There are a number of versions of the legend of the Mordiford Wyvern and they do not all feature Maud.
The one mentioned in the story, on the wall of the church, says the dragon was slain by a Garstone, a member of the local nobility, but more stories tell of its slaying by a convicted criminal.
The stories had been passed down through word of mouth and were not written down, apart from on the church wall, until the 1790’s when first a Samuel Ireland visited Mordiford and was told that the dragon was slain by criminal hidden in a cider hogshead. Then in 1799, George Lipscombe was writing a travel book and saw the dragon painting on the church wall. On asking about it, he was told about the dragon that had terrorized the village, eating livestock and people and whose favourite drinking spot was the point where the rivers Lugg and Wye joined. No one dared to fight the dragon until a condemned criminal offered to try, if his reward would be a pardon.
From there the details vary; some stories say that he hid in a cider barrel, close to the dragon’s drinking place, and shot him through the bunghole of the barrel, or fought the wyvern and won – but then died himself when the dragon breathed fire at the barrel with its dying breath. Others tell that he covered the barrel with hooks and knives and when the wyvern went to crush it with the man inside, it died from the wounds caused by the spikes. Unfortunately, the man was caught in the poisonous fumes of the dying creature and died beside it.
Yet another story says that the wyvern gorged itself on a huge, dead ox washed up on the banks of the Lugg and, whilst it was sleeping after the meal, the villagers all crept up to it armed with their pitforks, knives and pikes and together killed it.
The earliest written story that included Maud was in 1864 by J. Dacres Devlin in his book ‘The Mordiford Dragon and other subjects’. He says the tale was told him by a centenarian from a nearby village and describes the coming of the dragon as in our story. This is the story that captured people’s imagination, the love and loyalty between an innocent young girl and a monstrous dragon, and is the most repeated today.
The Painting in the Church
Many travelers through Mordiford before the 19th century, were intrigued by the painting on the western wall of the old Norman church. There have been many descriptions of the painting which shows that it was repainted quite often and quite differently. Sometimes the dragon or wyvern had only one pair of wings, at other times as many as four. The number of legs has changed between four, two and none over the years and although it was usually green, sometimes it was red.
At the end of the 17th century, John Aubrey of Wessex noted that when he first saw it, the dragon had 3 pairs of wings but lately a fourth pair had been added. Thomas Dingley sketched it showing 4 pairs of legs as well as wings and a snaky body.
In the 18th century, a new dragon painting had only 2 legs and two wings. It was a large green dragon, with a red mouth and forked tongue – fearsome and covering the whole wall, according to Duncombe.
However, the church was restored about 1812, possibly because of damage from a terrific storm in 1811. Either no one thought about replacing the dragon or, as is sometimes recorded, the vicar thought a dragon was a sign of the devil and ordered it to be destroyed.
What about Mordiford?
Haugh Wood entrance - photo by Philip Halling
The village of Mordiford grew up around an ancient ford over the River Lugg. As well as its dragon legend, it is famous for its bridge which has 9 arches and, at more than 600 years old, is one of the oldest registered bridges in Herefordshire.
The church is of Norman origin, but was greatly restored and rebuilt in the 19th century – wiping out the dragon painting on the west wall!
The pathway taken by the wyvern through Haugh Wood, where it was first found by Maud, to its favourite drinking spot where the Lugg meets the Wye, is called Serpent’s Lane. It is said that nothing grows on the trail a dragon has taken, but you would have to find that out for yourself.
Haugh Wood itself is still there and is a favourite spot for locals and visitors alike. As a visitor, there is an interesting trail around the town and surrounding country, which would lead you through many of the areas lived in by Maud and her monstrous friend.
Wyverns or Dragons
How a pterosaur may have looked
In the different versions of the Mordiford story, the creature is sometimes called a dragon and sometimes a ‘wyvern’. Are they one and the same thing? Well, not quite. There are a lot of likenesses and a few differences. The main difference is that dragons traditionally have 4 legs and wyverns have 2 and are generally smaller.
However, many of the other characteristics you associate with a dragon also belong to the wyvern. It is like a reptile, has leathery wings, often has horns or a crest on its head and has a tail with deadly poison in its tip. Some wyverns breathe fire like dragons, others would breath out poisonous fumes. They are both extremely difficult to kill. Wyverns were also believed to carry diseases like the plague and outbreaks of plague or other diseases affecting people or cattle, would often be blamed on them.
Wyverns, like dragons, are often found in heraldry – the patterns that a nobleman or king would use on his flags, shield and armour to distinguish him and his men from other noblemen. The Garston family, one of whom slew the dragon in one of the versions, had a crest that included a wyvern. The Welsh flag, on the other hand, features a dragon and was supposed to have been designed by King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon.
Legends often have a grain of truth in them and people come up with all sorts of ideas about the Mordiford Wyvern. Because the young dragon is described so clearly and vividly, one suggestion was that maybe Maud found a young Pterosaur hatched from an egg left over from the age of dinosaurs – though you may think that is as fantastic as the story itself!
Whatever the truth, the legend was so powerful and real to the people of Mordiford, that, in 1875, the rector found two elderly, local women trying to drown some newts because they believed they would grow into wyverns!