The Essex village of Wormingford lies just south of River Stour, the county border with Suffolk, about nine miles north-west of Colchester. In the centre of Wormingford, the village sign supports a weather vane capped by a metal sculpture of a knight on horseback lancing a dragon-like creature.
A little further on, in Church Lane, the 12th century St Andrews’ Church stands above the middle reaches of the River Stour. Just below, across the river, is Smallbridge Hall, Where Sir William Waldegrave entertained Elizabeth I. Further, on the horizon, is Arger Fen nature reserve and the hill upon which Edmund was crowned King of East Anglia on Christmas Day, 856. Within the church, the stained glass east window of the north aisle also depicts a mounted knight slaying a dragon. The above is certainly true but how the dragon story came about is the subject of various theories.The most credible appears to be that the ‘dragon’ was a crocodile brought back on his return from the Crusades by King Richard I and placed in a strong cage at the Tower of London. The creature then escaped and disappeared without trace. Despite substantial rewards being offered, the ‘dragon’ made its way through the marshlands of Essex to the River Stour, terrorising people and devouring several sheep on its journey.
From the Stour the creature emerged into the town of Sudbury where it created widespread panic among the inhabitants. Witnesses reported to have seen with their own eyes, “an enormous monster emerging from the water and breathing fire in the general direction of anything that moved”. Some townsmen gallantly took up arms to confront the strange creature, but their arrows merely bounced off its tough skin. Nevertheless the creature retreated back in the river and disappeared. Numerous attempts were made by locals to slay the dragon, all unsuccessful, as their arrows and stones again simply bounced of the ‘dragon’s’ scaly skin. Nevertheless the ‘dragon’ withdrew and this time disappeared into waters of Wormingford Mere never to be seen again.
Yet an elaborate 500 word legend that hangs on the wall in Wormingford Church suggests the dragon re-emerged and began to ravage the locality around Wormingford. Rumour spread among the villagers that the creature could only be pacified with sacrificial virgins. However the supply of virgins in ‘Withermundford’, as Wormingford was originally called, soon ran out and the dragon could no longer be tamed. In desperation the villagers called for the dashing knight, Sir George of Layer de la Haye, son of the Earl of Boulogne, to slay the beast.
The ‘dashing’ knight duly heeded the villagers request and set about his mission. There then followed a somewhat anti-climactic ending to the story. Rather than telling tales of derring-do, a fight of life and death with a ferocious fire breathing creature and rescuing a maiden or two from the jaws of death, Sir George simply said; ‘”I chased the dragon and slew it. It really put up a poor fight.”
So Essex had its very own St. George and seemingly its very own dragon although in all probability the dragon was a crocodile suffering from bad breath rather than any fire eating capabilities.
Nevertheless just across the River Stour at Wissingham (or Wiston) the 11th century, grade 1 listed, Norman Church of St. Mary the Virgin has a 15th Century wall painting of a fire eating dragon too!