Dragons at first glance may seem to be the stuff of fairy tales and pure myth, however, there were days when this wasn't always the case . Indeed, there was a time when such fearsome, unstoppable creatures were often thought of as very real, and managed to permeate the legends and myths of many areas of Europe and beyond. With such a problem with giant, dangerous reptilian beasts, the people of these regions had to come up with something other than cowering in their homes, and so came the legendary dragon slayers, those brave individuals who would go out to face these threats head on. England in particular is full of such tales, and beyond just stories, there have been tombs left behind where these brave, dragon-killing warriors are said to rest.
Perhaps the most famous supposed tomb of a dragon slayer in England is the one called the Slayer’s Slab, at the St. Mary Magdalene church in Lyminster, West Sussex. The colorful tale surrounding the tomb begins with a creature called the Knucker of Lyminster, which back in Saxon times in the 5th century was said to be a fearsome water dragon that dwelled within a supposedly bottomless pool that was known as a knucker hole. Tales of this fierce and hideous beast have it emerging from the watery depths of its lair to cause all manner of mayhem across the countryside. It would snatch and devour cattle, people, anything it could get its claws on, realty, as well as lay waste to fields of crops and destroying buildings, to the point that many villages in the area supposedly were cowering in fear. One old report says:
The dragon would go ‘spannelling about the brooks by night to see what he could pick up for supper, like a few horses, or cows maybe, he’d snap ’em up as soon as look at ’em.’ Another unpleasant habit the monster had was sitting at a high point on a causeway and if ‘anybody come along there, he’d lick ’em up, like a toad licking flies off a stone.
According to the story, it got so out of hand that it was obvious that the vile monster needed to be hunted down and slain, and so the King of Sussex offered the hand of his daughter in marriage to any man who could hunt down and kill the evil creature. Many knights and brave warriors then came to Sussex to try their hand at fighting the Knucker, but all failed, so it seemed the beast was there to stay. That is, until the strangest version of events has it that a young, innocent farmer named Jim Pulk accepted the challenge, and instead of using might and swords decided to use his wits. He went about gathering a massive number of poisonous berries, which he then made into an enormous pie that he dragged to the knucker hole by horse drawn cart and presented it to the monster. The Knucker then emerged, ate the pie, then the horses for dessert, and would have eaten Jim as well if it weren’t for the fact that the poison then took effect and caused it to drop dead. Jim then chopped the dragon’s head off and paraded it around town for all to see.
The village rejoiced and Jim went to celebrate at a local pub, but while he was there he seems to have forgotten to wash all of that poison berry juice off of his hand, and so when he wiped his mouth he ingested some and fell to the floor dead. The villagers then supposedly buried him in the churchyard and erected the Slayer’s Slab as his memorial. The legend is so pervasive in the area that there is a stained glass window in St Mary Magdalene’s Church that shows Jim Pulk offering the dragon his pie, and is has been passed down for generations. The slab itself, which was moved from the courtyard into the church long ago to protect it from wear and tear, shows a simple cross on a herringbone pattern, which some have interpreted as a sword carved against a background of dragons’ ribs. It is impossible to know just who the slab was really made for, but there are certain elements that offer a grain of truth to the story. There really is a knucker hole nearby, a pool fed by an underground spring, and it really was once thought to be bottomless, although more modern investigations have shown that it is only around 30 feet deep. Interestingly, for all of the woes it supposedly caused, the water from the hole was said to have medicinal and healing properties if one were to be brave enough to approach close enough to get it.
This is not the only dragon slayer tomb by a long shot, and at St Mary’s Church, in the village of Brent Pelham, Hertfordshire, there is another tomb of a mighty dragon slayer. In this story we have the fearsome dragon of Brent Pelham, which was a hulking winged beast covered in armored scales that lived in a nearby cave system, coming out when it pleased to terrorize the landscape. In the village lived a wealthy man by the name of Piers Shonks, who one day decided that he was going to slay the dragon once and for all. Some of the more colorful legends about Shonks have him seeming to be just as terrifying as the dragon, calling him a giant with winged hunting hounds as escorts, but whatever the case may be, one day he purportedly went out to the cave armed with a spear and called the insidious dragon out. After a long and brutal battle, Shonks was then able to finally kill his quarry by shoving the spear down the dragon’s throat, but that is not the end of the tale. According to the legend, as soon as the dragon breathed its last breath, the Devil himself appeared and threatened to steal his soul upon death for killing his monster, whether he was buried in a church or outside it.
Shonks apparently had a long life after that, but upon his death bed in 1086 he remembered the Devil’s promise and so as a final act of defiance he fired an arrow into the air and asked to be buried wherever it may fall, which would in theory force the Devil to have to come looking for him. Amazingly, the arrow then came down to fly through a window of the church and smash into its north wall, its final resting place neither in the church or out of it. A tomb was built right there in the wall, the Devil was thwarted because of the location, and a large slab of black marble was erected to commemorate the dragon slayer. This slab is ornately decorated with carvings of a dragon with a spear in its mouth, flames spewing from the beast’s maw, a cross, angels, and the emblems of the Four Evangelists: an angel, eagle, lion and bull, and there is an inscription on the wall above the slab that reads:
Nothing of Cadmus nor St George, those names
of great renown, survives them but their fames;
Time was so sharp set as to make no Bones
Of theirs, nor of their monumental Stones.
But Shonks, one serpent kills, t’other defies,
And in this wall, as in a fortress lies.
After death, legends about Shonks would continue. One was that his ghost haunts the churchyard and church, and it has also been claimed that the bones interred within the tomb are truly those of a giant, with one report from 1835 saying that they came from an individual who would have stood 9 feet tall. Of course, this is probably a flourish added to make it all more mysterious, and in the end we are left with another intriguing and fantastical local legend peppered with certain grains of truth that serve to make it even more fascinating still.
Next we have a story from the isolated and remote Sockburn Peninsula of the River Tees, lying between the villages of Croft in North Yorkshire and Hurworth, in County Durham. Here there was once said to dwell a two-legged flying dragon called the Sockburn Worm, which in addition to breathing fire was able to spew poison that could kill on contact, as well as emit a fetid stench that was enough to paralyze livestock and humans alike and a corrosive acid for good measure. The Worm, like many dragons of legend and lore, liked to run amok over the countryside eating cows, horses, and people, until one day in around 1063 a local nobleman by the name of Sir John Conyers decided to put an end to it. He suited up in full armor, armed himself with a falchion, and rode out to face the monstrous creature in battle, eventually defeating it, kicking its body into the river and placing a large stone where it was killed. Sir John was widely celebrated for having slayed the dragon, with the King even granting Sir John and his descendants possession of Sockburn, and he would be buried in an ornate tomb decorated with a stone effigy of a knight clad in a coat of mail armor and holding a triangular shield and sword, with an intricate carving of a dog and wyvern fighting at its feet. The actual sword itself would be used for a tradition that would spring up in the area, in which every newly appointed Prince Bishop must pause upon the bridge and receive the sword from the Lord of the Sockburn, who would say:
My Lord Bishop. I hereby present you with the falchion wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery flying serpent which destroyed man, woman and child; in memory of which the king then reigning gave him the manor of Sockburn, to hold by this tenure, that upon the first entrance of every bishop into the county the falchion should be presented.
The Bishop would then pass the sword back and officially gain the title. Sir John’s falchion was presented in the ceremony for hundreds of years, after which the once popular even would gradually die out. The sword would then be kept in the Sockburn Hall manor house until 1947, then donated to Durham Cathedral, where it is displayed in a glass case to this day. There has been much debate ever since on whether this was the real sword from legend or merely a fake, and one write-up about the sword on the site The Serpent's Pen says of it:
We’re told Sir John slew the Sockburn Worm in 1063. The sword on display in Durham Cathedral features the heraldic decorations of a black eagle on one side of its pommel and the three lions of England on the other. This indicates the sword couldn’t have been made earlier than 1194, when the three-lion motif first appeared on the royal crest. Other details of the sword would probably date it to about 1260-70, around 200 years after Sir John supposedly slew his dragon. It’s possible that the weapon in Durham Cathedral was made to replace an earlier sword, but this must remain speculation. The legend is true in its claim that the Conyers were granted the manor of Sockburn, but this seems to have happened around the start of the 12th century, before the forging of the sword but after the reputed dragon slaying. The sword’s crossguard is, interestingly, decorated with dragons. All this would suggest sword and myth may have been created around the same time to boost the claims of the Norman interlopers, the Conyers, to their estates. The Conyers Falchion is still, however, a precious artefact, as only about half-a-dozen medieval falchions are thought to have survived.
Sadly, Conyers, who were a real family, went into decline, losing their wealth and completely disappearing by 1910. Today there is not much left other than the legend, the effigy that supposedly marks Sir John’s tomb, although even this has been suggested as being a fake, and the sword that remains on display. However, in 1984 the tradition of the passing of a replica of the “real” sword was revived, with the mayor of the nearby village of Darlington standing in for the Lord, and it has managed to keep going on up into the present, although in a much less elaborate form. Again, it is not really known where truth ends and pure folklore begins with this one, but it is a pretty amazing tale all the same. This seems to be the case with all of these stories, myth merged with real history and real tombs to form a whole unique mystery unto itself. To most, the thought that dragons ever existed in any form may seem a little fantastical, if not downright absurd, but the history of many areas is pervaded by such tales, and they definitely hold a unique and intriguing place in legend. The dragon seems to be almost an archetype upon the landscape of the human psyche, somehow ingrained within us across cultures, and this makes it especially intriguing. Why should this be? Were dragons ever real in any sense, or are these just shared legends spewing forth from some universal subconsciousness? Whatever the case may be, these tombs remain to stir up the imagination.