.
When news of the worm reached Sir Peter he set out to kill it, taking with him his famous Damascene bladed sword and his faithful mastiff dog. Sir Peter found the serpent and he and his faithful mastiff went about attacking it. Unfortunately for Sir Peter, every time he hacked at the worm it instantly healed. The battle between Sir Peter and the worm went on and on and Sir Peter began to tire. It was Sir Peter’s dog that discovered how to defeat the worm, Sir Peter hacked off the end of the worm’s tail which fell to the ground, the dog grabbed the piece and carried it off causing the worm to roar with pain. Seeing this Sir Peter hacked off one piece after another, all of which were carried away by the Mastiff, denying the worm the ability to heal itself.
Sir Peter eventually triumphed but the tale has a sad ending, Sir Peter fail to save Frances Mortain and after the battle the mastiff licked his master’s face, the dog’s breath and teeth were covered in poison from the worm and both the knight and his faithful dog died. Sir Peter was buried in the village with his dog beside him.
The Sexhow Worm
This tale concerns a worm who coiled itself around a local hill, possible Whorl Hill above Whorlton. The worm had no interest in maids and ate only milk. The beast required the milk of nine cows to satisfy its appetite, if the local farmers failed to provide the milk, the beast would breathe across the fields, destroying crops and livestock with its toxic breath.
One day a knight rode through the hamlet and encountered the worm. Details of the knights name and the inevitable battle are lost, but much to the delight of the local farmers, the knight managed to kill the worm and then rode on scorning refreshments and the thanks of the farmers. The locals are said to have skinned the beast and displayed the skin in the nearby church at Hutton Rugby, the skin was destroyed during the reformation.
The Slingsby Serpent
Slingsby is on the southern edge of the moors and it too had a worm. The serpent lived about half a mile from the village in a circular depression and preyed upon the folk who travelled the winding lanes. The worm slayer in this tale is Sir William Wyville and the beautiful maid was called Helena. Sir William and his dog hunted down the fearful worm, just as in the tale of the Nunnington worm, Sir William managed to slay the worm but he and his faithful dog were killed. Unlike the Nunnington tale, the fair maid, Helena, survived.
If you are interested in Dragon Lore there is a nice book by the late Bill Griffiths called Meet the Dragon. An introduction to Beowulf’s adversary. It is available as a free download from Heart of Albion Press here http://www.hoap.co.uk/meet_the_dragon.pdf