When you think of dragons in folklore, you might think of graceful Chinese dragons or treasure-hoarding lizards like Tolkien’s Smaug. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud note that within the Church, dragons always represented evil. Meanwhile, in the secular world, they stood for “ferocity in battle” (2003: 98). This explains their popularity on family crests, and even to mark the boundaries of the City of London.
There are tales of knights doing battle with dragons around the country. Yet we also run up against the extremely specific form of the worm in places like the north east of England.
The word ‘worm’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘wyrm’. This was a generic word and covered everything from Beowulf‘s dragon to scorpions and snakes (Thompson 2014). It also came from the Old Norse word ‘ormr’ (Moon 2015). Over time, ‘worm’ and ‘dragon’ ceased being synonyms. Now, we’re more familiar with dragons, and worms are something you’d find in the garden.
The north east of England has at least four stories about dragons – and we’ll get to why that might be the case later. Perhaps the most famous are the stories of the Laidly Worm (Northumberland) and the Lambton Worm (County Durham).
Other parts of Britain have the Dragon of Loschy Hill (Yorkshire), the Sockburn worm (County Durham), the Bignor Hill dragon (Sussex), the Lyminster Knucker (Sussex), the Mordiford Wyvern (Herefordshire), the Dragon of Longwitton (Northumberland), and many more.
We’ll take a look at the Laidley Worm and the Lambton Worm, and see how they relate to the wider tradition of dragons in folklore.
The Lambton Worm
The story begins with John Lambton, an heir of the Lambton Estate. One Sunday, he skipped church to go fishing in the River Wear.
He hooked a creature which the legends describe as an eel or a lamprey. According to the stories, it’s anywhere between thumb-sized and 3ft long. John thought he’d caught the devil and threw it in a local well.
He forgot about the worm and eventually left England to fight in the Crusades. In the meantime, the worm poisoned the well. Having grown to an enormous size, it crawled out of the well and coiled itself around a hill – believed to be either Worm Hill or Penshaw Hill.
Livestock began going missing and the villagers panicked. According to legend, the Lambton Worm required the milk of nine cows (Westwood 2006: 237). There’s the magical number 9 again!
Most legends say the worm could wrap itself around the hill seven times. After terrorising the locals, the worm left for Lambton Castle. The villagers tried to kill it, but no one could overcome the worm.
The Battle and its Aftermath
John finally returned and learned about the destruction wrought by the worm. He sought the advice of a local wise woman who told him how to defeat it. Part of the advice required him to kill the first living thing he saw after killing the worm. This was vital to avoid a curse blighting his family.
The worm abandoned its hill and wrapped itself around a rock in the River Wear. John fixed spearheads to his armour and went down to the river to fight the worm. His father agreed to release John’s favourite hound when John won the battle. That way, he could kill the first living thing he saw and avoid the curse.
The worm tried to wrap itself around John. Trouble was, it impaled itself on the spearheads. They cut the worm to pieces which were washed away by the river. The scattered pieces meant the worm couldn’t reassemble itself, something it had done every time it was attacked before.
John sounded his horn to show he’d won, but his father forgot to release the dog. He ran down to see his victorious son. John realised what had gone wrong, and unable to kill his father, he killed the dog. Yet the curse seemed to kick in anyway.
According to the wise woman, nine generations of Lambtons wouldn’t die in their beds. This proved true for the first three. One drowned, and two died in battle. The ninth also died in an accident.
The Laidly Worm
For this story, we’ll head north up the coast to Northumberland. We’re off to Spindlestone Heugh, near the mighty fortress of Bamburgh Castle.
As the legend goes, the king had two children: the beautiful Princess Margaret, and the brave Childe Wynde. After the death of his wife, the king set off in search of a new bride. Childe Wynde sought fame and fortune in distant lands, leaving Margaret alone in the fortress.
After a while, her father returned with his new bride.
The local population turned out to welcome the new queen at a lavish feast. Unfortunately for Margaret, the queen was a witch, immediately jealous of Margaret’s beauty and popularity. She cursed her to turn into a ‘laidly worm’, a spell which could only be broken by the return of her brother.
Margaret publicly dismissed the threat and retired to bed. Sleep did not come easily as she turned the curse over in her mind, but eventually, she dozed off.
The Dragon Rises
In the morning, none of the servants could find Margaret. Her room housed a mighty dragon, instead of the princess. The worm fled the castle and took refuge in nearby caves. An old ballad told that she was so venomous that no grass or corn could grow in a seven-mile radius.
The beast plundered their livestock, so the local population consulted a warlock. He advised them to leave the milk of seven cows in a stone trough. This daily gift placated the dragon and it stopped stealing their animals.
While the cave and the trough were destroyed to make way for a quarry, this is believed to be the area in which they were once found.
News of the worm spread far and wide. Eventually, the story reached Childe Wynde. He was furious to hear about her treatment at the hands of his new stepmother.
He immediately set sail for Bamburgh. Childe Wynde knew all about witches and commissioned a ship made of rowan to repel her evil magic.
In some versions of the story, the Queen called up a fearsome storm as his ship approached the coast. In others, the Laidly Worm lashed its tail and whipped the sea into a frenzy. Either way, Childe Wynde changed course and landed at Budle Bay instead.
Another Battle and Another Aftermath
He ran up the beach and the Laidly Worm reared up behind the cliffs. Childe Wynde paused, afraid of the mighty dragon, but he wanted to save his sister.
The prince raised his sword. His sister’s voice rang out, telling him to put away his blade and give the dragon three kisses.
Childe Wynde obeyed. The Laidly Worm disappeared, replaced by his missing sister.
The siblings set off for Bamburgh Castle, eager to bring the Queen to justice. She realised Childe Wynde wouldn’t back down and begged for mercy. Some of the stories say Margaret was happy to oblige, but her brother couldn’t forgive the Queen’s behaviour.
He condemned her to the fate she’d meted out to his sister. The Queen vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving behind a large, venomous toad. The servants chased the beast out of the castle and it hid at the bottom of the castle well.
In another version of the story, Childe Wynde touched the Queen with rowan. She shrivelled up, became a toad, and fled. Local legends tell of a foul toad haunting the area. Either way, the Queen was gone and Margaret was safe.
So what does the worm represent in these stories?
Dragons in folklore usually offer the hero a way to triumph over evil. It’s possible that a natural catastrophe befell the Lambton and Laidly areas. Somehow, the family managed to turn the tide in favour of the locals. Over time, the hero’s deeds became his fight with the worm.
Yet both of these stories differ in their treatment of the worm.
In the case of the Lambton Worm, perhaps the moral of the tale gained enough strength over the years. Skipping church on the sabbath never ends well in folk tales. The worm he catches represents evil, since it’s a destructive dragon. Yet it also represents John’s own engagement with evil. After all, if he hadn’t fished it out of the river, who’s to say it would ever have grown to the size it did?
Crucially John fights the worm after he returns from the Crusades. It is only as an adult that he is equipped to deal with the monster. He finally has the experience of battle in order to do so. Yet, it must be said, he only succeeds where others have failed because he seeks the counsel of the wise woman first.
If the worm represents evil, she represents wisdom. She also represents the price of knowledge – she requires a death in exchange for the vital information. John’s unwillingness to pay according to the rules brings down the curse upon the family.
Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel, The Lair of the White Worm, drew upon the legend.
By contrast, the Laidly Worm deals with a worm who looks and acts like a monster, yet is actually an innocent princess. The story’s true monster is her stepmother, the jealous new queen. In this, the story is also similar to the ballad of ‘Kempe Owyne’. A Welsh hero must save a maiden transformed into a monster by her stepmother. Kempe Owyne must kiss her three times to break the enchantment.
A 14th-century tale concerns the island of Cos, where a physician’s daughter is turned into a dragon. Only the kiss of a knight can break the spell.
The King in the Laidly Worm story is never named. Some historians believe he may have been Ida the Flamethrower, the first ‘English’ king. He ruled from 547 to 560 AD. Scholars theorise that the Saxon tales from the time either grew to incorporate the dragon or copied the Kempe Owyne story.
Either way, the worm’s monstrous form is essentially a projection of the queen’s evil nature. I think this is why Childe Wynde has to defeat the queen, not the worm.
How do these worms relate to dragons in folklore?
It’s entirely possible the English worm descends from the worms of Old Norse legends, including Jormundgandr, the giant serpent that encircles Midgard. These English worms are often connected with water serpents, which in itself is notable. The North East suffered from Viking raids, and the worms could either represent the dragons from their tales or the Vikings themselves. In battling the dragons, the heroes are essentially battling the invading forces from over the sea.
In each story, the worm represents the Other: the Lambton Worm is caught while fishing and doesn’t resemble any known creatures, while the Laidly Worm is created by a Queen from outside of the region. Perhaps the latter story dates to a time of difficulty in the area. The arrival of a newcomer from elsewhere coinciding with calamity might prompt stories of witchcraft.
I can’t help thinking the Lambton Worm is also something of a cautionary tale. John catches it and throws it in a well to dispose of it, and promptly forgets about it. He essentially leaves other people to deal with the mess he creates. Could this have referred to some kind of threat facing the community that was left unchecked?
Both worms also hold their local area to ransom. Only providing them with resources could placate them – which again has links back to the pillaging of the Viking raids. The Lambton Worm must be destroyed to end its reign of terror, while the Laidly Worm must be transformed. Simpson and Roud point out that in the English tales, the heroes don’t battle the dragons to win treasure or save damsels (2003: 98). John does so to right his mistake, while Childe Wynde does so to save his sister. Their heroism is a practical sort, rather than a financial one.
Interestingly, only one of the stories involves a dragon-slaying motif, while the other is a dragon rescue. As Jamie Tehrani explains, the Lambton Worm is also “a redemption story” (in Murray 2018). John started the problem when he caught the worm, so he has to kill it to end the story. He’s not a hero hired from elsewhere to solve a local problem. John must put right his own mistake.
And this is perhaps the key to these stories after all. Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson note that the local legends differ from generic dragon tales because they’re so strongly linked to the place where it happened.
“Almost always it draws attention to some material object which links the amazing events of the tale to the ongoing, everyday world.”(2006: 734)
Even the hero is linked to the area. He’s always either part of the ruling family, or a local worker (Westwood 2006: 735). The stories become fables, praising the ability of the community to deal with a problem without recourse to outside help. They also embed the story within the local landscape, creating explanations for landmarks or strange features. In this way, the story literally could not happen anywhere else.
So who knows if the worms were indeed real?
Which tales of dragons in folklore do you have in your area?
Moon, Jim (2015), ‘FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY: The Wyvern of Wonderland’, Hypnogoria, http://hypnogoria.blogspot.com/2015/02/folklore-on-friday-wyvern-of-wonderland.html.
Murray, Tom (2018), ‘From dragons to dreaming serpents: tracing the cultural history of the monstrous Lambton Worm’, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/from-dragons-to-dreaming-serpents-tracing-the-cultural-history-of-the-monstrous-lambton-worm-100015.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Thompson, Victoria (2014), ‘The Gravestone, the Grave and the Wyrm’, in Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England, https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/dying-and-death-in-later-anglosaxon-england/gravestone-the-grave-and-the-wyrm/83CFA9D7C975EA503C2AA013D5701C45.
Westwood, Jennifer and Jacqueline Simpson (2006), The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys, London: Penguin.
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