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Monday, 23 January 2012

The Year of the Dragon: Dragons and Wyverns of Dorset


One of the oldest mythical creatures that have appeared in every culture around the world occurring in oral and written folk traditions are dragons. The popular image of the dragon as a large fire breathing winged lizards has been so deeply ingrained on our psyche that it is hard to think that these fabulous animals never existed at all, although traveller’s tales, and misunderstandings about the habits of real animals, may have played a major part in the zoology of the dragon.

2012 is the year of the dragon according to the Chinese calendar.  The Chinese dragon is highly revered, for it is symbol of beauty, wisdom and divine powers, as opposed to its western counterpart which is a feared and loathed.

In English folk tradition the dragon appeared either as a marauding creature that would feast upon livestock or lay waste to villages.  More often than not it was the case that a maiden would be sacrificed to the creature to appease it and a gallant knight or local squire would slay the beast with either cunning or magical means.

As most English counties have a dragon legend it is surprising that Dorset is devoid of any stories relating to them, which is strange considering that fossils of long forgotten sea monsters of prehistoric times have been found along the Dorset coast for centuries


The Christchurch Dragon

However in a chronicle, written in 1146 by one Hermann of Tournai. In "De Miraculis S. Marie Laudunensis" ("On the Miracles of Our Lady of Laon." ) Hermann writes about the year 1113 in which French monks visiting England, witnessed a dragon with five-heads emerge from the channel attacking and burning Christchurch (formerly in the county of Hampshire) to the ground.

Hermann writes:
XI. God’s vengeance is shown in a wonder

On the same Sunday when we had dined, we left the town. The people there, who were touched with gratitude for the benefits we had brought them, asked us to return to them later and we accepted the invitation. But, meanwhile, the just Judge of Heaven did not delay revenge for the slight given to his Mother. We were only about half a league out of town when suddenly two horsemen rode up behind us, shouting out and calling us to come and help the city, which was on fire. We looked back: the whole town had caught fire and was in a blaze. We asked them how it had come to burn and were told that a dragon had come out of the sea and, while we were making our departure, had flown to the city, breathing fire out of its nostrils.

First, it had set the church afire, and then had kindled some houses in the town. We heard this and, wanted to take a look at the wonder. Leaving the shrine with its own attendants, we raced our horses back to Christchurch and there we saw the dragon. It was incredibly long and had five heads.
We made our way back there as far as the church, which we found burnt to the ground, totally – it was not just the timbers which were consumed but the walls themselves, even the biggest blocks of stone. The altars had been reduced to dust and ashes. Everyone who saw what had happened was dumbfounded with dread at the miracle.
When the Dean had seen his house and his church on fire, he had hastily collected his clothing and furniture and strapped them onto a ship which was beached in the harbour nearby. Then he had the ship launched and hoped that on it they would be safe from the fire. The dragon was nearby and (as if fulfilling the purpose for which it had come) found the ship and flew over it and burnt all that was on board. Then, wonderful as it is to tell, it set fire to the whole ship in an instant! We were anxious about our host of the night before and moved on towards his home: there we found him glad in the safety of his house and all within it, thinking how good a quest the Queen of Heaven had been in preserving him. It was not just the house where we had stayed that had survived intact: the preservation extended to the outbuildings, which, as I said, housed his livestock, so that nothing out of all his goods had been lost. The traders who had earlier shown so much kindness to us now received the favour of Heaven, for little if any of their wares were lost. The fair in the town only lasted a day, so after eating at midday they had all gathered up their packs and had them already strapped up and stowed away when the dragon came. They were all utterly terrified by the dragon’s appearance and we saw them running about wildly in all directions. Now the Dean – the man who had the shrine of Our Lady thrown out of his church – was moved to a late repentance. He came forward, barefoot, and prostrated himself before the shrine, acknowledging that the judgement of the Lord had been just, and praying to be forgiven for all that he had done wrong.

Wyverns of Wessex

Where there is a lack of stories and folklore related to Dragons in Dorset there is no shortage of usage in symbolism represented in stone ornaments and grotesques on churches and houses and also heraldic crests.

Stone Tympanum, Wynford Eagle
From Rev. John Hutchins
'History and Antiquities of Dorset' 1741

The wyvern is a legendary winged serpent with a dragon's head, two legs, a barbed tail and poisonous breath. These creatures are depicted fighting on the stone tympanum, the remaining part of the original Norman chapel at Wynford Eagle. It also bears two inscriptions, Malhad l'Egle meaning Matilda l' Eagle this is though to refer to the patron of the piece. The village is named after the Normal Aqulia (Eagle) family. There is a further enscription Alvi me feci meaning Alvi made me. 

Modern depictions can be found on the county coat of arms. Two golden dragons (Sometimes incorrectly referred to as Wyverns) represented the ancient kingdom of Wessex were later granted as supporters to the arms of Dorset County Council in 1950. Two Wyvern supporters also appear in the West Dorset District Council granted in 1990.

Who's Afear'd: County Arms of Dorset
There has been much debate on the origins of the wyvern or dragon used as an emblem of Wessex.  The invading Saxons may have brought dragon-emblems with them, but from the Romano-British the ancient chronicles indicate that Cerdic, and perhaps all the Saxon monarchs not only in Wessex but in other parts of Britain, adopted the dragon-standard, and possibly this is what did actually happen. However, dragon standards were in fairly wide use in Europe at the time, being derived from the ensign of the Roman legions. The phrase, ‘the dragon of Wessex,’ does not appear to be of great antiquity.


It has been suggested that a golden dragon standard was raised at the Battle of Burford in AD 752 by the West Saxons.

The historian William Camden (1551–1623) wrote
"...in Saxon Beorgford [i.e. Burford], where Cuthred, king of the West Saxons, then tributary to the Mercians, not being able to endure any longer the cruelty and base exactions of King Æthelbald, met him in the open field with an army and beat him, taking his standard, which was a portraiture of a golden dragon."
While others have suggested the origin of the golden dragon standard, is attributed to that of Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur of whom Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote:
[Uther Pendragon] "...ordered two dragons to be fashioned in gold, in the likeness of the one which he had seen in the ray which shone from that star. As soon as the Dragons had been completed this with the most marvellous craftsmanship — he made a present of one of them to the congregation of the cathedral church of the see of Winchester. The second one he kept for himself, so that he could carry it around to his wars."
'Yellow Devils' Badge of the 43rd Wessex Division
The golden wyvern of Wessex continued to be used as a symbol for battle.  The British Army have used this ancient emblem to represent The 43rd (Wessex)Infantry Division.  Who adopted a formation sign consisting of a gold wyvern on a black background, and both the Wessex Brigade and Wessex Regiments used a cap badge featuring the heraldic beast. During the Second World War, the Germans certainly respected the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division, nicknaming them "Yellow Devils" on account of their tenacity (and, of course, the "Wessex Wyvern" badge), especially at the battles on the R Odon and for Hill 112 in Normandy.

Dragon Reading.....

Dragons - More than a Myth?
by Richard Freeman

Click Here
For further reading about Dragons look no further than this excellent publication 'Dragons - More than a Myth?' by Richard Freeman, cryptozoologist, author, explorer, adventurer, and Zoological Director of the world’s largest mystery animal research organisation 'The Centre for Fortean Zoology'. Richard follows this mysteries creature right across the globe, from prehistory to the present day. He tracks it from the steamy jungles of the Congo, to the desolate lakes of eastern Siberia. The dragon rears its scaly head in every culture on Earth; from the Indians to the Australian Aborigines, and from the Vikings to the Pygmies.

The inescapable conclusion is that there are very real beasts at the core of these fantastic stories. The dragon has its teeth and claws deep into the collective psyche of mankind, and it’s not about to let go. Our most ancient fear still stalks the earth today. Beware. This is no fairytale! When your parents told you that there were no such things as dragons, they lied! With illustrations by Mark North, (co-author of Dark Dorset Tales of Mystery Wonder and Terror) - this is truly a fascinating insight into the world of Dragons.

 ***************
The Portland Sea Dragon
by Carol Hunt
Click Her
Published by Roving Press 'The Portland Sea Dragon' by Carol Hunt. This is the first in a series of children’s books set on Portland written by local author Carol Hunt. The Portland Chronicles draw on local history, exploring a seventeenth century world of smuggling, witchcraft, piracy and local intrigue. The Chronicles aim to capture children’s imagination with stories based on real folklore and places.

For more information about the book visit www.rovingpress.co.uk



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