The early Egyptians worshipped a holy crocodile (the Messeh). Over the years, this became a Dragon, which, in turn, became the sign of kingship. This eastern idea of a dragon influenced the Celtic tribes who invaded Briton and the Celtic kings in Britain were known as "Pendragons".
Heroes in Roman and Greek mythology fought with dragons. The Greek word drakon meant "one who sees" or "sharp-sighted one" and at first was a large serpent as well as "dragon".
The ancient Norsemen carved dragons on their ships and dragons were drawn on the shields of Anglo-Saxon tribes. The Chinese people also had a dragon mythology. In China, the dragon was seen as a symbol of good fortune.
In the west, however, dragons are not usually seen as so friendly. English dragons were often known as worms; with long scaly bodies, short legs, or no legs at all, and often no wings. They were slimy and killed with poisonous breath rather than fire. 'Worm' is dragon in Old English.
Is there any truth in the legend?
St George - famous Christian dragon slayer
Almost every place in the world has dragon tales. They go back to very early writings, which may explain why dragons come in so many shapes and sizes.
Today, dragons are usually shown as very large reptile-like creatures, with two bat-like wings, four legs, a long neck and tail. They breathe fire, hoard treasure and are often green. However, in the past, there were a lot of different dragons; some looked like snakes, some like lizards, some had two legs, some four, some had wings, others did not, but could still fly!
There are many tales of brave Christians who killed dragons. In the Bible, dragons represent evil and the devil. The dragon became thought of as mean and bloodthirsty - an enemy to be beaten in battle, as Christianity spread.
In its early days, the Christian Church used heroic tales of saints and dragon slayers to illustrate how good could conquer evil. In this story, John Lambton returns from the Crusades, so he would be following in a long tradition of Christian dragon slayers.
In these early times, dragons were thought to be real creatures. They were seen as responsible for such things as rough storms, whirlwinds and other natural events people could not explain. Seeing lots of dragons predicted a huge disaster, such as the sighting of 795 AD: 'Fearful lightings and dragons blazing in a dreadful manner were seen to fly through the air, signs which foreshadowed a mighty famine.'
The Lambton 'Worm' has long been part of folklore in Durham. Exactly how the story became attached to John Lambton is unclear. Some versions mention the devastation caused by the worm in the local area, so maybe there was some local catastrophe that members of the Lambton family helped to put right and, over time, this became the worm.
However, the story has elements in common with many other legends. It is essentially a tale of good versus evil. In the story, the young man’s problems come from the fact that he ignored the advice of his elders and went fishing on a Sunday; and, even worse, he cursed the river. The young man only defeats the worm, when he turns his back on his rebellious ways and joins the Crusades.
At the time the story was set (Middle Ages), the church was a very powerful establishment, most people attended services and Sunday was a day reserved for praising God. Therefore, the myth provides a warning against ignoring the teachings and importance of the church. This aspect of the story may have been emphasised again during the Puritan era, as a means of showing the dangers of not taking the church seriously.
However, this story has another element to it - the curse; and it could also have developed, in part, to explain why so many of the Lambtons died in unusual situations.
Did the curse come true?
Killing the Lambton Worm
In the story, the young man promises the witch, or wise woman, he will kill the first creature he meets after his victory. Unfortunately, the first creature he meets is not his dog, as arranged, but his father. Unable to murder his father, the young crusader breaks his promise to the witch and condemns his family to a curse of early deaths, that continued for nine generations.
This curse seems to have held true for at least three generations, possibly helping to contribute to the growth of the story. After this, it was not until the ninth generation that a Lambton died in unusual circumstances.
- 1st generation: Robert Lambton, drowned at Newrig.
- 2nd generation: Sir William Lambton, a Colonel of foot, killed at Marston Moor.
- 3rd generation: William Lambton, died in battle at Wakefield.
- 9th generation: Henry, died in his carriage crossing the Bridge of Lambton on June 26th, 1761.
General Lambton, Henry Lambton's brother, is said to have kept a horse whip by his bedside to ward off violent assaults. He died in his deathbed at a ripe old age.
How is the story still remembered?
The strange outfits of dragon slayers
In recent times, the story has been kept alive through a song - 'The Lambton Worm'. This was originally written in 1867 by C.M. Leumane, for a pantomime to be performed at the Tyne Theatre in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Another reminder of the story is the Penshaw Monument, a Temple like building which stands high on Penshaw Hill. It is visible for miles around. It was built in 1844 by Thomas Pratt in memory of John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham. In some versions of the story, it is this hill that the worm curls itself around. However, locals believe the hill in the story to be the nearby Worm Hill.
In most versions of the story, the worm is large enough to wrap itself around the hill three times, in others it is nine. The song claims this number to be ten.