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Slaying the Dragon and Cheating the Devil

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When was the last time you saw a dragon, then? A real, live, roaring, terrifying, blood-curdling dragon; the stuff of nightmares: long tail, sharp talons, huge teeth and breathing fire. You've never seen one? Well, to be honest, not many people have. Once upon a time, they were quite a common sight in England and Wales, but it's an age since anyone last saw one. In fact, the last time one was seen in my neighbourhood was almost a thousand years ago!

Not only were dragons a common sight in times past, giants were a part of everyday life as well. Some were good, some were bad, some fierce, others friendly.

The county of Hertfordshire had its share of giants and was home to one of the better ones. He went by the name of Piers Shonks. He stood twenty-three feet tall, even without his great boots on. His home was on an island in Shonks' Moat, Peppsall Field. From here, as Lord of the Manor, he ruled his land and its people fairly and with kindness.

Returning from his travels late one day, Piers Shonks was shocked, dismayed and angry at what he saw. The crops in his field, which had been growing tall and strong, were now a blackened, smoking mess. It took him only a moment to realise what was behind the attack. “This is a dragon’s work,” he rumbled. “I’m not going to stand for this. If I don’t deal with the problem immediately, my people will find the coming winter even tougher than usual.”

Gathering his best men around him, he armed them all and set off that evening to hunt the dragon. The quest would be full of danger, they could even be killed, but there was no choice. If they failed to tackle the monster once and for all, then it would return to wreak more death and destruction.

Now, finding a dragon is not as difficult as you might think. At forty feet long, from nose to tail, and standing as much as fifteen feet high, there are very few places a dragon can hide. Not only that, but the smell of sulphur, and the stench coming from the half-eaten carcasses of the farmer's sheep, are always a sure sign.

So, only a few hours after setting out and as dawn was about to break, Piers and his men came face to face with the creature as it lay outside its cave, asleep. Sprawled on the ground, tiny puffs of smoke drifting up from his nostrils, a half-smile on its lips, the dragon looked about as dangerous as a pet cat. But Piers was not one to be fooled so easily and, as the dragon opened one eye, he knew things were about to turn nasty.

In less time than you could blink, the dragon was on its feet, eyes wide open, talons extended, teeth bared and its enormous tail swishing from side to side. As Piers charged, lance held high, the dragon lifted its head, opened its great jaws and breathed out a terrifying blast of red-hot flame. Inside his armour, Piers didn't flinch. He ducked forward and struck the monster a heavy blow on its left side, which had it howling in pain.

Angry, the ferocious dragon swung round with a further fiery blast but again the powerful man stood his ground and delivered it another massive whack. Summoning up every ounce of energy, the fearsome creature reared up on its hind legs, preparing for one final, overpowering attack.

At the very moment it was about to launch its fatal strike, the sun rose above the horizon and, for just a second, the dragon was blinded by the dazzling rays.

That second was all Piers needed. As the monster flicked its huge eyes shut, Piers rushed in and thrust his mighty two-handed sword straight into the dragon's jaw. A scream of terrified pain and rage split the very sky in two, as the beast realised that it was beaten. With an earth-shaking thud, the huge creature crashed to the ground and lay there, dead.

Piers turned, triumphant and smiling to his men, to find them staring ahead, eyes and mouths wide open and looks of horror upon their faces. They were looking at something beyond him, behind him.

Puzzled, he turned back to where the dragon lay and a new sight met his eyes.

There, in front of him, was the Devil himself, and he was in a rage. Little did Piers know that this dragon was not just any dragon, it was the Devil's favourite! He raved, he ranted, he called Piers every dreadful name you could imagine and quite a few that I am sure you couldn't! He demanded payment for his loss and told Piers he would wait until the day he died, and then drag his soul down to hell.

"Whether they bury you inside or outside the church, I shall take your soul," the Devil shrieked.

Piers Shonks was a good man and a strong man. Looking the Devil straight in the eye, he told him that his soul belonged to God and that he would choose the place of his own burial and he would never let the Devil have what he wanted.

Piers Shonks went on to live a good, active life, and a very long one.

On the day he lay dying, he remembered the threat made to him by the Devil. He asked for his bow, fitted an arrow to the string and instructed his men that where this arrow fell, he was to be buried.

He pulled back on the string and fired. The arrow flew straight and true and sailed through the window of the church of St. Mary the Virgin at Brent Pelham, embedding itself deep into the north wall. Satisfied, Piers breathed his last.

A week later, Piers' body was entombed, as he had requested, in the very wall of the church, neither 'inside nor outside the church'.

Piers had cheated the devil! Piers' tomb is there to this day and, if you care to visit the church, you will see the tomb of Piers Shonks embedded in the north wall.

And, if you find all this a little hard to believe, I should tell you that, in 1861, the tomb was opened for investigation. Sure enough, inside were some remains - a few rags that had once been fine clothes, small personal possessions and some human bones. Nothing so unusual about that, except the bones. You see, they were unusually large!

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