Dragons & Serpents In Sussex

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The subject of Dragons in folklore is well known throughout the world, with similar legends being heard from Britain and Europe to China and America on the opposite side of the globe. Likewise, its history can be traced from Mesopotamia several Millenia ago to their re-emergence today in Fantasy, Role-Playing Games and the revival of certain customs. Despite the differences in the individual accounts, one thing is common, that is the comparison of Dragons with some sort of Lizard or Snake, perhaps representing the untamed forces of nature as they are often found in wilderness or places where people cannot or darenot venture. The forms of individual Dragons can usually be linked to the elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, with particular traits being common to Dragons of each type. Dragons have also been linked to some sort of Earth Energies, especially in China where they represent the forces running through the earth which have to be taken into account in Feng Shui. Some people see the stock image of a Dragon being speared by a Saint as a Christianisation of some form of Earth Acupuncture, where the energies are redirected by the placing of Iron objects in the ground at appropriate points.

Dragons In Sussex

In Sussex, Dragon legends seem to be restricted to the West, though whether this is due to any particular geographical or cultural reason or just a hole in the folklore record is not clear. Serpents were seen as very unlucky in Sussex, probably due to association with the Devil, and this extended to Dragons. Accounts of such beasts go back a long way, with the 8th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which mentions "Wondrous Adders that were to be seen in the land of the South Saxons". Around the same time, Ethelward's Chronicle of 770AD mentions "Monstrous serpents were seen in the country of the Southern Angles that is called Sussex". Maybe they are the last remnants of some form of dinosaur, Iguanodon bones have been found in Tilgate forest, not too far from St. Leonards forest where one of the Sussex dragon tales is set.

"I should howl outright to tell of the rest,
How this poor a maid was over prest;
Therefore quickly come, and read for your penny.
Come, my hearts. 'tis as good a bargain as e're you had any.
Here's no Sussex Serpent to fright you here in my Bundle,
Nor was it ever printed for the Widow Trundle."

Sussex Song - 1663

Dragons Of St. Leonards Forest

One of the main Dragon haunts in Sussex is at St. Leonards forest near Horsham, a scrap of the ancient wealden forest so named after one of the Dragon legends that is set there. It is said that St. Leonard, a 6th century French hermit, once lived in St. Leonards forest. During a long battle with a Dragon living there, which he eventually won, St. Leonard was injured. It is said that God made White Lilies spring forth from the ground where the Saints blood fell. Also asking what reward the Saint wanted for freeing the local people from the Dragon, he asked that snakes would be banished from the forest and nightingales, which had disturbed the Saints prayers, would be silent. Dr. Andrew Borde wrote in the 16th century that the Nightingales didn't sing because they disturbed the devotions of a forest hermit. The is no proof that St. Leonard, a French saint and Martyr, ever visited Sussex, though the legend may have been attributed to him through a hermitage within the forest. Nevertheless, there is recorded a fragment of a traditional rhyme regarding the forest, which states :

"Here the Adders never sting,
Nor the Nightingales sing."

Another version says he asked for the snakes to be made deaf, and this is echoed in another piece of superstition regarding snakes in Sussex, that on their bellies, Adders have written the words :

"If I could hear as well as see,
No mortal man should master me."

Finally, it should be noted that there is a small place called "Dragons Green" just to the South-West of the forest. While this may be a reference to the legend of the Dragons in St. Leonards forest, it may also be a reference to the personal name of Dragon. A family so named, natives of Roffey, lived in nearby Cowfold and gave their name to Dragon's Farm there, a place name which goes back to 1682.

There is a second, much later story told of a Dragon in St. Leonards Forest, given in an unusually detailed account in the form of a pamphlet produced in 1614 and thought by some, as with so many scary tales, to be a story concocted by smugglers to keep people away from the area. A copy of the item can be found in the Library of the Sussex Archaeological Society in a document called the "Harleian Miscellany". The item is quoted verbatim below :

A Discourse relating a strange and monstrous Serpent (or Dragon) lately discovered, and yet living, to the great Annoyance and divers Slaughters both of Men and Cattell, by his strong and violent Poyson. In Sussex, two miles from Horsam, in a Woode called St. Leonards Forrest, and thirtie miles from London, this present month of August, 1614. With the true Generation of Serpents.
"In Sussex, there is a pretty market-towne, called Horsam, neare unto it a forrest, called St. Leonard's Forrest, and there, in a vast and unfrequented place, heathie, vaultie, full of unwholesome shades, and over-growne hollowes, where this serpent is thought to be bred; but, wheresoever bred, certaine and too true it is, that there it yet lives. Within three or four miles compasse, are its usual haunts, oftentimes at a place called Faygate, and it hath been seen within halfe a mile of Horsam; a wonder, no doubt, most terrible and noisome to the inhabitants thereabouts. There is always in his tracke or path left a glutinous and slimie matter (as by a small similitude we may perceive in a snaile's) which is very corrupt and offensive to the scent; insomuch that they perceive the air to be putrified withall, which must needes be very dangerous. For though the corruption of it cannot strike the outward part of a man, unless heated into his blood; yet by receiving it in at any of our breathing organs (the mouth or nose) it is by authoritie of all authors, writing in that kinde, mortall and deadlie, as one thus saith :

"Noxia serpentum est admixto sanguine pestis. - LUCAN"

This serpent (or dragon, as some call it) is reputed to be nine feete, or rather more, in length, and shaped almost in the forme of an axeltree of a cart; a quantitie of thickness in the middest, and somewhat smaller at both endes. The former part, which he shootes forth as a necke, is supposed to be an elle long; with a white ring, as it were, of scales about it. The scales along hist backe seem to be blackish, and so much as is discovered under his bellie, appeareth to be red; for I speak of no nearer description than of a reasonable ocular distance. For coming too neare it, hath already beene too dearly payd for, as you shall heare hereafter.

It is likewise discovered to have large feete, but the eye may be there deceived; for some suppose that serpents have no feete, but glide upon certain ribbes and scales, which both defend them from the upper part of their throat unto the lower part of their bellie, and also cause them to move much the faster. For so this doth, and rids way (as we call it) as fast as a man can run. He is of Countenance very proud, and at the sight of men or cattel, will raise his necke upright, and seem to listen and looke about, with great arrogancy. there are likewise on either side of him discovered, two great bunches so big as a large foote-ball and (as some thinke) will in time grow to wings; but God, I hope, will (to defend the poor people in the neighbourhood) that he shall be destroyed before he grow so fledge.

He will cast his venome about four rodde from him, as by woefull experience it was proved on the bodies of a man and a woman comming that way, who afterwards were found dead, being poysoned and very much swelled, but not prayed upon. Likewise a man going to chase it, and as he imagined, to destroy it with two mastive dogs, as yet not knowing the great danger of it, his dogs were both killed, and he himselfe glad to returne with hast to preserve his own life. Yet this is to be noted, that the dogs were not prayed upon, but slaine and left whole : for his is thought to be, for the most part, in a conie-warren, which he much frequents; and it is found much scanted and impaired in the encrease it had woont to afford.

These persons, whose names are hereunder printed, have seene this serpent, beside divers others, as the carrier of Horsam, who lieth at the White Horse in Southwarke, and who can certifie the truth of all that has been here related.

John Steele.
Christopher Holder.
And a Widow Woman dwelling nere Faygate

The Knucker

A famous Dragon called a Knucker lived in a pool near the village of Lyminster called the Knucker hole. Being famous, the legend regarding this Dragon has been retold and modified many times. The word Knucker can be traced back to the Saxon word "Nicor" which means "A Water Monster" and can be found in the poem Beowulf. The term can also be seen in the word "Nixie", which usually refers to some form of water spirit and perhaps "Old Nick", a euphemism for the Devil. In European cultures such as Iceland, the word "Nykur"means a water horse and the German "Nickel" is a form of goblin found underground in German mines. A similar creature, though more friendly, could be found in Cornish mines and was known as the "Knocker". In Scandinavia there is the "Näcken" (Water Men) and "Neck" (Water spirits), the Estonian "Näkineiu" (Mermaid) and "Näkk" (singing water animal), the Finnish "Näkki" (feasome water spirit) and many more. It has also been suggested that the word comes from the Celtic "Cnuc" or the Saxon(?) "Cnucl", meaning a joint or junction, which makes a kind of sense as pools were once seen as an entrance to the underworld. The Knucker Hole is reputedly bottomless though is actually around thirty feet deep, as discovered by divers. Despite this, it is said that the six bell ropes of Lyminster church were tied together and let down to try and find the bottom, it couldn't. It is fed from a strong underground spring which keeps the pool clear and the temperature of the water relatively constant throughout the seasons. Unfortunately a high fence now surrounds the pool, either to keep away tourists or anglers as it is used for breeding trout, though once it was quite accessible and people used to bottle the water as a cure for all ills.

A sketch of the Knucker Hole at Lyminster

The Dragon to be found in the Knucker Hole near Lyminster was a rampaging beast, killing livestock and humans (though some say only fair damsels), much to the annoyance of the locals. Though a water monster, it is said that the beast could fly and terrorised the countryside for miles around. One story says that the monster aggravated the King of Sussex himself to such an extent that he offered the hand of his daughter to anyone who could kill the beast. A wandering knight accomplished this in bloody combat and settled down in Lyminster with the King's daughter, where his gravestone can be seen at the church.

The grave of the Dragon Slayer

The gravestone is a common theme amongst these stories and has been moved inside the church to avoid further weathering. The stone is actually medieval with no markings to suggest the real identity of the owner, though there is a cross which overlays a herring-bone pattern, which folklore says represents the sword of the knight in the above story lying on the ribs of the Dragon. Whoever the original occupant was, one child in the 1930's believed the tales and used to leave snapdragons on the grave. Another piece of folklore regarding the gravestone says that the pattern was actually caused by the dragon trying to claw its was down to the Slayer.

Another variation on the story tells us that it was a local Sussex man who killed the Dragon rather than a wandering knight. Even in this tale opinions differ on his actual identity, some say it was a farmers boy from Lyminster itself who went by the name of "Jim Pulk", some say the slayer was a man called "Jim Puttock" from the village of Wick just to the south, some say he was from Arundel, though no story is known relating to an Arundel man.

Jim Pulk despatched the Dragon by baking a huge pie laced with poison, which he put on the back of a cart and left it by the Knucker Hole for the Dragon who ate the pie, the horses and the cart as well. After the Dragon had expired, Jim cut the head from the beast with his scythe and took it the Six Bells Inn to celebrate, where he died, presumably from accidentally poisoning himself with either the Dragon's blood or the poison he used to bake the pie. He was buried in the churchyard and we get back to that gravestone.

The story of Jim Puttock of Wick is similar to both that of the Knight and that of Jim Pulk, though has its owns differences, firstly in that the reward was offered by the Mayor of Arundel rather than the King of Sussex. The Dragons death is both by poison and axe when the Dragon is weakened, but the Hero survives, to be buried in the usual manner of the tale at the end of his life. The story is told by an old hedger :

They do say, that a dunnamany years ago there was a gert dragon lived in that big pond there, Knucker his name was, and Knucker Hole we calls it to-day. And thisyer ole dragon, you know, he uster goo spannelling about the Brooks by night to see what he could pick up for supper, like few horses, or cows maybe, he'd snap 'em up soon as look at 'em. Then bimeby he took to sitting top o' Causeway, and anybody come along there, he'd lick 'em up, like a toad licking flies off a stone.

So what with that, and him swimming in the River otherwhile and sticking his ugly face up agin the winders in Shipyard when people was sitting having their tea, things was in a tidy old Humphrey up Arndel way, no bounds.

So the Mayor of Arndel, as was then, he offered a reward for anyone as ud put an end to en. I misremember how much t'was, but something pretty big, I reckon. Howsumever, everybody was so feared on en, that they was onaccountable backward in coming forward, as you might say.

So Mayor, he doubled the reward; and this time a young chap from Wick put up for it. Now some people says he was a Arndel man; but that an't true. Young Jim Puttock his name was, and he came from Wick. I've lived at Toddington all my life, so I reckon I oughter know. Sides, my great-aunt, Judith, what lived down along there where you turns up by they gert ellum trees, just t'other side o' the line, uster say that when she was a gal, there was a marn lived 'long o' them as was courting a gal that 'ventuallv married a kind of a descendant of this Jim Puttock.

Let be how t'wull, this Jim Puttock he goos to Mayor, and tells him his plan. And Mayor he says everybody must give en what he asks, and never mind the expense, 'cause they oughter be thankful, anyway, for getting rid of the Knucker.

So he goos to the smith and horders a gert iron pot 'bout so big.
And he goos to the miller and asks en for so much flour.
And he goos to the woodmen and tells 'em to build a gert stack-fire in the middle o' the Square.
And when t'was done he set to and made the biggest pudden' that was ever seen.

And when t'was done-not that t'was quite done-bit sad in the middle, I reckon, but that was all the better, like-they heaved en on to a timber-tug, and somebody lent en a team to draw it, and off he goos, bold as a lion.

All the people followed en as far as the bridge, but they dursn't goo no furder, for there was ole Knucker, lying just below Bill Dawes'es. Least his head was, but his neck and body-parts lay all along uo the hill, past the station, and he was tearing up the trees in Batworth Park with his tail.

And he sees thisyer tug a-coming, and he sings out, affable-like :

"How do, Man"
"How do, Dragon?" says Jim.
"What you got there?" says Dragon, sniffing.
"Pudden" says Jim.
"Pudden?" says Knucker. "What be that?"
"Just you try" says Jim.

And he didn't want no more telling-pudden, horses, tug, they was gone in a blink. Jimmy ud agone, too, only he hung on to one o' they trees what blew down last year.

"T'weren't bad" says Knucker, licking his chops.
"Like another?" says Jim.
"Shudn't mind" says he.
"Right" says Jim. "Bring ee one Sadernoon"

But he knew better'n that, surelye. Fore long they hears en rowling about, and roaring and bellering fit to bust hissel. And as he rowls, he chucks up gert clods, big as houses, and trees and stones and all manner, he did lash about so with his tail.

But that Jim Puttock, he weren't afeared, not he. He took a gallon or so with his dinner, and goos off to have a look at en. When he sees en coming, ole Knucker roars out :

"Don't you dare bring me no more o' that 'ere pudden, young marn!"
"Why?" says Jim. "What's matter?"
"Colly wobbles" says the Dragon. "Do set so heavy on me I can't stand un, nohows in de wurreld"
"Shudn't bolt it so" says Jim, "but never mind, I got a pill here, soon cure that"
"Where?" says Knucker.
"Here" says Jim.

And he ups with an axe he'd held behind his back and cuts off his head.

Lyminster is not the only location of Knucker holes. The Sussex Dialect Dictionary tells us that Knucker Holes are :

"Springs which rise in the flat lands of the South Downs. They keep at one level, are often 20 feet or so across and are reputed to be bottomless. The water is cold in Summer but never freezes, in a frost it gives off a vapour, being warmer than the air. Knuckerholes are found at Lyminster, Lancing, Shoreham, Worthing and in many other 'Flats'."

The hole at Lancing was known back in 1937 as bottomless and could be found near an old Inn called the Sussex Pad, which stood on the banks of the old River Adur. It was believed that the countryside was filled with such holes as this, and some believed that they went down to the other side of the world.

Bignor Hill

There is a brief mention of a Dragon on Bignor Hill south of the village of Bignor near the famous Roman Villa, apparently "A Large dragon had its den on Bignor Hill, and marks of its folds were to be seen on the hill". Similar legends have been told of ridges around other hills, such as at Wormhill in Derbyshire.

Mummers & Fools

George fighting the Dragon A recurring theme in Mummers Plays and Fool Animals for Morris Dancing in Sussex is the Dragon. Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men have a Dragon called Georgian as a Fool Animal whilst Ditchling Morris have a blue Dragon as an emblem and occasionally have someone dressed up in a blue dragon costume. Dragons are commonly killed by St. George in Mummers Plays and have been used by Sompting Village Morris in costume when performing their play, as shown in the picture.

Dragon Images

Saints Michael and Margaret killing the 'Devil as Dragon' in Lindfield Church
Saints Michael and Margaret killing
the 'Devil as Dragon' in Lindfield Church
St. George kills the dragon on relief on Star Inn Many church murals were covered or destroyed during the Reformation in Sussex, though occasionally some are found and restored, such as at Hardham church, where an image was found of St. George on horseback, killing a dragon with his lance and also at Stedham Church in the North-West of West Sussex. St. George mounted on a blue steed has also been found at Westfield where he is seen killing a red dragon while St. Michael fights a green dragon at Withyham church and again on a Norman stone carving in Seaford church. Both St. Margaret and St. Michael could be seen in Lindfield church killing a 6 headed dragon, Margaret with a spear and Michael with a sword. A famous image on a more secular building can be found carved on the Star Inn at Alfriston. The Dragon in church art is a representation of the Devil and in Sussex is only depicted being slain by a suitable saint such as George, Michael or Margaret.

Saint Michael and the Dragon in Seaford Church
Saint Michael and the Dragon in Seaford Church

The Dragon image was important in Sussex during much earlier times. At the time of the battle of Hastings, one of the Saxons banners, shown below, was the Dragon of Wessex. William the conquerer supposedly came ashore on the feast of St. Michael and this has been used for a seal found which relates to the Norman Barons of Hastings and the dedication of the town of Hastings to St. Michael. The inscription on the seal pictured reads "Cruel Dragon, thee the strength of Michael shall conquer".

Saxons Banner - The Dragon of Wessex Seal of the Barons of Hastings

Snakes & Lizards

Snakes in Sussex are limited to the Grass Snake and Adder, a far cry from the mighty Dragons of old, though some large specimens have caused local panic at Fittleworth and Haywards Heath. The Fittleworth example as well as being "oudaciously large" gave off a bad smell, which is reminiscent of one of the Horsham dragons. There is plenty of superstitions regarding these relatively unpleasant creatures, such as the idea that when you cut them in half, they don't die until sunset. As was noted in the story of St. Leonard above, he had snakes made deaf, which is echoed in another piece of superstition regarding snakes in Sussex, that on their bellies, Adders have written the words :

"If I could hear as well as see,
No mortal man should master me."

The snake was considered extremely unlucky creatures in Sussex and in 1936 when a snake in the form of a caduceus was put on top of one of a hospital building in East Grinstead, the locals were in uproar. Despite this fear of snakes, a valuable ointment could be gained by killing a snake and skinning it after sundown. Perhaps this is the famous snake oil of quack doctors. Another strange belief was that snakes lay their eggs by threading them on a blade of grass and leaving them on a dunghill. Snakes were also said to guard Buried Treasure in a tunnel that led from Cissbury Ring to Offington Hall.

Resources Resources
  Dragons of History
The Slightly Different Dragon Page

Bibliography Bibliography
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Glover, Judith : Sussex Place Names, Countryside Books 1997
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