Here be Dragons
The earlist recorded dragon to cause havoc in East Anglia was recorded in 1170, when ‘A dragon of Marvellous Bigness, which by moving buried houses’, rampaged around St Osyth’s like some mediaeval Godzilla. This was probably not its’ first arrival on our shores; A dragon had been seen, breathing sulphur, at Christchurch in Hampshire by two French visitors in 1113
One’s first thought is that this is a garbled story of a military engagement. The Roman army had used the symbol of the dragon to inspire dread and the tradition stuck. A large bronze head was carried by the standard-bearer, which issued frightful moans in the windstream. To it was attached a long windsock which billowed out over the head of the troops. A golden Dragon, symbolising the ferocity of war, had beeen carried by the West Saxon army of Cutred when it defeated the Mercians at Burford in 752, and a dragon standard was carried by the British at both the battle of Assandun in 1016 and the battle of Hastings in 1066. It is illustrated in the Bayeux tapestry, with wings and a savage head with gaping jaws.
Our East Anglian dragons seem to be described in too much detail to be purely symbolic. In Bures St Mary, in 1405, a creature ‘vast in body, with a tufted head, saw-like teeth and a very long tail which did evil by going amongst the sheep, killing many’. This happened on the land of Richard Waldegrave, who sent out his bowmen to dispatch the beast, but the arrows bounced off the dragon ’as if from stone or iron’, and those arrows that fell on the spine of its back glanced off again and sprang away with clangings 'as if they had struck plates of bronze’. Undaunted, the bowmen advanced and the dragon ‘took refuge in the mere and hid amongst the reeds, nor was it any more seen’. Curiously, dragon stories often occur in places with a ‘worm’ in the name, and a similar story comes from Wormingford, in the hill beyond Bures.
The Stour Valley became somewhat infested by dragons, and there are legends of dragons at Henham too. The climax came on 26th September 1449, '...about the hour of Vespers, two terrible dragons were seen fighting for about the space of one hour, on two hills, of which one, in Suffolk, is called Kydyndon Hyl (Killingdown Hill, Kedington) and the other in Essex Blacdon Hyl (Ballingdon Hill). One was black in colour and the other reddish and spotted. After a long conflict the reddish one obtained the victory over the black, which done, both returned into the hills above named whence they had come, that is to say, each to his own place to the admiration of many beholding them.' (From a MSS in the Library of The Dean and Chapter at Canterbury)
The Saffron Walden Monster was described as a ‘cockatrice’ (a fabulous beast of heraldry thought to be a corruption of the word ‘crocodile’), hatched from a cock's egg by a toad, and vested with the power to kill all on whom it looked with its glance. It broke stones, blasted trees with its breath, and burned everything it passed over, and generally acted like a modern town planner. The hero who liberated Saffron Walden was a famous knight who had despatched many such creatures by walking among them in a special armour made from reflecting mirrors, 'whereby,' writes the seventeenth-century natural historian Topsell, 'their owne shapes were reflected upon their owne faces, and so they dyed.' In memory his sword was hung up as well as an effigy in brass of the cockatrice, but it was eventually taken down and broken in pieces as a monument to superstition. This was tempting fate, because, in 1699, the town was again attacked, this time by a flying serpent a full nine feet long, with ‘huge lustrous eyes, its teeth white and sharp’, being witnessed by the Chrchwarden, constable, Overseer for the poor, and several prominent citizens.