17 September 2010

The Sussex Dragon and the Flying Serpent of Essex

Title Page and Illustration for True and Wonderfull...

"Nothing delights an English-Man's fancy so much as as new novelties [As opposed to old novelties? - Ed.]," wrote the anonymous sage behind the 1669 English pamphlet The Flying Serpent. As the author of a chronicle of Interesting Curiosities, I wholeheartedly agree. And what is more novel than wing'd serpents and dragons? 

In this installment of the Cabinet, I present the tales of two such pernicious banes to the English villager, the Sussex Dragon and the Winged Serpent of Essex. These malefic creatures were described in two printed pamphlets, periodicals much in the spirit of the modern Daily Mail of London or New York Post (sorry, New York Post).

The first of our treatises, published in London in 1614, is called (by now, you know my fondness for early modern titles):

True and Wonderfull. 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.

The Sussex Dragon lived "in a vast and unfrequented place, heathy, vaulty, full of unwholesome shades, and over-grown hollows, where this serpent is thought to be bred." Ye gods! say I. Furthermore, "This serpent (or dragon, as some call it)" was "nine feet, or rather more, in length, and shaped almost in the form of an axle of a cart." 

Nice, real descriptive--the axle of a cart? What? According to eyewitnesses, the serpent was"of Countenance very proud." At the sight of men or cattle, it was said, he would "raise his neck upright, and seem to listen and look about, with great arrogancy." No wallflower, then, our dragon.

Okay, so this is NOT from the seventeenth century or from England, but it's really colorful and awesome. By Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin, early twentieth century. 

In case you thought that all of this sounded a little dubious, the author lists several eyewitnesses. (Although one, fishily, has no name.): 
These persons, whose names are hereunder printed, have seen this serpent, beside divers others, as the carrier of Horsam, who lieth at the White Horse in Southwarke, and who can certify the truth of all that has been here related: John Steele; Christopher Holder; A Widow Woman dwelling near Faygate.
There is no mention of whether anyone ever caught the Sussex Dragon, but my hunch is that his descendants still roam free on the southern coast of England.

The Dragon had a long legacy in Sussex. The following is an extract from a mid-seventeenth-century song popular in the area:
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 [The infamous 'A Widow Woman'?]
*    *    * 

The second of our fire-breathing friends, is the "Flying Serpent of Essex," which terrorized southeastern English villages in the 1660s, perhaps summoned by vengeful Puritans and Roundheads. A similarly alarmist pamphlet about the beast was published in London in 1669, called:

The Flying Serpent, or, Strange News out of Essex, Being a true Relation of a Monstrous Serpent which hath divers times been seen at a Parish called Henham on the Mount within four Miles of Saffron-Walden: Showing the length, proportion and bigness of the Serpent, the place where it commonly lurks, and what means hath been used to kill it. Also a discourse of other Serpents, and particularly of a Cockatrice killed at Saffron-Walden

Illustration from The Flying Serpent

No stranger to unnecessary versification, the pamphleteer introduces the serpent thus:

Which with a hissing from his Den appears
Amazing both at once the Eyes and ears,
Fire from his threat'ning eyes like lighting shot
And Stygian [hellish] blasts exhaled from his dire throat.
His "fully proportion" was "8 or 9 foot long, the smallest part of him about the bigness of a Man's Leg." His eyes were "very large and piercing" and "in his mouth he had two row of Teeth...very White and sharp." He had wings "indifferent large" that were "too weak to carry such an unwieldy body."

The author advises that "Serpents in this Kingdom are no new thing, and far more monstrous and prodigious than this" have been seen, though "this be the greatest that we have heard of in this latter age."

A brave Essex villager slaying the Winged Serpent, with the help of an anchor and an uprooted weed. Or, the coat of arms of Heide, Germany. You decide.

Our pamphleteer ends with a postscript: "I am informed by the Neighbors thereabout, that they intend to keep a constant Watch upon it, till such time as they hope to kill it." Round up the posse, I say.

Well, I hope that you, fair reader, have enjoyed our excursion into the world of seventeenth-century English serpent and dragon pamphlets. Until next time, this is your loyal Cabineteer signing off.

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